Why Your Subconscious Keeps You From Greatness (& What to Do About It)

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How many times have you gotten right to the precipice of major life change only to fall back into old, comfortable habits, leaving your goals hanging in the ether?

For me, it’s been countless.

Having fought so hard to overcome clinical depression, OCD and my battle with weight loss, I’ve roller-coastered all over the place.

  • I would start making headway with my positive thinking habits, only to go through a breakup and give up trying entirely because I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I lost sight of the work I was doing and its results because the pain I was experiencing in that moment blinded me to the possibility of another way to be.
  • I would commit to getting out of a job that made me miserable, only to stop looking when I got a few rejections, scared that I would feel stupid for ever thinking I could get out.
  • I would fight so hard to eat right and exercise 4 days a week, only to slack off when I started seeing results, thinking there was no way I could keep it up for the rest of my life. As the scale crept back up, I would quit my new healthy habits altogether.

Every time I seemed to get to that tipping point, it felt like something would shove me full-force right back into my old habits!

It’s one of the most frustrating experiences. You know change is possible; other people have done it.

As you watch those life-changers achieve those lofty goals, it’s easy to lose sight of how difficult change is.  When we look at other people make the changes we hope to make in ourselves, we only see the seemingly simple actions they take. We don’t experience the fear, resistance and doubt that make achieving that life-changing goal so difficult like we do when we actually start going after it ourselves.

Those forces that keep shoving us back and away from our big goals are our Subconscious Saboteurs (SS); they crop up in the form of fear, resistance and doubt when your body/mind gets close to a monumental shift.

On the up side, these baffling little buggers are a sign that you’re about to achieve something great. Getting past them, however, is no easy task.

What I want to share with you today is how I handled those elements that tried to keep me from greatness. It is entirely possible to get there. After years of faith and determination, I’ve mastered the art of talking my SS down to achieve the change I want to see in myself. The key is knowing what you’re working with, and learning how to work through those obstacles.

This exercise can help you do exactly that, so pull out that notebook/word doc/lite-brite (this works better when you can see it in writing) and get to work!

1. Get to know your own personal Subconscious Saboteurs

There are 3 categories of SS you may come up against on your way to greatness:

  • FEAR: of the unknown, of change, of affecting those around you, of getting hurt, of regret, etc.
  • RESISTANCE: to change, to forming new habits, to giving up old habits, to getting uncomfortable.
  • DOUBT: that you can do it, that you can keep it up, that you are worth it, that others will accept you.

When you know what you’re dealing with, it’s that much easier to devise an action plan to thwart your saboteurs’ plans of attack.

These categories are not mutually exclusive, though. Your SS could fit into all or one of these categories.

Take my clinical depression, for example. Overcoming that diagnosis was met with all 3 categories of SS: fear, resistance and doubt.

Start by identifying the thoughts and feelings that come up when you start taking action toward your goal.

These are your Subconscious Saboteurs. What category from the list above do yours fall into, or do they fit into multiple categories?

Write any and all thoughts and emotions that manifest in you when you start taking action.

2. Identify the source: where does this thought/feeling come from?

Your SS is personal to you, so you’re the only one that can discover the root of this thought/feeling.

Look at your list and ask yourself these questions:

  • Why do I feel like this?
  • Where does this thought come from?
  • Is there something in my past that fuels this fear/resistance/doubt?

My SS that was trying to keep me from creating happiness was rooted in all 3 categories covered in the last step, so I answered all of the questions above to find the source of each category.

Fear: I was so scared of failing at my new positive thinking habits and scared that I would be stuck in this depression for the rest of my life. I was afraid all this hard work was for nothing.

Resistance: All I ever knew was depression. 21-year-old bad habits are tough to give up when they’re all you know and have relied on them your whole life. Giving them up would put me in unknown territory, and my mind resisted that more than the misery it was currently in.

Doubt: I didn’t know happiness was possible because I’d never personally experienced it before; I doubted that it really existed.

Explore. Go deep. Get to the source of your SS and you will be more likely to uproot it for good.

3. Is it justified?

This is a tough question. I’m not gonna tell you that these saboteurs are just spitting crap that will never come true. These thoughts and feelings are real, and the outcomes you fear may actually have some truth to them.

Given everything I listed in the last step, my SS spoke a lot of truth. These fears, this resistance and doubt, was real and justified given my experience up to that point in my life.

Analyze your saboteur and it’s source. Is this thought/feeling justified?

Put it in this context:

I (your thought/feeling with the category/s here) because (your source of said thought/feeling here).”

Here are some examples:

I fear the unknown because all I’ve ever known is how I am right now.

I am resisting changing my unhealthy habits because I love eating ice cream every night and it’s what helps me relax after a long day at work.

I don’t think I can maintain these changes because it feels so hard right now and I don’t want to be working this hard forever.

Now look at those statements you just created and ask yourself if whatever you fear/are resisting against/are doubting in yourself is going to keep you from your dreams.

Justified or not, you have the choice to let your saboteur stop you from achieving your ideal life, or to work through this wall to get to what you really want.

When it comes down to it, you will HAVE to face your SS and deal with it eventually if you want to achieve lasting change.

Sure, there are tons of “shortcuts” out there. There’s an industry built on selling hopeful people ways to achieve goals without hard work.

You know how often I see lasting change coming out of these programs as a trainer and coach? Just about .001% of the time.

All my life, I wanted to find an easy way out of my problems.

I used drugs and alcohol to try to create short-term happiness. I’d wake up the next day more depressed and anxious than I was before I’d self-medicated.

I took diet pills to lose weight fast… but the only thing I lost for good was some of my memory.

I tried to blame other people, jobs, and my environment for all my pain and suffering.

It was when I decided to take responsibility for my life – to stop being a victim – that my whole world changed for the better.

Don’t count on being that .001%. Pull on your big boy/girl pants and get ready to do some dirty work.

4. Counter it

So now that you’ve stated what you’re up against and why, we need to counter that thought/feeling with one that can stop the negative in its tracks, and replace it with positive, strengthening reinforcement.

There are quite a few ways to counter your SS (I’ve personally used all three of these methods), so play around with some of these tactics to find which is the most powerful to you:

Counter Tactic 1: Reaffirm why you’re going after this goal

Remind yourself of why your goal is more important than the fear/resistance/doubt you’re coming up against.

Here are some examples:

“I’m trying to lose weight, but it’s such hard work.”

Counter: What’s scarier: early death or hard work?

“I want to get out of this job I hate, but I’m scared of failing and having nothing.”

Counter: What’s worse: days surely spent in misery or not knowing if you’ll make it, but having the opportunity to succeed past your wildest dreams?

It’s the powerful, extreme affirmations that often work the best.

Don’t be afraid to be dramatic enough with your counters to strike fear into your own heart.

Fear is keeping you back from your dreams. Why not harness it and use it to your advantage instead?

Counter Tactic 2: Make a mantra

Develop a mantra that can stop that thought/feeling as it happens, and focus you back into what matters.

Here are some examples pulled from Step 3’s list:

“I fear the unknown because all I’ve ever known is how I am right now”

Mantra: The unknown is an opportunity to be someone I’ve never been, or I’m scared because this means so much to me, and I won’t let fear keep me from achieving my dreams.

“I am resisting changing my unhealthy habits because I love eating ice cream every night and it’s what helps me relax after a long day at work.”

Mantra: I love feeling energetic and fit more than I love ice cream or There is more than just right now (my personal mantra when it comes to night eating).

“I don’t think I can maintain these changes because it feels so hard right now and I don’t want to be working this hard forever.”

Mantra: Take one day at a time or I am stronger than I think.

Again, the more powerful and meaningful to you, the better.

Counter Tactic 3: Talk yourself out of catastrophizing thoughts

When you’re under a lot of stress, it’s easy to let your thoughts spiral out of hand.

This applies mostly to examples like the 3rd one from Step 3’s list: “I don’t think I can maintain these changes because it feels so hard right now and I don’t want to be working this hard forever.”

Other examples include:

If I keep doing this, I’m just going to die!

There’s no way I’ll ever finish this.

What if everybody hates me at the end?

These thoughts blow your doubts and fears up to epic proportions that–most likely–will never come to fruition.

Deep inside your head, you have to know that:

  • with practice, the work will get easier
  • no, you’re not going to die
  • you can most definitely finish it if you keep taking one step at a time
  • and the likelihood of everyone hating you is slim to none.

I admit, however, that it’s all too easy to lose sight of that when the going gets tough.

Recognize when your thoughts start spiraling out of control and bring them back to reality by reminding yourself to stay present and take each day at a time.

You don’t have to know how it ends right now. You don’t need to know what will happen next week. You just need to worry about right now and what’s in front of you.

After years of learning, hard work, and patience, I conquered my SS and achieved the lasting change I was after. My life is drastically different now than it was 7 years ago. If I can do it, so can you.

Change is possible if you believe in it. Now that you have the tools, I want to hear from you how you’re going to take action to achieve it.

In the comments below, tell us what category of Subconscious Saboteur you struggle with most, and what your most effective counter tactic is.

Let’s make this a conversation rather than a lecture. Let’s help each other achieve greatness!

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Amy Clover

Amy Clover created Strong Inside Out with the mission of empowering you to overcome life's obstacles with positive action. She just released her premier book, Make This Your Moment: A Step-by-Step Guide to Changing Your Life... for Good. Come over to Facebook and say "hi," then like for daily doses of inspiration!