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

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!

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!

45 Comments

  1. Great program. I find that repeated positive mantras, to the point of almost being ridiculous, work pretty well as an eartly step. They will give you the strength to move on to the step of facing and dealing with your fears in step 3.

    Dan Garner
    http;//ZenPresence.com

    Reply
  2. I agree, Dan. I use mantras every single day. :)

    Reply
  3. Good blog. So true and realistic. Advice is excellent much better than the usually voluminous stuff you usually get. R

    Reply
    • Thanks, Robdude! :)

      Reply
  4. Thank you for this post – I definitely needed to read this today. I am thinking of making a major job switch into something that I think will fill a void in my professional life,however the fear associated with this decision is overwhelming!! My main objective in all I do is to provide for my daughter, however I want to be truly happy in my day to day life and to make a difference in other peoples lives. After reading this I have realized that I really need to confront my SS and to create some positive mantras to live by. Great advice!! Thank you for this and wish me luck!!

    Reply
    • Wishing you much luck and happiness, Val!

      It sounds like your heart is in the right place. I think this will be a great move for you- you can most definitely have both happiness in your job situation and the level of support you want for your daughter. In fact, you’ll probably be able to provide her even more moral support when you’re happier in your day-to-day.

      Enjoy it!

      Reply
  5. Amy — thank you so much for sharing your insights, your personal struggles, and a clear, simple, and powerful set of tools to help overcome disempowerment and negative self-talk. Your message was perfect for me today.

    Reply
    • I’m so happy to hear that, Bob! Thank you for letting me know!

      Reply
  6. Wow! Another great post. I’m so glad I found this site:)

    My SS is fear – pure and simple. I’m 47 and last week my husband showed me a newspaper article where the editor was requesting photographs from it’s readers. My husband said “You should do this.” I was immediately panicking although I love photography. Inside my head I could hear the chant – I am an amateur, self-taught and I don’t even understand shooting in Manual Mode…basically I’m not good enough! But I went out and shot some pumpkins – I love this time of year. I submitted my favorite and guess what…

    Today my photograph made the front page! No joke! I’m thrilled beyond words. It’s like my soul is smiling:)

    Since I was a teenager I’ve heard the self-doubts. I’m going to bookmark your post and reference it whenever I need to squelch those!

    Reply
    • Oh my gosh! Congratulations, Sherri!

      What an amazing succes story! Remember this feeling right now for when that fear comes back up.

      Really glad to hear that you’re bookmarking the post!

      Reply
    • Awesome, congratulations!!

      Reply
  7. Well hello Amy sorry to hear about your battles but glad to finally meet someone who did not drop straight into a perfect life!
    By taking each day one at a time and celebrating each good days progress towards our goals rather than focussing on how far we remain from that end point, we can change our outlook from one of constant failure to one of ever increasing success.

    This is where using daily mantras is so useful, by focussing on the reasons and benefits of the journey we are travelling.

    I am trying to lose weight but I can tell you that all my brain can see at the moment is a large bar of chocolate which would be so easy to go and eat but then by tomorrow I will have taken several steps backwards and added more weight to the case for accepting that this will always be the way.

    igor Griffiths

    Reply
    • That’s a great way to look at it, igor. I think that CHOOSING to focus on all the reasons you’re making these new habits will lead you to more inner peace while on your journey, rather than obsession over the things like candy bars.

      One suggestion as a personal trainer, if I may: Allow yourself to have something you love at least once a week. That candy bar you really really REALLY want? Have it! Just be done with it once you do. It will be easier to say no MOST of the time if you allow yourself to sometimes indulge. It will help avoid obsession and binging as well.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
      • Yeah, Igor, Amy is right. This is how you can make it work.

        One more thing, if I may…You know what, you’ll need an ample amount of willpower to start with so don’t set huge goals that you’ll skip but small goals (can be other than your weight loss goals) that you can easily accomplish and build some providence of willpower in yourself before you march for these big goals.

        I’ve posted another comment below that might help :-)

        Reply
  8. thank you!

    The line “There is more than just right now” has resonated with me & I feel this will help me so much when I am tempted to give in or give up.

    Reply
    • So very glad to hear that, Catherine. It helps me daily :)

      Reply
  9. Hi Amy

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. Not sure how I stumbled across it, but glad I did. It’s funny how the universe sends you a message right when you need it! Have not tried to make a counter offer to the SS. Im gonna try it out!

    Teri

    Reply
    • Hey Teri! Thank you for your support. I really appreciate it.

      Looking forward to hearing how your counter goes!

      Reply
  10. Oh this explains a lot! I like your point about fear. Fear is pervasive in many things we do. It keeps us planted where we are now. I’m working on a pubic speaking presentation and looking for motivation – your post is very helpful to me right now. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Glad to hear it, Suzanne! Break a leg! :)

      Reply
  11. The only best thing I learned about subconscious Mind is that it is a huge unconscious statistician. It collects all the data and then serves you back. The more data on a subject, the more precise results it comes up with. and that works equally with both negative and positive feedback.

    So this is how I look at it. Meditation clears the mind and stops the process of all the feedback for some time (so does sleep, only that it doesn’t clear the older feedback) and after meditation, the 10-15 minutes are the best to reprogram the subconscious. While, you can talk about this topic with a whole lot of diverse names like law of attraction etc, the thing remains just this…

    Clear your mind off the old feedback and give yourself fresh new feedback your subconscious can work upon.

    Reply
    • That’s an interesting idea, Jaky. Thank you for sharing that with us!

      I find that a good run or yoga class help clear my mind best, leaving me present instead of caught up in regret or worry (past or future). This helps me fend off doubts and my SS as well. :)

      Reply
  12. That is such an inspiring article ! Thank you for sharing it ! I deffinitely needed to read something like that ! I’m 24 and still wandering and not knowing what to do with my life… Being so confused and scared of everything new and different.. All the questions that you write about are going through my head but it seems like I still can’t find the answers. I have big dreams but I guess I’m too affraid of achieving them because making them real means loosing someone or something I really love. I couldn’t do that.. And you said it took you 7 years to change – and what about I want to have a different life now, to live it now not after 7 years ?? I guess 7 years is too much time for me ( it happened too many things to me connected with my health that make me realize that the time is too short..i can afford it to wait 7 more years for the change I want now ).. So how can I help myself in this case ?? Do this tips that you shared will help me change my life faster ?
    I appreciate any kind of answer ! Thank you !

    Reply
    • Hi Hrisi!

      My change took 7 years because I was rewiring a lot of my negative mindframe as well as working against a chemical imbalance. With focused work, I think you can do it in much less. My life change was much more complicated than what I wrote about here. There’s more info on my site if you’re interested. :)

      With this process I wrote about here, you will notice instant changes. You don’t need to wait for anything. This process solves this problem in particular. For major life change, persistence and patience is key- it doesn’t happen overnight.

      Taking action is often the answer to feeling better right away. Just do whatever it is that you know in your heart will make you feel happier and get you further toward your goals.

      Sometimes, you have to let down other people if you know that keeping them in your life is keeping you or them from happiness. There must be some way, though, to go after your dreams without losing those people you love??

      Hope this helps!

      Reply
  13. Thank you Amy !!! :)
    I will deffinetely visit your site and will try to follow the tips and the advices I found in your article and your answer.
    Keep on inspiring the people ! :))

    Reply
  14. hi amy, i found its so difficult and am always thinking i am not good enough for everything. i am struggling myself should i let go and hold on in 20years relationship (not married) which i do not know how to let go but want to go and change. i felt so hopeless. i have so many doubts within myself. i know i need change but just cannot figure how and what to do with my life. i hope very much one day there will be change..that is for me to moving forward.

    Love

    Reply
    • Suzanah, you have everything in yourself that you need to change RIGHT NOW.

      I know how you feel. Coming from a place where I sincerely thought that lasting change was impossible, I can tell you first hand that it isn’t. It is completely possible and even probable if you commit to yourself as the highest priority.

      You should be the most important thing in your life. You are not hopeless even if you may feel that way sometimes.

      I can’t tell you what to do with your life except for this: FIGHT FOR IT. Because you are worth fighting for. You can use this opportunity as a wake up call, to move forward from this point. Do what makes you happy and proud of yourself.

      Much luck, and I hope to hear updates.

      Wishing you every happiness because you deserve it,

      Amy

      Reply
      • Amy your right a great life is worth fighting for!

        Reply
  15. I struggle daily to accomplish small task that will lead to huge results because I’m unaware of my thoughts that are keeping me stuck. I’ve gotten into a routine that is no longer serving me.

    And after reading this post it reminds me of what I used to do to push myself to get the things done that would make me a better person and my life more meaningful.

    So thank you for reminding me to use positive statements when I catch myself reverting back to my old thoughts. The thoughts that are keeping me right where I really don’t want to be.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Michelle. It’s comments like yours that give my writing meaning :)

      Reply
  16. Once again great insight Amy. I know “take responsibility for your actions” has been said in a countless number of ways, but when you summarized that one paragraph with: “It was when I decided to take responsibility for my life – to stop being a victim – that my whole world changed for the better.”. A mantra suddenly clicked with me:

    “Be a winner and not a victim of your own choices”

    If people would look inside themselves and think for themselves there could be so many successes and less dependency on other things (any type of addiction you can name). As a society we have, in general, been conditioned (dare I say “dumbed-down”) to only think in certain ways and that we need to fit in to the giant puzzle of conventional society.

    Reply
    • I love that mantra, Ryan!

      Yes, I think you have a point. We are taught to fall in line with “normal, acceptable” behavior, but for many of us, it will be what stands between us and happiness. Willing yourself to go above and beyond will get you above-and-beyond-levels of happiness. :)

      Reply
  17. Great post, so many of us are held back by our subconscious mind telling us we can’t do things, programmed by all the negative feedback we have been receiving from people throughout our lives, we fail to achieve our full potential. It took me years to de-program myself and discover I had greater abilities than I ever realised.

    Reply
    • It took me years, too. Glad to see we both came out stronger. :)

      Reply
  18. that’s very smart
    the subconscious mind can play games sometimes and if we didn’t understand them we wont be able to succeed, self deception is one of these games
    thanks a lot for your post

    Reply
    • Thank YOU, Farouk, for the kind words! :)

      Reply
  19. I’ve learned that the mind is not your friend sometimes. But in all fairness, its not the subconscious’s fault, its just doing what it was trained to do. I had to learn to not give myself another option when it came to doing something differently. So, if my mind would hold me back or try to convince me to not do something, I would be aware of that, and organize my life so that I had no choice but to do the thing that my mind is fighting me to do.

    I’m up at 3am most mornings and that is because I needed to start waking up early but my mind fought me on the decision to wake up early. I put a bunch of things into place that would ensure that I accomplished this goal. Now, waking up early isn’t a problem at all. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    Reply
    • You’ve got a point there, Ralph. We’ve conditioned our subconscious to react that way. The cool thing (as you see with waking up early now) is that you can REcondition it. :)

      Whoa! 3 am?! Nice job reconditioning your SS! :)

      Reply
  20. Fear and doubt do me in everyday. I’m 60 years old, looking at retirement from 30 years in a job that I hate, and I don’t know who I am or what I want to do with my life. I’m afraid I’ll die before I know happiness.

    Reply
    • Hi Cheryl!

      First of all, congratulations on your retirement! That’s pretty exciting!

      I know it must be scary going into unknown territory like this, but is it at all possible to start looking at all this free time you’ll have as a gift? You will have so much time to discover what you love to do, new hobbies, and to spend time with people who make you happy.

      When that fear comes up, I suggest taking a deep breath, and saying a mantra in your head such as, “I deserve every happiness,” or “If I listen to myself, I will find happiness.” P.S. Both of those mantras are true :)

      Reply
  21. You made some great points. I know what it’s like to have to silence your subconscious and just overcome and get it done. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

    Reply
    • Definitely, Bloom. I’m glad you’ve found a way to silence them, though! :)

      Reply
  22. hey I know I’m late but I wanted to say – great post, and definitely something I could do with reading at the moment, so thank you for the positivity!!

    Reply
    • Never too late, Shaun! Glad you liked it :)

      Reply
  23. I am going to try this and I hope it works I guess trying never hurt. I’m 18 and anytime something good happened in my life I ruin it. I always look at the negative side to my life and subconcently torcher myself. I though I was getting better to just fall back as you stated you have as well. I’m not sure it this will work but I will try I’m tried of not being able to live my life freely. I’ve been dogging it since such a young age. I strugle with fear and doubt most. Thank you for sharing this hopefully it works.

    Reply

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