• Hit show RuPaul's Drag Race is currently airing its second season in the UK

  • Therapist Emily Hilton reflects on themes of self-sabotage, negative self-talk, and the need for self-compassion that the show encourages

One of the great characteristics of television is its capacity to bring stories to a mass audience. Through this story-telling, we often see aspects of ourselves reflected back to us, sparking fresh insight into our own experiences. Therefore, television can play an important part in therapy – and one show currently doing just that, is Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

With the second series of the UK edition of Drag Race currently airing on BBC3, it seems that the cultural juggernaut has sashayed its way onto everyone’s screens. It brings with it a great deal of heart, and plenty of emotional heft lies beneath its rhinestone-studded surface. Drag Race is known for taking its competitors on an emotional journey, navigated by reliance on their cheek, nerve, gall, audacity and gumption. The arc that this journey follows mirrors that often seen in the therapeutic journey: the queens begin defensive, isolated, and insecure; they become open, connected to their fellow queens, and assured of their sense of worth and value.

As there is so much to engage with in Drag Race, it’s perhaps not surprising that it is now making frequent appearances in the therapy room. Drag Race discussions in therapy may be inspired by individual queens’ stories; topics the queens talk through together (such as non-binary identities, as recently touched on in the UK Drag Race); or ideas that Ru Paul himself explores with the queens. In the latter instance, there’s one piece of Ru Paul ideology particularly striking a chord at the moment: that of the Inner Saboteur.

Do you have an Inner Saboteur?

So, whether it’s in the Werk Room or the therapy room, what do we mean when we’re talking about the Inner Saboteur? As Ru Paul describes it, the Saboteur is the critical part of ourselves that ‘tells us we can’t do it, or that we’re not good enough’. It’s the voice in our head that ‘oozes negativity’, standing between us and what we’re aiming for. It can hinder our relationships with others, by leaving us feeling distrustful or undeserving of them. In Ru Paul’s telling, the Saboteur wants to destroy us.

It could be said that the queens’ aforementioned emotional journey depends on them changing their relationship with their Saboteur. The question in the therapy room is: how can we replicate that journey, and change our relationship with our own Saboteur?

Getting to know your inner critic

Relating to our Saboteur might feel like the last thing that we’d want to do, as what it says can be very painful to hear. However, as much as we may want to avoid the Saboteur, it is still a part of us. Although the Saboteur may sound cold and clinical, I would argue that it is packed full of raw, unfiltered emotion: the way it speaks to us gives a voice to our undiluted fear, anger, grief, sadness. Many of us can struggle to respond to our emotions – we often react to them with dismissal, judgement or criticism. Therefore, it’s easy to demonise a part of ourselves that seems to be purely emotion. An important step towards changing the relationship with our Saboteur may simply be humanising it.

If we envisage the Saboteur as an emotional epicentre, perhaps the question of how to improve our relationship with it broadens into a question of how to improve our relationship with our own emotions. Recognising and responding to our emotions is a skill that we develop over time – a skill that requires sensitivity, compassion and patience. 

To illustrate how we put this skill into practice – and the impact of doing so (in)effectively – perhaps we can imagine a scenario of speaking to a child who’s just had a nightmare. When that child tells us that they’re scared, how might we respond? Does it help to tell the child that what they’re scared of isn’t real, to just go back to bed and stop being silly? Or is the way to soothe the fear by listening to what the child is saying, validating their emotional response, and assuring them that you’re here and that they are safe? When the Saboteur brings voice to our emotions, we need to respond to ourselves as we would to the child: not dismissing, not judging; but with empathy, kindness and reassurance.

It can be tempting to see the Saboteur as something monstrous, because that allows us to disown a part of ourselves that we may not feel comfortable accepting. However, I don’t agree with Ru that the Saboteur is a dark part of us bent on self-destruction: I believe that we are always geared towards self-protection, but that sometimes we can get our wires crossed on how to go about protecting ourselves. By using its critical voice, the Saboteur is trying to protect us from pain – it’s trying to scare us away from pushing ourselves, because pushing ourselves brings the risk of failure or rejection. 

It’s very human and very much OK to be scared of these things – and if we can accept that fear with kindness and compassion, there’s no need for the Saboteur to try to protect us from it. In treating our emotions kindly, we are treating ourselves kindly; in showing ourselves we are worthy of acceptance and kindness, we can receive it from others too – allowing us to move towards openness, connectedness, and security.

So, to paraphrase another Drag Race tenet: if you can’t love your Inner Saboteur, how in the hell are you going to love yourself?

Now, let the music play!

Emily Hilton is a verified psychotherapist in London and online

Further reading

How to nurture more self-compassion

How negative self-talk can damage our relationships

3 steps to challenge your limiting self-beliefs

Tame your inner critic and build your confidence

Making space for anger in our emotional experience