Avoiding Self-Sabotage in Our Professional Lives
In this episode, herdacious host Lorelei chats with Michelle Hoover about avoiding self-sabotage through self-mastery. Time and time again, the hand of self-sabotage notoriously pulls us down by the sleeves. Michelle teaches us how to release the grasp self-sabotage has over our professional development by proactively fighting our learned habits, and instead, making favorable choices. From identifying triggers to the oh-so-limiting perfection trap, Michelle calls attention to the self-sabotaging behaviors born of gender-specific expectations set by society. With a commitment to defying self-limiting behaviors, we can learn to master our gut reactions in ways that benefit our personal and professional lives.
Host: Lorelei Gonzalez
Co-host: Michelle Hoover, MEd
Michelle Hoover, Founder and Principal of Baem Leadership, is a leadership-development strategist, facilitator, consultant, and coach. She has designed, delivered, and facilitated talent-development programs for more than 15,000 learners across five continents and has worked with Fortune 500 companies in a variety of industries, including professional and financial services, technology, consumer goods, beauty, and luxury. She now lives in New York, where she enjoys Hamilton, Central Park, and soaking up creativity, motivation, and energy that emanate from the city!
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Lorelei: Welcome to HERdacious, a podcast for audacious women. Welcome back to HERdacious, the podcast for audacious women looking to make some career moves and wanting a little career support along the way. My name's Lorelei, the proud host of this show, and today we are gonna be talking about a wicked little conversation that we've probably all needed to talk about. How to avoid self-sabotage in our professional lives, specifically how to avoid self-sabotage through self-mastery. And to help us in this epic conversation, I have an empathetic coach a seen it all leadership facilitator, the founder of Baem Leadership, a boutique leadership strategy and executive coaching firm, Michelle Hoover.
Michelle: Hi Lorelei.
Lorelei: Michelle, so glad to have you today. This is gonna be so amazing.
Michelle: I'm thrilled to be here. Thanks for having me.
Lorelei: My pleasure. So obviously, we're gonna be talking about self-sabotage, what got you personally or professionally interested in this topic as a development strategist.
Michelle: When you do a development strategy, and when you generally think about anything in business, our minds often go first to the external factors, globalization, urbanization, where trade flows are happening, and while all those external forces are surely influential in our business decisions, what gets less discussion are these internal influences and these internal potential blocks that we face, and self-sabotage, I think is one of the largest internal blocks that we face. As a coach and as somebody who helps people along with their growth and development, it's only natural that I gave this particular internal block a lot of my attention and trying to enable the growth of others.
Lorelei: Describe for us the act of self-sabotage and how we do this to ourselves often unwittingly.
Michelle: Yeah, it's so unfortunate, but self-sabotage is the act of destroying or undermining something often in a covert manner. The term self-sabotage specifically is used when this destructive behavior is directed at yourself consciously or unconsciously. There's a great book out there by Dr. Judy Ho, Ho called "Self-Sabotage," and I'll tell you more about it later, but she explained that self-sabotage occurs when our wiring works in our favor. We are wired to protect ourselves, and when our bodies and our brains unite in recognizing something that scares us, we do everything in our power to protect ourselves. Now, things like procrastination are a form of self-sabotage. You might not think of it that way, you might think of it as you just putting it off for whatever reason, but what your body and what your instinct is telling you is, "No, don't go there because you're not very comfortable there." Another form of sabotage is in avoiding things and refusing to acknowledge them until maybe in a procrastination situation again, right. These are all cues that are telling us you're going into territory where you're not really comfortable, so pump the breaks and slow your role and let's avoid that in a protectionist kind of manner.
Lorelei: Wow, my brain is breaking at the hilarity of how our brains try to protect ourselves through sabotaging us. What's the solution?
Michelle: The solution to conquering your instinct to self-sabotage is to listen to the instincts that self-sabotage is coming on, such that you can quell and consider what these signs are telling you. Oftentimes we'll be self-sabotaging, let's say in the act of procrastination. We just say, "Oh, I've always been like this, I've always procrastinated. No big deal." But if we just double click on that and probe on that a little bit further, what would happen if we ask ourselves "Why?" "Why is this particular thing something I do not want to do right now. Do I have feelings towards it? Does this particular task have implications for me in terms of how I see myself or my value or my worth? Did I try to do something similar along these lines with regard to this task in the past? And did it not go well? Do I think my stakeholder is not going to appreciate the effort that I'm putting into this task versus what I see myself doing in the value that I'm adding by doing this task?" We have so many stories around the way we see ourselves and our behaviors, and when we're in the active act of self-sabotaging, we don't listen to ourselves and what those stories are telling us. If we pause for a moment and consider the act of self-sabotage, while it's happening, stopping it in its tracks and giving ourselves a moment to reconsider how we can go about this particular task, then we develop a different relationship with that saboteur. When you begin to actively identify your self-sabotaging in action that is when you are activating your self-mastery, and I believe self-mastery is the antidote to a lot of development problems, but one thing I can tell you for sure is that it stops the sabotaging in its tracks.
So to go further, self-mastery is the continuous consistent process of sharpening your own understanding and awareness of your tendencies, behaviors and emotions to help you increase your effectiveness as a result of drawing upon the understanding of yourself. If you've possibly self-sabotaged in the past, that is one thing, but if you actively engage the sabotaging in the moment, you have the option and you have a better chance of stopping the sabotaging in its tracks.
Lorelei: On the topic of active self-sabotage, do women have gender-specific self-sabotaging behaviors?
Michelle: Yes, it has been documented that women have specific self-sabotaging behaviors.
Lorelei: Oh no.
Michelle: Yeah, there are things that women particularly do that are of the self-sabotaging type. There is a great book out there by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith who are to just top gold standard executive coaches, and they have a book out called "How Women Rise," and they lay out 12 habits in particular that women have demonstrated that hold them back. The first one of them is that they don't tell the world how smart they are, and another is that they're reluctant to claim their achievements. Now, if we track this back to gender, it is not surprising at all why women manifest this way in the workplace if we think about how we've been conditioned in elementary school. This is what we're seeing in terms of self-sabotaging behavior among women in the workplace now.
Lorelei: To help us understand a little bit more about where women really are in the workplace and our situation as a whole, can you give us an eagle eye view of where women are situated right now, and how this self-sabotaging behavior could continue to negatively affect us, or how we can start flipping the script and make some positive changes?
Michelle: Indeed, women are terribly under-represented in the corporate world, therefore helping women manage their internal blocks to progress is critical to the advancement of women in workplaces. We know that gender diversity and ethnic and racial diversity is beneficial to everybody in the corporate workplace, so we ought to be focusing on that. So just to give you some numbers to support this, in the United States where men were nearly half of the labor force, but only slightly a third of managers in 2019, white women held almost a third of our management positions. Let's contrast that with our friends who are women of color. Latinxs made up 43% of management positions in 2019, Black women made up 4% of management positions in 2019, and Asian women made up a 25% of management positions in 2019. In addition, the proportion of women in senior leadership differs by role, so women tend to be over-represented in support functions like administration, whereas men tend to be concentrated in areas such as operations, profit laws and research and development. Those three tracks are viewed as critical experiences for CEO and Board level positions, so where fewer numbers in management and leadership, and where the pool of talent could be developed, we are absent.
Lorelei: Golly, you've given us a much better understanding of the current situation which we're currently working from. What are some of the gender-specific challenges that we are faced with today as women?
Michelle: Helgesen and Goldsmith write about 12 of these challenges, so I'll give you three. The first is the perfection trap. I think all women can relate to this. What this means is that we do not feel prepared to deliver a comment, a deliverable, and email, unless we feel it is perfect: It is dated, T's crossed, thoughts complete, data to back it up. That's the norm for women. And that stops us. We also over-value expertise. What does that mean? When we are doing work, we are trying to master all of the elements of our work. It kind of ties into the perfection trap, so if there are five components of our job, if we're not rating ourselves five stars on all of those components, then we feel less than. And that is a tough standard to be.
Lorelei: It's a heck of a self-sabotaging technique.
Michelle: Indeed. And finally, we ruminate a lot. Ruminating means we toss and turn in our brains the thing that went wrong, and decision tree are way in a hypothetical scenario. "What if I'd done this? When have I done this? Oh, did I not do something correctly? Oh, this is all my fault." So there are two really critical elements to discuss here. Number one, we just don't let it go. Number two, women are more likely than men to cast blame on ourselves or the thing that doesn't go right.
Lorelei: Well, I'm more likely than you to take this quick moment for a sponsor break. We'll be right back.
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Lorelei: And we're back talking about how to avoid self-sabotage through self-mastery with Michelle Hoover. Now, Michelle, I wanna circle back to what you were talking about earlier. Some real-life examples of female self-sabotage. Give us a couple of more examples so that we can maybe identify some of the ways that we might participate in this behavior. You've listed some high level stuff, I wanna get a few real life examples so that we can hone in on some of the actual things that we do besides procrastination. Which, if you don't know about procrastination, I don't know where you've been.
Michelle: Sure, so the first is a personal experience. I left the job at a time when others were also leaving the company, and I had a peer who was male, and we were a comparable skill and comparable title. We were just having a conversation one day, talking about our job searches, and what could potentially be ahead for us. When he started listing out all of the things that he was chasing, I compared it against the things that I was chasing. I was like, "Holy cow, why the discrepancy? Why is there such a big gap here?" Because this guy was going after positions that I thought were maybe two or three steps down the road, and I was applying for positions that felt right to me at this time. After reviewing the literature on this and reading the book I mentioned by Helgesen and Goldsmith, it was really clear that I was falling into a combination of that perfectionistic trap and the over-value expertise. This is a case of where a woman will look at a job description and say, "Okay, of these 13 things, I feel really, really great about 10, but because I don't feel great about the three, I'm not gonna apply."
Michelle: That doesn't happen with men. I saw myself guilty of that a couple of years ago. A second example is something that breaks my heart, but has a happy ending. I remember when I was in school, I would have heart palpitations and sweaty palms, and I would constantly persevere in my brain as to whether I would raise my hand to ask a question because that's one thing. That's a different challenge entirely. But whether I would answer a question, and it's not because I wasn't confident about it, it was just around the idea of taking up space and putting myself out there. I always remembered that and I started doing something else about it, I started changing my behavior when I started getting dinged on it in graduate school. But this is not an uncommon phenomenon. You might have heard a couple of years ago, a little girl who was then 10, her name is Alice Paul Tapper. She was on a field trip, and she had observed that a bunch of boys were at the front of the museum or whatever it was, and whenever the tourist was asking for participants, the boys would raise their hands. This observation led Alice to share this with her mom, and long story short, Alice discussed this with her Girl Scout leader, and they decided to come up with this raise your hand patch.
So in order to get the patch, you have to pledge to raise your hand in class and recruit three other girls who promised to do the same. This was just so heart felt. There is a piece written by Alice in The New York Times from maybe two or three years ago, and she says, "I told my mom that I thought girls weren't raising their hands because they were afraid that the answer was going to be wrong or they would be embarrassed." If I link that back to my own experiences, that was so true. And to think that this little girl had this experience very recently as well, it's heartbreaking. But you know what? We know what's happening now. We can give it a name now, and this generation, along with ourselves, we're not gonna let it happen moving forward.
Lorelei: It is that confidence gap that children, the gendered experiences of children, we encourage boys to go be brave and we implicitly encourage girls to be perfect.
Michelle: Exactly, exactly. What Alice cited in her article was that people say girls have to be 90% confident before we raise our hands, but boys just raise their hands.
Lorelei: Slays me, it slays me. And some of the Girl Scouts there, slaying left and right. In the best ways possible. Love that story. Thank you for sharing.
Lorelei: Let's switch the conversation back to the solutions. Talk to me about self-mastery. What does that look like?
Michelle: Self-mastery is when you question yourself when you feel your body telling you something. For example, I used to get crazy anxiety, but I didn't know it was anxiety. There was a time when my blood pressure was at an all time high and I was working like a maniac, and it was through the exploration of that that I really started to hone in on my own self-mastery. What are these signs telling me about myself? What do I need to do to take care of myself in the situation? So that's a very physical, personal example. Self-mastery in the workplace is, well when we used to be in the office together, you're walking down the corridor and you see somebody with whom you do not have the most collegial relationship. Let's say this person gave you a piece of feedback recently that did not sit well with you. Self-Mastery is your ability to recognize that you might not come off as you intend if you are un-checked. Self-mastery is you acknowledging that you may encounter an uncomfortable situation if you let your triggers get the best of you. So, self-mastery is the constant act of processing your emotions and how you need to manage your emotions in order to manage your behavior. To present yourself in a way that works for you and is in your best interest.
Lorelei: So, self-mastery is the solution generally to self-sabotage?
Michelle: Absolutely self-mastery is the antidote to self-sabotage. Self-sabotage occurs when we are afraid. The first question that we should ask ourselves when we even have the slightest inkling that we are self-sabotaging is, "why are we afraid? What is it about the situation that is triggering us in some way?" The way we manage self-sabotage is to really think hard about what the trigger is saying. For example, the trigger might be one of the following: A voice that's telling you that you're not good enough or you might have an assumption about what you're about to take on. It's a belief that because something has happened in the past, it will happen the same way again. We might be telling ourselves a story about an event, a situation, a person or responsibility, and believe that to be true. So, "I'm not good at spreadsheets, and therefore I'm not going to do the spreadsheet because it was going to be bad."
Michelle: We might have a limiting belief. We might say to ourselves, "Well, you know, I tried this three years ago, and it didn't work out, and because it worked out that way, it's not going to work out this way, and from that point on, I have accepted myself as not great at that thing." We pay attention to all of those voices that are telling us those different things, that's step one. Step two is actually appreciating those voices. Those voices come up, because at one time they may have served us a greater purpose. What do I mean by that? I'll use that spreadsheet example. I'm not great at them, but if I have to present something in Excel format, you can bet your tail I'm gonna work really hard at making sure that I have it at a level of competency that I'm going to be satisfied with it. So, what could have been a self-sabotaging trigger was actually motivating and encouraging me to find a different capability within myself and believe in myself. Ie take these voices and we appreciate them for the fact that they could serve us well at one point, we then change our relationship with them.
Lorelei: We're learning to identify the triggers that accompanies self-sabotaging behavior. Let's say we're in the middle of doing a self-sabotaging behavior, how do we take that moment of reflection? How do we take that pause right in the middle of our professional space to catch ourselves and to avoid the self-sabotaging behavior through our own intentional actions?
Michelle: We realize our power. We realize that the way it could go, if the saboteur were to go unchecked, is not a foregone conclusion. We view ourselves as people who are capable of changing our behavior. Let's say you're in a meeting. Your pulse is high, you're starting to sweat, you feel the aviator going on, take a beat and say, "I have a choice to respond differently in the situation. What is the best thing that I could do to improve myself in the situation?" And fly a kite. I like to use that term a lot. I can get a kite, can go hundreds of feet in the air, and be this beautiful kite with this beautiful tail. But you're not gonna know unless you just try to give it some lift. Just fly the kite and see what happens. If it gets caught in the air, no big deal, just reel it back in and try it again. Experiments are just kites.
Lorelei: Give us a few more examples of the different types of self-mastery techniques or actions that will enable us to vanquish or at least minimize that self-sabotaging inclination.
Michelle: Number one is to be aware. So we keep journals constantly about our goals. Often our goals related to health or intentions or mental well-being, which are all really, really important. But what would happen if you gave the saboteurs in your life the space, and you're cognizant that they exist, and you work on those actively. Keep in mind the fact that that you're always a work in process and have in front of you your journal. These are things that you're actively working on. Give yourself the win when you've actively conquered it. It might be something really simple like, "Okay, I didn't procrastinate" or "When I saw so and so walking down the hall, I said, 'Hello,' pleasantly. Even though I wanted to do something violent." Give yourself credit for the fact that you made a choice. In the situation to behave differently, it's one of the 12 habits that you're breaking.
Lorelei: Being reluctant to claim your achievement?
Michelle: Exactly, exactly. Claim your win. Number two, appreciate yourself as a work in progress. These things do not go away overnight. Self-sabotaging behavior is a result of years and years of conditioning and norms.
Lorelei: And socialization.
Michelle: Exactly. Socialization, that was beyond our control. When you recognize that avoiding self-sabotage is in your control, that requires a lot of rewiring in a lot of different ways. So appreciate that this is an ongoing thing. And again, give yourself the wins and maybe view this as a long game versus a short one.
Lorelei: Love that. Well, we are at the end of our short game. To wrap up our episode, please share a few resources for our listeners who wanna continue their journey of eliminating self-sabotage through self-mastery.
Michelle: Sure. The full title of the first book I mentioned is "How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion or Job" by Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen. Those are two gold standard executive coaches who have partnered on a lot of different initiatives. Sally Helgesen herself is a known expert in women's leadership, and her co-author Marshall Goldsmith is known in his own right as being the master of all executive coaches. He also wrote a different book called "Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts, Becoming the Person You Want to Be." It's about recognizing the point that self-sabotage is happening, and the fact that you have the ability to change your reaction to it. Another book I have for you is from Dr. Judy Ho called "Stop Self-Sabotage: Six Steps to Unlock Your True Motivation, Harness World Power and Get Out of Your Own Way." Finally, my own firm, Baem leadership on Instagram. Feel free to follow us there. We always offer content on things along the lines of growing through fear and growing through self-mastery. For listeners, we'll have some downloadable materials for you there.
Lorelei: Thank you so much, we will be sure to link all of those references and of course, your website and social in our show notes.
Lorelei: Now to end our episode, we are going to transition to today's femme fact. Michelle, do you remember the new Little Women that dropped in theaters like a couple of months before covid?
Michelle: I do.
Lorelei: So, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, for those of you who aren't familiar, tells the story of Josephine March, the radical sister with a desire to be a published writer in the 1800s American society where women usually did no such thing. Naturally, this was suitably reflective of women writers at the time. In fact Alcott herself was one of many female authors who wrote under a male pseudonym or a fake name to be able to really break into the literary world. For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, many female authors throughout history have taken aliases or male-presenting pseudonyms or initials to appeal to male publishers in a predominantly male industry, as well as to predominantly male readership. In the 18th to 19th centuries, women authors were frequently told that they did not belong in the literary world, that writing was a man's business like all other business.
It was not a place for a woman. Given that men dominated the publishing and literature consuming industry, the ball was entirely in their court as to which authors came out on top. Back then, male readers would have generally gawked at a female author, so in order to be accepted in such a biased arena, women wrote under pen names to increase their book sales. Although male names, initials and non-gendered pen names are riddled throughout the literary industry, they were especially pertinent within genres where readership skewed towards a male-dominated audience like mystery, crime and fantasy. This is where possibly the most well-known pseudonym in literary fantasy history, the creator of Harry Potter herself, chose JK Rowling. You might be familiar with some of the other female authors who worked behind the guise of a pen name, benefiting literature one story at a time. Like the Bronte sisters, the famous trio of sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne took up the aliases of Currer, Alice and Acton respectively. Their male alias' has likely helped their success. In particular, Emily's now classic novel Wutherthing Heights. The writing at the time was seen to be perfectly in line with that of masculine styles and was certainly never thought to have been composed by a woman with book descriptors in the time, like brutal and wicked, you know, decidedly non-feminine stuff.
Going back to Louisa May Alcott, who did publish Little Women under her own name, her pseudonym at the time was AM Barnard when writing Gothic thrillers, and I'm doing air quotes here, "unladylike material." Mary Anne Evans, the author of an absolute masterpiece titled Middlemarch adopted the male pseudonym of George Elliott, which she named after her romantic partner at the time who had encouraged her to pursue fiction writing. Now, women eventually started to outnumber men as literary customers and female authors began to write under their given names. In fact, one female author by the name of Jane Austen [you heard of her? ] didn't originally use her given name either, and instead listed the book's author as "By a lady." Austen did this to unapologetically embrace her gender in her work, despite the opposition against women in literature. Although the use of the male pseudonym was used to break through in literature, some women deliberately chose to adopt alternate names for reasons such as general anonymity, crafting an alter ego, reflecting a queer identity or to avoid expectations of racial or ethnic heritage in their writings. For instance, when the Women's Prize for Fiction celebrated its 25-year anniversary this past year, the organization published the Reclaim Her Name campaign, publishing 25 female-authored works that were originally penned under pseudonyms. This elicited a backlash as critics and historians argued that the project erased deliberate efforts by some of the 25 female writers who had intentionally safeguarded their given names for one reason or another. Despite that hiccup, I think it is safe to say that all of these women, regardless of what name they chose to publish under, deserve recognition for their contributions to literature. We are all better for it. On behalf of us here at HERdacious, we'd like to encourage you to step outside of your reading comfort zone and to pick up a book by an author you might not identify with or recognize yet.
Michelle, it has been an absolute pleasure conversing with you on the topic of self-sabotage and self-mastery.
Michelle: Likewise, thank you for having me.
Lorelei: Thank you for sharing all of your valuable content. I hope we as listeners able to go out into our professional worlds and act with much more confidence and start to identify those triggers of self-sabotage. 'Cause sisters, we gotta go out there and succeed. So this is HERdacious and I'm Lorelei. Until next time, remember that if a 10-year-old can spot our lack of confidence, I think we can start looking in the mirror and identify that for ourselves. Let's take some brave steps forward, ladies.