Who’s running the show? You or your Gremlins?

Tell me… what do you call that part of yourself that holds you in status quo? Gremlin, Saboteur, Inner Critic, Personal Demon…

Whatever you call it, we all have those inner voices, impulses, or reactions that hold us back. I usually call mine Gremlins or Saboteurs. Through my journey, and through coaching others, I know that many of us struggle to even identify what we truly want because our inner Gremlin is so strong that it stops us from even exploring the possibility of something different!

For this reason, I approach Gremlins in coaching new clients very early on. When it comes to discovering what you want, what matters to you, what fuels you, what you truly value… The Saboteurs are always there, scrambling to put up defenses. Like trolls guarding a bridge, we need to confront them first before we can progress forward.

What are Saboteurs or Gremlins?

A gremlin statue Gremlins aren’t evil. They’re protective. They originate in childhood, often to keep us safe from things we don’t yet understand. When something feels scary, confusing, uncertain, uncomfortable or embarrassing, our Gremlin springs into action to protect us. Some people even think of their Gremlin as their inner Warrior because of this role.

Your Gremlin is usually activated by your fight or flight response. But, did you know there’s more than fight and flight? It’s actually fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Here’s what they can look like:

  • Fight: Fight feels like you have to actively protect yourself or your perspective from others. Like the Persecutor in the triangle of disempowerment, you become inflexible, may raise your voice, or take a “my way or the highway” approach. Other ideas or points of view feel like an attack and you need to be ready.
  • Flight: Flight isn’t always literally running away. Instead, you may try to change the subject instead of voicing your opinion. You may avoid certain topics or people. You may shut down when you feel uncomfortable, get overly anxious, or lean into perfectionism in an attempt to avoid mistakes.
  • Freeze: Freeze is feeling stuck. Every route looks scary, impossible or not open to you because of XYZ or ABC. You are frozen. You can’t take a single step in any direction.
  • Fawn: Fawn is the people pleaser. You will stay safe by keeping everyone else happy and calm. You give into demands even when you’re overstretched or those demands are against your values. You minimize your own experience to tend to the experiences of others. You feel responsible for keeping the peace.

All of these are our Saboteurs working to protect us. It’s very common for them to be “on guard” even when there is no real threat, which can be confusing and even more limiting. When experiencing these responses, we may ask ourselves:

  • “What’s wrong with me?”
  • “Why can’t I just do what I know I need to do?”
  • “Why does everyone else seem to have it together?”
  • “Why do I keep doing the same things over and over again?”
  • “Why am I such a pushover?”
  • “Why do I get so angry?”
  • “Why am I so afraid?”
  • “Why didn’t I speak up?”
  • “Why am I putting other people’s happiness before my own?”
  • “Why do I fear other people’s reactions?”
  • “Why, why, why???”

The answer is that your Gremlin has been occupying your CEO seat. It is constantly on the lookout for possible threats and, if something inside you is tuned into threats at all times, guess what it’ll find? Further, if that part of you has been your dominant inner voice for most of your life, guess what you’ll believe reality to be?

A girl standing next to a brick wall thinking

Why Do We Still Have Gremlins as Adults?

If you were lucky enough in childhood and/or early adulthood to learn to tame your Gremlins, you would likely grow into the world able to view the circumstances around you from a place of curiosity and possibility.

However, so many of us don’t learn this. Maybe you had a difficult childhood. Or a perfectly happy childhood, but parenting ideas were simply different at the time.

Alternatively, maybe letting your Gremlin lead actually worked for you for a really long time! You may have worked or lived in an environment where you needed your Gremlin to keep you safe, or where a Gremlin-led approach gave the appearance of success.

Most significantly, if you’ve carried a Gremlin-led mindset into adulthood, there’s a good chance you believe that your Gremlin’s perspective is just how the world is. In that case, it’s worth taking some time to explore some of your mental models and how they’ve been leading you.


How to Control Your Inner Gremlins

All of us have Gremlins and it’s important to tame them so that they have less and less power over us. When it comes to managing your Gremlin or Saboteur, it helps to view it as a separate entity with its own personality.

What is a Saboteur personality? We’ve reviewed the four types of trauma responses that can be triggering your Gremlin, but what behaviour is actually being triggered? That behaviour is your Gremlin’s personality. It’s the thoughts, beliefs, habits and patterns that your Saboteur brings up within you.

It’s only when you have a clear picture of who your Saboteur is that you move on to managing your Gremlin, which is much the same way you would manage any other relationship: with compassion and courage.

Here are 8 steps to getting control of your Saboteur:

Step 1: Identify your Saboteur’s personality

There are 10 dominant personality types for Saboteurs and identifying yours is, thankfully, pretty easy. Get yourself into full honesty mode and take this free assessment from Positive Intelligence and you’ll have your answer.

In addition to identifying your Saboteur’s personality type, the assessment will also give you a full description, as well as an assessment of how your Saboteur scores on the other 9 types. Just like us, Saboteurs can have complex personalities and to know your inner Saboteurs is to tame them.

Step 2: Name your Saboteur

Yes, give it a name! It’s a small, but powerful, mental trick that helps you separate your limiting thoughts and beliefs from your true self; to see them as a circumstance, rather than part of your identity. Give it an image as well. What does it look like? Maybe it’s a fictional character, an animal, or something completely imagined. When you can put a face to your Gremlin, it helps you to more easily identify them when they come up.

Gremlins are masters of disguise. For years, your Gremlin has disguised itself as YOU, tricking you into believing that its voice is the real you. When you start visualizing it as something (or someone) else, the disguise falls away. Aim for a name and image that really resonates with you. If it helps, you can use the personality traits from the Positive Intelligence assessment as inspiration.

In this example, let’s name our Saboteur “Jaws”. Like a massive shark terrorizing beach goers, our inner Jaws is holding us back from revelling in the joy that life has to offer!

Step 3: Befriend your Gremlin

Befriending Gremlins is about taking away their power AND about having compassion for that part of yourself that – while it is no longer serving you – is truly just trying to protect you.

By seeing your Gremlin as a friend in need of your compassion, you can stop that “what’s wrong with me” inner criticism that really just makes everything harder to do.

Let’s use our Jaws example and visualize our Saboteur friend’s situation. Maybe Jaws is just an innocent being trying to protect its home from frightening strangers. What might you say to this friend? Maybe you’d say something like, “It’s ok. You’ve done a really good job of keeping dangerous people away, but I’ve got this now. You can rest.”

Your Gremlin has served you in some way up to this point. Thank them for where you are because of them, or for what they’ve done for you in the past. Every level you move up demands a different version of you, and you can only move up once you’ve tamed your Gremlin. Befriending them – recognizing their contribution – is part of taming them.

Who is your Gremlin friend and what is their situation? What can you say to your friend to let them know you love them and appreciate their intention, but you’ve got this now and they can relax? Facing your Gremlin doesn’t have to be confrontational. It can be compassionate.

If you want to dive deeper into this technique, there’s an excellent book by Rick Carson that I highly recommend.

Step 4: Visualize sending them off

When I first started to notice my Gremlins, I was afraid and would visualize sending them into burning lava. I didn’t like how they had been holding me back and I just wanted them gone.

As I began to understand them better, I realized that may have been a bit cruel. They were just trying to protect me, after all. So instead, I started visualizing sending them to Peru with the shamans, and would tell them to go get some enlightenment. Once, when I was going through a particularly rough time, a coaching colleague sent me a drawing of Gremlins on a bus, being driven off to a place far, far north of me.

Start from where you are and visualize sending off your Gremlin (or Gremlins) in whatever way feels right to you, from where you are today.

Step 5: Start tuning into your true voice

Remember how I said your Saboteur has been disguising itself as you? Well, now that you’ve quieted its voice, it’s time to tune into your authentic voice – the real you that’s been drowned out by your Gremlin.

Tune into your highest voice – the CEO part of you – your Captain. Your Captain is the part of you that is fearless and relentless in pursuit of the very best for you. It is the part of you that loves you completely and unconditionally, and no matter what happens, will hold you with gentleness and infinite compassion.

Start by asking yourself some powerful questions, such as:

  • What do I know to be true?
  • What does “Jaws” have to say about this?
  • What is the flip side of that? (When it comes to your Saboteur, what they tell you is usually in response to your true inner voice trying to speak up. When you look behind your Saboteur’s message, you often find… you.)
  • If I remove “Jaws” from the equation, what becomes possible?
  • If anything at all were possible, what would my best possible outcome look like?
  • What step can I take right now that aligns with my best possible outcome?

To know your inner Saboteurs gives you a powerful tool in knowing yourself. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and the gang only got to the truth once they noticed the curtain. Pull back that curtain – unmask your Saboteur – and you’ll find your truth.

Step 6: Visualize possible outcomes – especially the bad ones

Am I really asking you to visualize bad things? Yes, but not to dwell on them. Just to explore them so that you can take their power away.

I remember being a kid and feeling terrified of a friend’s basement. The problem was, the light switch was AT THE BOTTOM of the stairs!! You had to descend into the creepy darkness before you could turn on the light and see that there was nothing to fear.

Let’s say a part of you really wants to get out of your current job and try something more exciting, but your Saboteur stops you from even considering it. Your Saboteur is afraid of the dark! What can you do? You can shine a light!

Descend into that darkness and flip the switch. Let your mind explore every corner of that basement, imagining possible outcomes, including your “worst case scenario”.

The unknown is scary and fear triggers our Saboteurs. Which means, the antidote is to make things known. Take the power away from fear by visualizing, fully, all of the possible outcomes.

Step 7: Take a step

Of all the ways to tame your Saboteur, taking a real step forward is one of the most transforming. The more you move towards what you truly want, the more your inner Gremlin will naturally calm itself and step back.

Ask yourself, “What step can I take, right now, to start moving in the right direction for me?” You don’t need to know every step that will follow just yet. That’s your Saboteur talking. Just take one step. Then another.

Step 8: Keep it up

Following these steps will shift your relationship with your Gremlin, but our Gremlins never disappear entirely. After all, they do serve a real purpose.

As you move forward, your Gremlin may crop up again from time to time. That’s totally normal. Just be prepared to recognize it for what it is, and remember these steps for getting in control of your path. Gremlins show up when you are stepping out of your comfort zone, so them showing up is a good sign. It means you are intending to take some brave steps towards something meaningful for you.

Ask yourself, “How do I know if I am self sabotaging?” Go back to the description of your Saboteur’s dominant personality and make a list of all the behaviours you identified with. When your Gremlin crops up and you’re wondering if it really is your Gremlin, or if it’s your true self sending you an important message, use that list to get clarity. Ask yourself things like, “What is the fear that’s coming up? Is it rooted in fact or is it an old belief coming up? Is this voice helping me stay on my path, or trying to guide me into old patterns?”

Once you tame a Gremlin, it can get creative and try to come back in different ways or with different disguises. This is why it’s so important to always question self-limiting thoughts when they come up. Where are those thoughts coming from? Who do they belong to?

We all have a Gremlin(s) or Saboteur(s) within us (yes, many of us have more than one). The difference between someone who can move forward with ease, and someone who feels stuck in status quo, is how much awareness and control they have over their Gremlin. The empowering truth is that taming your Gremlin is a learned skill. That means, no matter how loud or strong your Saboteur may seem, you can get yourself back into your CEO seat.

Some of my clients have even tamed their Gremlins as a team exercise. They’ve shared their Gremlins with each other and committed to calling them out (with kindness) when they show up. It’s a really powerful trust building practice that I have been honoured to help facilitate.

If you would like guidance in facing your Gremlin, taking away its power and handing the megaphone to your true self, I invite you to connect with me.