How to stop holding yourself back and make it happen

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“You’re not good enough”

career coaching, career counseling, dream job, job you love


“You should keep quiet”

“What a stupid thing to say, you idiot”

“You can’t do that”

That voice in our head has a spectacular talent for running us down.

Our gremlins cast judgment (usually negative) on the past, influence what we do (or don’t do) in the present, and poor cold water over future plans. The have a huge impact on the quality of life we lead.

Dealing with our gremlins is a vital part of any Mental Spring Cleaning.

A friend of mine was telling me about their inability to ask for a promotion at work.

She felt she was totally outperforming their peers, had great feedback from her line manager and had surpassed every goal she had set.  Yet when it came to pulling the trigger and asking, a voice in her head kicked in saying “who are you to ask for a promotion – you don’t deserve it”.

My friend described feeling paralyzed by the strength of this thought and found an excuse to run away without broaching the subject.  Afterwards, she was furious with herself for “bottling it”.

We tried to figure out how this gremlin came about in the first place. Gremlins almost always come from childhood experiences where we create defence mechanisms to protect ourselves.

My friend recalled asking a teacher in primary school for permission to join the school choir and being told “No – you haven’t worked hard enough on your singing”.  Even now she recalled the sick feeling in her stomach that day.

Her gremlin formed to protect her from that feeling, and since then she has always struggled to ask others, particularly in authority for what she wants. On reflection, she recalled many times when she held back from asking for something and told herself “you don’t deserve this”.

Creating these protection mechanisms takes a lot of hard work. We use a lot of mental bandwidth once the emergency red light comes on and a gremlin kicks in.  My friend felt exhausted for the rest of the day – probably because she had used her adrenaline rush for flight rather than fight.

Many of our gremlins are no longer useful to us in adult life. My friend’s gremlin worked well when she was a little girl, but now it was a serious pain in her backside, holding her back from being successful.

6 Steps to bust that gremlin!

If you have a voice in your head that is holding you back, this is a powerful technique to move on. I used it with my friend and it has helped countless coaching clients:

  1. Identify the gremlin you face (how does it manifest and what does it say to you) and give it a name
  2. Understand the gremlin’s purpose and history. Think back through your past to the first time the gremlin appeared.  What was its’ purpose back then (usually protecting you in some way).
  3. Acknowledge the gremlin and thank it for helping out.  Let the gremlin know that it is no longer needed for this purpose.  Tell yourself that you can handle things from now on.
  4. Identify your new approach – how would you like to act differently in the next situation where the gremlin might arise (e.g. for my friend she would like to confidently ask for what she wants)
  5. Ask the gremlin to help out – the gremlin can provide a lot of energy to the new approach.  Ask the gremlin to help you act differently next time.
  6. Set a goal – identify the first time that this energy can help you out and what outcome you’d like.  In my friend’s case she set the goal to go back to her boss and this time she asked for and got promoted.

Over to you

Answer the following questions:

  • What gremlins do you have?
  • When do they appear for you?
  • How do they hold you back?
  • Which gremlin would you like to change the most?

Try the gremlin buster and set yourself a goal.  Leave a comment on what you are hoping to change and email me if you’d like support in this Spring Cleaning activity.

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Photo Credit – Inti (Flickr Creative Commons)

Related posts:

  1. Stop taking life too seriously – 5 ways to enjoy the journey
  2. Make 2010 your Best Year Yet – Six Steps to Lasting Change
  3. Spring Clean your Mind
  4. How to Make a Living doing what you Love


  1. Phil
    April 15, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    My gremlin told me that I wasn’t good enough – now it tells me that everything is possible. What does your gremlin tell you and how will you change it?

  2. April 15, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    My gremlin tells me it’s safer to stay an employee than to start my own business. And yet there’s no safety in being employed, it just puts the control in someone else’s hands. I’m in the process of starting a business so I’ll try your steps and let you know how I go!
    .-= Topi´s last blog ..Accountability =-.

  3. Mark Williamson
    April 15, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Great article – not only for me as an individual but also as a parent. No need to create unnecessary gremlins for my kids!

  4. April 15, 2010 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Hi Phil,

    Thought I left a comment earlier. Must be my gremlin!

    I’ve done a lot of gremlin work over the years. My gremlin used to scream at me to be quiet! to not speak up! to obey! Yet when I was a child I was loud, spoke up and didn’t obey.

    Basically, I undid the damage done to me from late childhood onward. If I feel the gremlin starting to speak I do the opposite of whatever she tells me. I know from experience that she wants me to stay small and live a boring, safe life.

    No way!

    Thx. Giulietta
    .-= Giulietta the Muse´s last blog ..Attempt The Impossible =-.

  5. April 16, 2010 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    Hi Phil – You know that book, Taming Your Gremlin? I read it about five years ago and something he said stopped me in my tracks and has stayed with me ever since: “you will never have all your ducks in a row.” That was my gremlin ah ha moment. My dear little companion was working hard behind the scenes to take care of me by insisting that I had all my ducks in a row, ALL the time. She still shows up occasionally, but she understands now that life doesn’t work that way. And to you she says: thanks for writing about me!
    .-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..What Did You Love As a Child? =-.

  6. April 16, 2010 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Hi Phil,

    My gremlin asks this condescending question: “What’s the point of this little project?” I hear this question when I set out to do something (starting to write a book, pursuing a new hobby, etc.) that I’m excited about but isn’t a requirement in any part of my life. I’m learning to quiet it with a counter question: “Does there have to be one?”

    Thanks for the nudge, coach.

  7. April 16, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Hi Phil – great stuff. As a career coach too, another couple of questions I regularly ask when busting limiting beliefs is “What is this belief/gremlin costing you on a daily basis?” and “What would happen if you were to let go of your gremlin?” Often our gremlins are so ingrained as habits that we don’t stop to think that we could simply decide to let them go.

    Have a great day,

  8. April 16, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Hi Phil,
    It seems that everyone identifies with a counterfeit version of himself or herself to a greater or lesser degree. We begin inventing this artificial version of ourselves in childhood moments of fear and embarrassment. Our intuitive sense of unlimitedness began teetering as we encountered 60,000 NO’s (between age two and sixteen)these Gremlins crept in: No, don’t do that – how stupid! No, oh god – now look what you’ve done! … No, stop that – what’s wrong with you! … ad infinitum. To the degree that we took these NO’s personally, we buried our authentic selves deep in our consciousness. I developed a ‘quick to anger’ personality from my childhood with many years of deep reflecting and understanding I was able to transmute it into a habit that supports me. I learned to become a leader with a commanding presence and had many subsequent successes in the business world.
    .-= rob white´s last blog ..What’s Cooking Inside of You? =-.

  9. Phil
    April 16, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    @Topi – don’t listen to your demon – follow your dream and go for it. I did the same thing 18 months ago and it is the best decision I’ve made. Let me know if you’d like to connect and talk it through. Take care!

    @Mark – very true. Children are very sensitive and can develop gremlins easily. Trying to avoid being the author of your children’s gremlins is admirable, although remember that almost everyone will need to protect themselves at some point, and these energy forces can be positive and helpful too.

    @Giulietta – you must be kicking that gremlin’s butt – small, quiet life? That is the total opposite of you… keep rocking the free world!

    @Patty – having all your ducks in a row. A secret perfectionist! These gremlins are seriously tough task masters aren’t they? I know that one of mine is constantly pushing me to be better and whatever I do its never enough. The way past it is just to laugh about it for me. Sounds like your gremlin has learned that sometimes good enough is more than good enough…

    @Belinda – wow, your gremlin has some serious angst. I think you have a great question to ask back. Perhaps you can train your gremlin to say “what an exciting project – let’s get started!!”

    @Susan – great to hear from another coach. That is an excellent question and gets to acknowledging that this is no longer working for someone. I know my gremlins could easily cost me a huge amount if I let them – I’d probably never do anything at all! Take care and come back soon!

    @Rob – 60,000 nos. That sounds like an underestimate to me. It is true that gremlins often hide our authentic self from cirticism, abuse and rejection. They were a strong and powerful defense and shouldn’t just be banished. They represent our spirit and energy and if you can redirect them they can provide untold boosts when we need them. Thanks for your comment.

  10. April 16, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    My gremlin says Tess you’re an impossible mess. It’ll never work! Not to worry though after making friends we came up with a new plan.
    Isn’t life grand?

  11. April 18, 2010 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    So that’s the little voice I have been trying to drown? :) ! Thank you for posting on this topic, Phil. It’s important to recognize when the gremlin is in the right – sometimes we may not be ready for that big step, we may need to prepare more, we may need more time – but there is no time in this world that we need to feel stupid or inadequate, regardless of the process in question. So yes, hush the gremlin and follow that heart!

  12. April 18, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    gremlins. I like the name. and I like your approach to dealing with them Phil. It is sometimes hard to remember when the gremlin appeared first. In those case I think just being conscious about it helps to let it go. Great post and great steps to follow.

  13. April 19, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Hello Phil,
    That gremlin is like the little hater insider our head. But what I have found that the more I focus on the present moment and the task at hand, the lesser that voice gets. I think operating from our higher selves is what it takes to continue on our path in a manner that works best for us. Excellent post!

  14. Phil
    April 20, 2010 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    @Tess – i love that you made a deal with your gremlin. They can be friendly as well as unhelpful. Hope you have fun together….

    @Farnoosh – that voice isn’t always a bad thing for us to hear. It can sometimes protect us and help us to move forward when it comes from an authentic place. That is when we are speaking from the heart.

    @Lana – My pleasure. These gremlins are deep seated and it takes time to change their energy. With patience and kindness we can get things moving differently.

  15. Phil
    April 20, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    @Baker – I agree with you that we can find our authentic self. Then the voice in our head is a strong force pushing us forward to create something amazing. It can bring reassurance when times are hard and direction when we feel lost. Keep moving forward Baker and thanks for the compliment.

  16. Tina
    April 21, 2010 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    Great article! You can overcome those gremlins!

  17. April 29, 2010 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    good stuff Phil! definitely needed to read this today. I think understanding what we want to do and what is holding back are definitely the most important steps in any endeavor.

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    [...] I’ve written before about the voices we get in our head that tell us we can’t do somethi…, that we’re not good enough, that we shouldn’t even bother trying. [...]

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