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Disarming Saboteurs: Practicing Inclusion for Personal Growth

  • POSTED ON MAY 22, 2024
Person standing with arms outstretched towards the sky, symbolizing freedom, empowerment, and the practice of inclusion.

Disarming Saboteurs: A Practice in Inclusion  


Naturally Creative, Resourceful, and Whole 

“Wholeness does not mean perfection. Wholeness means no part left out.” —Frank Ostaseski 

Saboteur voices are painful. They foster feelings of shame, self-doubt, and unworthiness and a sense of inner fragmentation. The impulse to go to war with them, silence them, or conquer them into submission is understandable. When this method proves unsuccessful, feelings of failure and inadequacy intensify. The loop goes on and on. Severing this part of ourselves is not only impossible; it would undermine our fundamental wholeness. So what do we do with it? And how do we approach it with our clients?  

The saboteur is connected to our survival instinct. It is not inherently bad. It is a part of you. And me. Loosening the saboteur’s grip on our lives and choices isn’t something we can accomplish on command. It is, more than anything, a practice.  

When we practice inclusion rather than rejection, we are practicing seeing, feeling, and knowing more of our experience. Inclusion is an essential aspect of wholeness. We each have the capacity to include our whole selves, even the scared parts, as we create fulfilling lives. Practicing inclusion doesn’t mean agreeing with the saboteur or letting it dictate our choices. Including our saboteurs means seeing them not as internal enemies but as parts of us that struggle with the fundamental uncertainty of our lives.  

Understanding Saboteurs and How They Operate 

“The saboteur concept embodies a group of thought processes and feelings that maintains the status quo in our lives and our work. It is most often apparent when change is imminent or risk-taking is occurring. The Saboteur often appears to be a structure that protects us, but in fact it prevents us from moving forward and getting what we truly want.” Co-Active Coaching, Fourth Edition 

The human brain is wired for survival. Core fears and threats to human survival include:  

  • Loss of status or relevance  
  • Loss of certainty 
  • Loss of control 
  • Loss of approval or of belonging 

Thus, our saboteurs’ core motivation is to preserve status, certainty, control, and belonging—even in the face of low-grade threats. To be clear, a low-grade threat is not a life-threatening or traumatic event. Low-grade threats are stressors that trigger us to varying degrees but do not pose an immediate danger to our physical wellbeing, for example, experiencing a disagreement with a family member, feeling ignored in a social situation, or receiving critical feedback. It’s important to remember that every saboteur message is an attempt at creating security.  

Saboteurs come up in coaching all the time because whatever our clients are trying to accomplish — whether it’s leveling up as a leader or going after their dream job — it inevitably involves moving through growth territory. Growth requires us to stretch beyond our comfort zones, directly challenging the core purpose of our saboteurs — to keep us squarely within a comfort zone. We worry that if we take powerful action, things might spiral out of control. The bigger the aspiration or transformation, the louder the saboteurs will be. We tell coaches in training that the mere presence of the saboteur isn’t necessarily bad; it’s often a signal that the client is onto something important.  

An Inclusive Strategy 

“Loving life means committing to the adaptation to stay alive, rather than the stubbornness to stay the same.” —adrienne maree brown  

 So, what gives us a true sense of security and belonging? What actually creates a sense of safety and wellbeing? For many of us, experiencing love. Being in flow. Connecting to purpose.   

While some saboteur voices can be bypassed without much attention, others are more persistent. At the Co-Active Training Institute, we train coaches to name and explore the saboteur with their clients. And I like to include a third step called Recover and Respond.  

These 3 steps will support you and your clients in shifting from the reactivity of the saboteur to the natural resourcefulness of our whole self (or as CTI calls it, Leader Within) — from being closed to open, and from seeing ourselves as separate to intrinsically connected to everything.  

Step 1: Name  

Acknowledging when the saboteur is present is the most important and transformational step. When we can see it for what it is (survival brain), we start to recognize it as just one of many parts of the human experience and not the whole truth of who we are.  

 Normalize the inevitable presence of the saboteur with clients so they know it’s not the only voice they have within them. I like to share this visual with clients to give them some defining characteristics so they can become adept at recognizing the voice of the saboteur as well as other internal voices. I’m using the language “Leader Within” as a counterpoint, but use whatever language is resonant for you or your clients (for example, true self, wise self, whole self, etc.). 

Alt text: Comparison chart titled ‘Distinguishing Internal Voices’ showing the differences between the ‘Saboteur’ and ‘Leader Within’ mindsets 

Step 2: Explore   

Lead with compassion and curiosity here. The trap is to judge ourselves for having an inner judge. Instead, try softening. I sometimes imagine my saboteur as a scared kid in me. I say things to let myself know that my actual survival is not at risk. For example, “I hear you, sweetheart. We’re ok.” To investigate, I ask, “What is this part of me afraid of? What does it think it’s protecting me from?” (See that list of four core fears above.) 

Step 3: Recover and Respond 

This step involves shifting the focus from the disempowering voice of the saboteur to the voice of the Leader Within. Don’t try to resolve the tape loop of the saboteur. Think of it more like passing the microphone. Try, “Ok, we’ve heard from the saboteur; now let’s hear from another internal community member.” You could pass the mic to the Leader Within, the heart, the gut, a future-self — anything that supports the client in widening their awareness beyond the singular voice of the saboteur. Remember, inclusion is key. 

As clients get to know their saboteurs, we spend much less time on steps one and two. The majority of the coaching focus is step three. Because it is easier to change the mind with the body than the mind with the mind, I lean heavily into somatics and embodiment work in this step. 

Here are two simple somatic practices that can help shift from the narrow, fixed focus of the saboteur to whole-body awareness. Once again, the goal here is not to get rid of the saboteur, but rather to include more of our experience alongside it and respond to the situation from there. 

If you have a few seconds, pause and lengthen. Focus on the space beyond your physical body. Sense how the space holds you. 

 If you have a little more time, pause and lengthen. How is your breath? How do you feel where you are sitting or standing? Put your left hand on your heart. Close your eyes and remember who you are. If you can, listen for all the things you hear: the clock ticking, a car driving past, dog sighing, bird chirping. Do this for several breaths, then think of someone or something that makes you smile.  

 Practicing inclusion means listening for more than just the loudest voice in the room. Reorienting to the whole — within us and around us — is a practice in holding apparent contradictions without letting them cancel each other out.  

Gina Restani
Written By

Gina Restani

Gina Restani, CPCC, PCC, is a coach, facilitator, and leadership development consultant. Her clients are executives, entrepreneurs, coaches, creatives, and corporate rebels who are hungry for a work-life revolution. Gina specializes in working with people who are focused on creating not just profitable businesses but also sustainable, fulfilling, purpose-driven livelihoods.With a ten-year background in the tech industry, Gina left corporate life to pursue a path in coaching and leadership development. Since then, she’s built a thriving coaching practice, co-founded a leadership consultancy for women, collaborated with over 30 companies, from global enterprises to budding startups, and joined the esteemed faculty at CTI, where her coaching journey began ten years ago.Gina supports professional coaches at various stages of their journey, from those pursuing ICF certification to seasoned practitioners. She is currently based in her hometown of San Francisco, California.  You can contact her via her website at if you are interested in teaming up.

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