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8th June 2024

Breaking Through: Women’s Strategies to Navigate Career Self-Sabotage

Author Maite Moreno Ugartemendia
A women in office attire climbing stairs with her shadow wearing a cape

We yearn to be successful professionals but encounter barriers. One part of us wants to soar while another tugs to keep us on the shore of the familiar. In what ways do we limit and delay our professional takeoff through self-sabotage?

Renowned American author and activist Marianne Williamson penned one of the most widely circulated poems in recent times: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?” In these opening verses, the bestselling spirituality author captures the essence of the Jonah Complex, a phenomenon coined by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, linked to the fear of success. The biblical character Jonah is tasked with being a prophet in another land, doubts his ability, and flees. Similarly, people resist opportunities for growth and in doing so, can self-sabotage their own careers. This is particularly true with women. 

Why do we struggle so much to play big?

According to various studies, the factors most limiting our expansion are low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, and societal expectations; a complex array of individual, social, and cultural aspects. From a gender perspective, this phenomenon affects women more than men. A study published in the Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing in 2018 compared variables in executives of multinational companies and noted that women report lower self-esteem and more fear of success than men, as well as a greater fear of failure (Alessa, A, 2019).

a high angle shot of a woman sitting with forehead on her knees

Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

These behaviors have significant effects on career decisions and well-being. For example, the impostor syndrome (feeling incompetent despite achievements) is more prevalent in women. Feeling inadequate for the challenge leads us to overwork and can lead to states of generalized exhaustion, known as burnout. Believing ourselves to be impostors even affects our willingness to attempt to attain positions of power, whether applying for a managerial position, seeking a significant scholarship, or starting our project. According to a publication in the International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal in 2013, fear of failure and a distorted self-perception of capabilities decrease the likelihood of a woman attempting entrepreneurship.

From a socio-historical perspective, since the twentieth century, as more and more women have entered the public sphere from the private realm, we have had to prove ourselves as capable as men in taking on these tasks. We studied, achieved good grades, and molded our personalities to fit into these new environments and be accepted. Even today, certain gender stereotypes such as the “good girl” label weigh on our shoulders: expectations that invite us to be submissive, modest, responsible, and conciliatory, willing to sacrifice individual desires for relationships. In Argentina, it is common to hear the term “chicas” to refer to a group of women. This way of naming, besides referring to gender, also suggests a size that is, coincidentally, small. In conclusion, playing big for women is a countercultural feat.

Eight Self-Sabotage Mindsets

Language serves as a beacon to identify barriers hindering our embrace of professional greatness. Here are some common thoughts or mindsets that indicate you might be self-sabotaging your career. 

1) “I need more training before taking the leap”

Often, we believe further studies will alleviate insecurities or instill confidence. Yet, this can be a form of procrastination, delaying the desired step forward. Investing in more education pushes the challenging decision into the distant future. We ‘buy‘ time.

2) “Why challenging myself? I’m perfectly fine”

We certainly need stability, security, and calm. But is it the only thing we need? No. Scott Barry Kaufman, the humanistic psychologist who reinterprets Maslow’s work, points out that we as humans also have growth needs. From his point of view, living is an invitation to be everything we are capable of being (and no less than that); which often means embarking on challenges that disrupt our comfort.

3) “I just want everything to flow, no effort”

Nowadays, the concept of “flow” is in vogue. We are often guided by the fantasy that we can be successful (whatever success means to us), just by surrendering and flowing effortlessly. Naturally, we get disappointed. Reality shows us that flow is just one side of the prism of life. Real achievements demand a balance between intentional effort and letting go.

4) “I made up my mind. This year, I’ll become a global authority on the subject”

Setting excessively ambitious goals can frequently lead to disappointment, further exacerbating self-doubt when they prove unattainable. For instance, consider someone aspiring to become a painter who takes up the brush for the first time. Aspiring to attain global recognition within the same year may appear overly lofty. Pursuing goals of such magnitude can be counterproductive, as the passage of time without achieving them only reinforces the inner voice of doubt: “See, I’m not suited for this.”

5) “At this age? I’m already late”

In the book ‘Una Gloriosa Libertad’, Lisa Congdon shares stories of women over 40 who defied societal norms, embracing unconventional paths with remarkable courage. One such woman is Zoe Ghahremani, a dentist who, at 50, transitioned from two decades of dental practice to pursue fiction writing with notable success. During her talks, Ghahremani challenges her audience with a thought-provoking question: “How old would you be if you didn’t know your age?”

6) “Before unveiling it, I need to keep refining it.”

Perfectionism, at its best, drives us towards excellence, ensuring top performance and high quality. However, when taken to extremes, it can lead us to believe that our current project will never meet the mark. Consumed by insecurity and fear, we find ourselves trapped in a cycle of endless refinement, striving to reach an unattainable standard—a bar set too high. This can lead us to career self-sabotage by never taking the leap. 

7) “I feel like a fraud. I’ve never done exactly that.”

“I lack the years of experience required for the position. I don’t have specific training. My knowledge of the subject is not enough. I’m not specialized in that area. What if I start and they realize I don’t know?” According to American psychologist Tara Brach, impostor syndrome is related to fear of failure. Rooted in the reptilian brain, our most primal region, it drives us to avoid pain, rejection, and disappointing others.

8) “I don’t have the same facilities to achieve it as that person.”

Humans learn through observation and often compare themselves to others to adapt and grow. However, this constant comparison can sometimes harm our delicate self-esteem, making us believe that the conditions aren’t suitable for us to attempt something. Alternatively, we can view successful individuals as sources of inspiration; guiding lights to propel us forward on our own journey. While some may have more resources or advantages than us, and vice versa, it’s likely that we possess numerous privileges compared to others.

Our consciousness unfolds like the intricate folds of origami, revealing itself piece by piece. Recognizing and overcoming these barriers that lead to self-sabotage demands time and, most importantly, action. “We never know how high we are till we are called to rise,” as American poet Emily Dickinson eloquently put it. Life beckons us to rise. What does standing up mean to you? What permission do you like to grant yourself in your professional journey? How can you carry the torch forward for future generations? Our mission is to abandon concealment, to emerge from the microcosm we’ve constructed under the guise of control, and to embrace the delightful (and at times daunting) facets of growth. The prospect of leading more authentic, expressive, fulfilling, and impactful lives awaits, ready for us to take those initial strides. Are you prepared for your expansion?

Recognize any of these self-sabotage mindsets in yourself? Shiftbalance is dedicated to shifting the balance across the board. Check out our Leadership Coaching in particular if you are looking to take the next step in your career! 

About the author: 

A picture of the author smiling at the camera with greenery in the background

Maite Moreno Ugartemendia, an Argentine mentor with a human rights-based approach, specializes in guiding individuals through professional identity crises. She utilizes nature-inspired tools to help them clarify their career paths.

Contact information: [email protected]