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Take a Chance: Don’t Let Your Inner Saboteur Hold You Back

“'It’s impossible,' said pride. ‘It’s risky,' said experience. ‘It’s pointless,' said reason. ‘Give it a try,' whispered the heart.” ~Unknown

On my first day back in college, I sat on a bench outside a classroom and wrote in a tiny notebook. Glancing around at the young students lining up, my sunglasses slid down my nose as I hurriedly scribbled the thoughts buzzing around in my head.

“I'm afraid of being unprepared. I'm afraid of not being smart enough. I'm afraid of being left behind in the coursework. I'm afraid of giving up like I did last time.”

As evidenced in that journal entry, I was pretty terrified to be back in school.

I felt too old, too far behind, too unsure of why I was even trying in the first place. Wasn’t it too late to “catch up” anyway? Weren’t all of my friends already done with their bachelors, done even with their graduate degrees, forging careers and buying houses and doing those things that we all say we’ll do when we grow up? Hadn’t I made my bed when I gave up college the first time?

Really I just knew that it was too late to catch up to the one person I’d been chasing my whole life.

She was magnificent, really. This person had gone to college when she was “supposed” to, had since forged a meaningful career path, hadn’t wasted years in bad relationships and bad behaviors. She’d chased her dreams and flossed her teeth, run marathons and won awards, had tons of friends and confidence and was now living wealthy and successful and madly in love…

…all cozied up inside my head.

That person was the woman I “wished” I was, and she was making my life a living hell. My constant comparison to the ghost life that I should have led would stop me in my tracks as I began to take steps toward goals: You’ll never be who you could have been, so why even try?

It’s for this reason that my return to school was a surrender of sorts.

A surrender to my inner perfectionist, the one who told me that if I didn’t do it “perfectly” or at the time other people had done it (whatever “it” was), then I shouldn’t do it at all.

The perfectionist who told me it was too late, that I would fail, that trying to be successful (like really trying) was the surest way to feel badly in the near future. My inner shame cranker, my saboteur, the voice that was easiest to hear throughout all the static of daily life.

Signing up for my first college class was waving the white flag at her door. It was saying, “Yes, I am imperfect, things didn’t go the way that I planned, but I may as well try.”

So I showed up for one class and then two, glancing sideways at my classmates that were often far younger and seemingly more prepared.

The first few weeks I felt like an awkward dinosaur, struggling to keep up and too nervous to raise my hand in class. As time went on, though, I began to get braver, approaching teachers with questions and relaxing around my classmates.

When I opened my eyes a little wider I was forced to realize that I wasn’t actually all that different from the other people taking classes. Sure, most were younger, but some were older; some were strikingly intelligent but others were asking me for help. As I kept showing up and diligently doing the assigned work, I found that I actually felt pretty good.

I liked seeing A’s on my papers, but what I liked even more was the feeling growing inside of me. Each week that I showed up for class was another week that I hadn’t given up; each time I raised my hand was another time I didn’t listen to the voice that told me my question was stupid.

The weeks flew by and before I knew it, that first semester had passed. I felt like I’d completed my own marathon, the one I was running with myself, and decided to push the finish line a little further away. One more semester became two, then three, and soon I was preparing to transfer to a university.

My “I-can-do-it” train had gathered steam, and although I would sometimes falter with the difficulty of the courses, the train never totally stopped. My small victories had accumulated for long enough that I began to trust myself: to learn, to grow, to continue.

It took me longer than four years, but this past June I did in fact graduate.

As I sat in a stadium surrounded by hundreds of bobbing graduation caps, I took a moment to remember that girl who had sat on a bench outside her first college class. The one who had written about how scared she was, how sure of failing, how inadequate she knew herself to be. I realized that she was the same person sitting in a cap and gown, smiling with excitement and preparing to cross a stage and be handed a diploma.

The only difference was time spent proving the fearful voice wrong.

Sure, I’ll never compare to the perfectionist inside of me. She’s definitely still there and she still crops up sometimes, trying to convince me not to take that chance or venture out onto another limb; whispering in my ear that I’m not doing it right and I’m sure to embarrass myself anyway.

You know what I’ve figured out, though? I don’t have to listen to her. None of us do. (My inner perfectionist gets around. I told you she’s popular, so I’m assuming she’s in your head too.)

The voices inside all of us no doubt serve a purpose, but sometimes that purpose is just to keep us safe.

“Don’t take that chance; you could fail” protects our ego from the pain of disappointment. “Don’t expect much from yourself; you aren’t capable” means that we don’t have to get our hopes up. The flip side of that, though, is pushing through those thoughts and doing things anyway.

Taking that class. Going on that trip around the world. Applying for that job or writing that book or telling someone about an idea you have.

Not listening to the negative voices in our head begins with first realizing that they’re in there; they’ve often been playing on repeat for so long that they blend in with the soundtrack of our mind. They feel like us, but they’re not: they’re no more us than that ghost life is—the one that we wish we had led, the one that never existed in the first place.

If there’s one thing that my return to college taught me, it’s that the surest way to drown out the doubt in my head is to put one foot in front of the other and prove it wrong. Thank that doubtful naysayer for her opinion, suggest she get back to being perfect, and go forth with whatever it is that will make this actual life even a little better.

I’d say it’s time we all did that; bid those lame perfectionists farewell and live the imperfect and real lives that we were actually meant to live anyway.

About Melissa Pennel

Melissa Pennel is a coffee drinker, over thinker, and empowerment coach in Northern California. Find more of her writing on her blog. Catch up with Melissa on Instagram, Facebook, or on her website.

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  • This struck at chord with me at so many levels
    The picture and the phrase at the beginning gave me goosebumps, and they kept coming as I read !!
    It’s so ironic that the perfectionist within us makes us feel incapable and imperfect

  • Brian Freund

    Thank you Melissa. As I was contemplating a long delayed project and dream, I came across your column. What synchronicity! Beautifully written.

  • Krystal Stave

    I recently turned 50 and have gone back to school. The failures I have had before haunted me so badly that for years I didn’t do anything but hide from life. Thank you for your beautiful article Melissa, let us all be courageous and move forward with whatever dream we have in life!

  • Melissa Pennel

    Krystal that is so amazing to hear! So glad that you’re pushing past those inner voices/obstacles of your past and letting your light shine– best of luck in school, you got this

  • Melissa Pennel

    Oh, that sounds exciting! Guess this means it’s time to get started on that dream/project… 🙂 Best of luck to you, Brian

  • Melissa Pennel

    So glad to hear it struck a chord. The perfectionist is so sneaky, right? Sometimes it’s just naming the “perfect” and self-doubting voice that takes away its power…I hope you’re following those goosebumps toward something great xo

  • badhombrebigdo

    If you didn’t really want to be there, why did you go? Doing things that you don’t want to is why people lose their alignment. If you didn’t want to be there the first time and you just essentially forced your way back, I don’t really see a point in that….maybe it’s working or worked out better the second go round, but the motivations are still off…

  • Shannon

    We can definitely be our own worst enemies and this is such a wonderful example of being able to tell that enemy that they won’t win. What a great article on the importance of moving forward!

    – Shannon

  • Melissa Pennel

    I see what you’re saying about alignment, and agree that people shouldn’t do things that they truly don’t want to do; what I was describing was something different, however, and that’s the fear of failing. Wanting to do things (like get a college degree) but being afraid: that it was too late, that I’d look stupid, that I wouldn’t be able to. It’s important to ask ourselves why we “don’t want to do” stuff. Do I really not want this thing? Okay, I won’t do it. Am I just afraid that I can’t? If so, I need to try.

  • Melissa Pennel

    Shannon so glad you could relate! I agree that we are our own worst enemies: we’d likely never talk to a friend the way we talk to ourselves. Better to name the inner naysayer than listen to them! xo

  • badhombrebigdo

    I hear you, but I was going even deeper… Like, okay, maybe you want the degree, but do you really want the degree? Or was it that you wanted what the degree got the person that you were chasing got; i.e. adoration, admiration… love.

    I think what you wanted, truly was to feel good.. and you thought/think that some piece of paper that you pay for to be given to you after you memorize texts or lectures by institutions that are little more than predatory businesses was where you would finally get that feeling… and maybe, for a hot second realizing that yes, you are worthy and just as capable as those around you, even those with the blessing of youth gave you some happiness, but I still think you’re chasing, I think everyone that is obfuscating fear and judgement and promoting this mentality that you can gain happiness through titles or accomplishments is wrongheaded.

    Happiness simply comes from within IMHO… You must learn to be happy no matter the situation and know you’re worthy no matter what you have…

    To me, fear is just more of an internal GPS system… maybe in some situations it’s positive, longterm to forge ahead in spite of it, but I think most of the time fear = do not want, do not want = do not need, do not need = not going to make you happy, not going to make you happy = out of alignment, out of alignment = of no use to yourself and unhappy longterm.

  • yeah I keep reminding myself that something being “perfect” maybe good but being perfectionistic is a psychological trait with a negative connotation :p
    and yes, the goosebumps scared the naysayer and motivated the go-getter!!
    Thanks for sharing your experience – you wrote it like a piece of fiction 🙂

  • Aliyah Dignam

    Wow… this hits close to home :-]

    Self-sabotage is when we say we want something, and then go on to make sure it doesn’t happen and so It takes an awful lot of mindfulness practice to stop shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to progressing and getting towards what you want, and succeeding BIG TIME.

    Self-sabotage often rooted around deep fear of fulfilment and finally reaching out for the stars. Lots of us know how failure tastes like, right? And so we can handle another one if it’s coming regarding it as a valuable lesson, a point of reference. When it comes to success and succeeding – lots of people, don’t quite know how to handle it and responsibilities that might come with it – fear of uncertainty so to speak, hence, shooting yourself in the foot until the vicious cycle is broken for good…

    Thank you for sharing, Melissa, I needed this today ❤

  • The best way to break free from self-sabotaging and the inner self-critic is to meditate on these thoughts and the underlying emotions. It take some practice and guidance, but the more you do this the freer you become.
    The Boulder Center for Online Mindfulness Therapy

  • Melissa Pennel

    Yes, self-sabotage is far easier than reaching for the stars! But that’s where the light is…Thanks for sharing your thoughtful perspective xo

  • Melissa Pennel

    Yes, most definitely. In meditation we can realize that thoughts are just thoughts, voices (negative and positive) are just voices. Thank you for your sage words of wisdom

  • You are most welcome, Melissa :-] and yes, agreed, self-sabotage is easier than reaching for the stars, it’s also astonishingly ●boring●, and the fear that hides behind it also is boring… let’s hope to have the courage to pursue our dreams to live the life to the fullest in the most wonderful conditions beyond our wildest expectations..! xo

  • D L

    Melissa! Thank you so much. You’ve told my story here and now I know I’m not alone! What a blessing!

  • sebastianwrites

    You can over think things some times.

    Fears are there to be conquered, it is not the piece of paper in itself.

  • Carol Rodrigues

    I never leave comments for fear of exposing myself. Silly me, I know! But those voices in my head have convinced me that I’m too shy, and that maybe what I have to say is not all that interesting or valuable or anything new. But I’ve decided to say “hi” anyway! I’m stepping out of my comfort zone here inspired by your message! I just want to thank you for an amazing life lesson/reminder!