Self-handicapping Behavior – Pressing the self-destruct button

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Self-handicapping behavior and fear of failure to some of us are associated with feelings far more damaging than disappointment and frustration, such as embarrassment and shame. As a result, the prospect of failure can be so terrifying that we unconsciously lower our expectations for success. While lowering expectations may appear to be a reasonable approach, the manner in which we do so can result in us unwittingly sabotaging ourselves and others.

Self-handicapping behavior

Brinda, a woman in her late thirties with whom I once worked, had taken a ten-year break from her career in HR to raise two young children. Brinda and her husband decided it was time for her to return to work when her youngest child started kindergarten. Brinda quickly used her network to secure job interviews at four different companies. Despite her insider status and impressive credentials, none of them contacted her for a follow-up interview.

Brinda was deeply embarrassed by her failure, not to mention perplexed. Although she thought she had done her best, it soon became clear that her fear of failure had led her to unconsciously sabotage one opportunity after another. Or, more accurately, it became clear to me quickly. Brinda, on the other hand, was certain she had done everything possible to succeed.

“Look,” Brinda explained, “I understand why the first company turned me down.” “I didn’t have time to research it before the interview because my daughter had a big athletic event, and I promised to bake some cake for the school team.”

Brinda’s account of the second interview revealed an equally unconvincing narrative. “My mom called the night before and I got stuck on the phone with her for three hours. She was upset about my brother and his wife heading for break up, and I felt bad about cutting her off.”

“Well, what happened there was my nails were a mess and I thought I’d have time to do a quick mani-pedi before the interview, but I misjudged the time and got there half an hour late,” Brinda explained of the third interview. Perhaps forty-five minutes. Regardless, they refused to see me. “Are you kidding me?” I could certainly believe it, but I politely declined to nod.

Brinda went on to say that a severe migraine headache had kept her awake the night before her fourth interview. “I was completely exhausted!” “Can you believe I forgot to bring a copy of my resume?” I’m sure I’ll laugh about it later.” I doubted Brinda would find the situation amusing, but I held my tongue once more.

Most people who heard Brinda’s story would recognize an obvious pattern of excuses, avoidance, and self-sabotaging behavior that would almost certainly lead to failure. Brinda, on the other hand, was completely unaware. Her subconscious mind understood that by blaming obstacles for any potential failures, she could avoid the shame and embarrassment she feared.

Fear of failure drives many of us to engage in self-handicapping behaviors in which we exaggerate or create impediments to success without even realizing it.

Indeed, in order to have something to blame for our failure, we are often extremely creative in the self-handicapping devices we construct.

Many of us procrastinate and “run out of time” before a big test. We might go out with friends and drink too much the night before a big presentation, or we might sleep too little. We might leave our study materials at a friend’s house or on the subway. We might forget to pack the baking tray for the city-fair baking contest, or we might arrive at the marathon with only our left sneaker. And, as Brinda demonstrates, we can create an infinite number of physical ailments.

If we succeed despite these setbacks, we can give ourselves extra credit for succeeding when the odds were stacked against us.

Self-handicapping, of course, rarely leads to success. Furthermore, such strategies prevent us from accurately examining our failures and drawing useful conclusions about what we should change or do differently in the future.

Even when someone else points it out, the unconscious nature of self-handicapping can make us miss it.

Brinda was initially convinced that all of her excuses were valid and that her failure was the result of events over which she had no control. When I suggested otherwise, she replied, “You don’t expect me to break a promise to my daughter, do you?”

When we fail repeatedly or respond to failures in ways that undermine our confidence, self-esteem, and chances of future success, we risk turning our emotional cold into psychological pneumonia.

Because much of the anxiety associated with failures can compound, it is best to be cautious and seek help as soon as possible after significant or bothersome failures occur.

Which one of the following self-handicapping behaviors do you think affects people the most?

  1. Procrastinating
  2. Brooding
  3. Excusing
  4. Blaming

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