Why You Keep Sabotaging Your Career Change – And What To Do About It

Woman behind bars of a cage

Newly Updated

Constantly procrastinating and undermining your own progress when it comes to your shift? Know you're doing counterproductive things, but can't seem to stop yourself? Meet your inner saboteur. Natasha shares three key facts about this internal troublemaker, and an unusual approach to getting it back under control.

Do any of these sound familiar to you?

  • You find a company that you're intrigued by. You remember our core career change principle, “Look for people, not for jobs” and consider reaching out to connect with someone who works there. But instead, you decide to follow them on Twitter and keep an eye out for when they're hiring.
  • You sign up for a Meetup on a topic that inspires you. The night rolls around… and you sit on the couch in front of the TV instead of walking out of the door.
  • You come up with a fun business idea in the middle of the night. You get up, make a logo for it on your laptop, daydream for a while, and then spend the next morning looking for job adverts in a more 'realistic' industry.
  • You meet someone who has what sounds like your perfect job. You spend the next ten minutes telling them how incredible it sounds, and how lucky they are, and that it's too late for you. You could never do that kind of work because you're hopelessly unqualified and you couldn't handle the pay cut. You never see them again.

These are all examples of the inner saboteur at work: the crappy, disbelieving version of yourself who'll do just about anything to make sure you don't make a shift into fulfilling work.

If you've been thinking about a career change for a while, but you still haven't made a shift, your saboteur has been BUSY.

And the way to counteract its machinations is easier (and much more lovely) than you might think.

Three things to know about your inner saboteur

1. Your saboteur is not your limiting beliefs

It's important to be clear what we're talking about here.

Limiting beliefs have us not-do. The saboteur has us do-to-destroy.

Sabotage: to deliberately destroy or obstruct something.

It's an active verb, as distinct from a belief, which is a thought. A belief might inspire your saboteur to act, but the thought itself has no real-world impact in and of itself.

So the saboteur relies on your limiting beliefs, but ultimately it doesn't care what they are. It's the puppeteer to their script. One way or another, the saboteur will have you behave actively in a way that undermines your progress.

Some of the sabotaging actions will be instant and automatic. They're not premeditated, and half the time you don't even recognise that you're doing them until afterwards, when you take some time to reflect. The other half of the time, you watch yourself taking the action, like a slowed-down car crash.

Either way, they have a real-world impact. You're doing something that undermines your progress in an active way.

2. Your saboteur relies on your own self-centredness

Ultimately, your saboteur thinks it has your best interests at heart.

It wants to keep you safe – to glue you to the familiar and the reliable, and to protect you from the risky unknown.

And as a self-protective mechanism, it's all about you. It keeps you trapped at the core of your narrative. Because from there, it can keep an eye on you.

If you're rejected for a job, for example, it's because you're too old, or your experience isn't enough, or because this whole fulfilling work idea is a pipe dream for 22 year olds.

As long as you are the only hero of your story, the only key player whose needs are to be attended to, the saboteur has a clear point of focus to cling to.

3. The saboteur is absent in the presence of contribution

When I asked the career changers I work with about times when the saboteur just didn't show up – or when it did show up but it didn't cause them to falter, there was one consistent thread to their responses.

“When I'm really listening to someone else, trying to deeply understand what they want and need.”

“When it's not about me – if I'm doing something for someone I care about, or something I really believe in.”

“When I'm in flow. Once I've got over the initial hump of procrastination, then I stop the nonsense. It's seeing the results of what I'm doing, and feeling that I'm making something happen for other people.”

There was no space for the saboteur when these shifters were engaged in something bigger than themselves; when they were contributing to something.

Part of the issue with career change, often, is that it feels so deeply personal and lonely.

It's all about you, right? Your career, your future, your likes and dislikes and passions and time.

But when your focus is redirected and expanded, the weight lifts. The pressure eases.

There's space for inspiration to squeeze in. Extra motivation to push past the blockages.

Doing something in service of a cause bigger than yourself – something that inspires and drives you – overrides the fear of a personal threat.

The saboteur can't handle it – it can't hold on to more than one person at a time.

It backs off.

Alex's story  

Alex took part in our very first Career Change Launch Pad. He was feeling demotivated and frustrated at work, and was faced with the option of redundancy. He knew that if he fought for his job, he could almost certainly stay in the company, but there was something else tugging him elsewhere. Here's what he said...

“I decided to spend three days working from home last week.

While I was home, my wife told me how my energy had changed, and how positive I became, just by not going in to the office.

The redundancy package is so good I could live for more than a year without working at all. But in spite of that, I'm still fighting for my job, trying to stay in a company that really demotivates me.

And I'm so good at it that the risk is I could be successful in my efforts to keep a job inside the company.

I have a gut feeling that I really need to get some fresh air, leave my work for a while, and be with my family.

Deep inside, I think that's what I should do, but also there's this fear of the unknown. I'm really afraid that I will regret this decision in the future, when I see that the job market doesn't give me what I want or need.”

Alex was paralysed by the choice in front of him. He knew what he wanted, he could feel the gut-level pull in a clear direction, but the saboteur was at play in a big way.

Every day that he went into the office, he had conversations with his colleagues about how he could keep his job. They offered to speak to his seniors for him. He was on some level sabotaging what he felt, deep down, was the right course of action.

What was clear from our conversation was this: when he focused on himself, he felt trapped. He was scared that he wouldn't get what he needed from the job market. He was concerned that by stepping into the unknown, he would regret his decision.

But when he widened his perspective to include his family, he knew what he needed to do.

Alex used his wife and young son as a guiding light for his decision; he chose to view the choice in front of him as an opportunity for contribution to something he cared deeply about. He decided to conduct his career change as an example to his little boy; to create a story that could inspire his child, as he grew up, to follow his heart as well as his head.

The saboteur shut up a little. Not entirely; the shift wasn't all smooth sailing from there. But Alex was able to take courageous, consistent action in spite of his saboteur, because his focus had shifted to something bigger and more beautiful.

Alex went on to work for us, by the way, as our Product Manager at Careershifters. He worked from home, spending time with his little boy and his new daughter. He was able to be relaxed, and contented, and present with his kids, and did an incredible job doing something he loves. 

Three things to do when you feel the saboteur show up

1. Remember that it's not real

Limiting beliefs (the script that moves the saboteur) aren't an actual thing. They don't exist. They're a construct – a name that someone made up to explain some synapses in your brain sparking in a particular way.

That doesn't mean that they don't feel real, of course, or that they don't suck.

But it does mean that if you focus on sparking some different synapses (see the next two points for ideas on how to do this), you won't feel so trapped by them.

And the saboteur… it doesn't exist either. It's a character we create so that to some extent, we don't have to take responsibility for the fact that actually, it's US taking the action. There is no saboteur. There is only you. There is only what you do, and what you don't do.

2. Imagine the impact

Consider: who (other than you) might be a beneficiary of you pulling a finger out and taking some action? Who might you be contributing to in a meaningful way by overriding your saboteur?

Find a way to connect with the people and the purpose beyond yourself in every action you take. What could you do now (and now, and now) to contribute to something bigger than yourself in the context of your career change? What could you do right now that would be most inspiring and powerful for the world at large? Or for your family? Or for the people you haven’t even met yet, but who are out there, waiting for you to act?

3. Invent a new character to play

Who is your saboteur's arch-nemesis? Who is the hero to your saboteur's villain? Create an anti-saboteur to call on when you feel the saboteur about to act, or indeed at any time where there might be an opportunity to make progress on your career change.

It could be a public figure or someone you know. (Jenny once told us she asks herself “What would Audrey Hepburn do?”, and another career changer I know tries to emulate Elon Musk whenever he's feeling small.)

If you can be your own saboteur, you can choose to be something else, too. You just have to choose what you want that something else to be. Which, for me at least, is pretty damn exciting.

How have you been sabotaging your own career change? And how could you leverage contribution instead? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.