Always A Bridesmaid, Never A Bride – Unconscious Ways We Sabotage Ourselves

We have all heard that woeful refrain in one form or another. It could well be “groomsman not the groom” or “manager but never an executive”. I have heard this story again and again from athletes, academics, actors, and account executives that “choked” in their career or relationships at some point. They

Interviewed for a high profile opportunity that did not pan out

Vowed to lose weight but still ate all the wrong things

Wanted to reinvent life but never got out of the old patterns

Kissed a lot of princes that turned into frogs

What keeps people from getting what they want? Why do they procrastinate on doing what they know is good for them? And why do they have so many lost opportunities?

These major stumbles cannot be blamed on a lack of talent or bad luck or fate, so what’s going on?

Well the answer is not flagellate oneself with negative labels (procrastinator or worse still, loser). Nor is it to redouble our efforts. The key is to ferret out the core beliefs that sabotage our behavior. More often than not,

 Such assumptions are deeply embedded in our unconscious minds.

Have you ever tried to swim when there is a strong current? You exert a lot of effort but you go nowhere.

The unconscious mind operates in a similar fashion. It undermines our best efforts to achieve an important goal.

Deep in the recesses of our mind we carry an underlying story about ourselves that often was born in painful childhood experiences.

These stories and accompanying feelings are the core of our mental and emotional operating system. They inform everything from our intimate relationships to our work experiences. And they drive us unwittingly to self-sabotage in directions we would not choose with our conscious selves.

Case Study

She was one of the most talented junior executives I’ve ever met. She had rocketed to  the top of the marketing division of her organization. Everyone predicted she would lead the group in the near future. In fact, her boss tapped her to be his successor. After his retirement she interviewed for his job.

She bombed in the interview and she was devastated.

Aware that somehow she had sabotaged herself she began coaching. She wanted to find out why and how she could have a better outcome in the future. I soon realized that she did not need to be coached on interview strategies. She had been through many such interviews in the past and been very successful.

What was going on?

After some preliminary questions about her childhood experiences I became aware that there was an unconscious belief system that had shaped her poor interview. I asked her,

“If you had been successful in the interview and been promoted to lead the marketing department, what fears would you have to manage?”

 After a few more probing questions the answer she gave was,

“If I had that executive position, maybe some issues would come up that I would not be able to handle and then folks would know that I am really not up to the job!”

 We still had not excavated deep enough into her psyche to get to the real reason for her sabotaging her interview. But the pivotal phrase was “not up to the job”

Her narcissistic and highly competitive father could not handle her competence as a child and young adult. He continually dismissed her achievements and put her down in cruel and hurtful ways. As a result she muted her talents and did everything she could not to let him feel that she could eclipse him. Here was the underlying message,

“If I succeed at anything significant (like the head of marketing) I will be treading on land mines and ultimately be discredited (first by my father and then by others in leadership positions) I dare not compete with my father”.

That eureka moment brought up a lot of deep sadness but it was the turning point in her coaching. The big assumption that a significant achievement would be a prelude to a failure (the voice of her father in her unconscious) now became part of her conscious mind..

Slowly she was able to review other significant career and personal achievements that had not turned out to be a disaster. She saw clearly that her unconscious perception had shaped her reality. As a result she was able to perform in future interviews without the riptide belief “I will prove that I am not competent” causing her to self-destruct.

As I have told myself and others at least a thousand times “Optimism is learned” but first pessimism has to be negated.

Previously published in 2017


What unconscious beliefs shape your assumptions (What you believe will happen if you get what you desire)?

What hurtful event/person in your past contributed to this belief?

How can you rewrite your script with a new line of evidence?

About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s