“My relationships never seem to work out, no one ever wants to commit to me”.
“I can never get to the gym, I’m always just too busy”.
“I feel like I just can’t get ahead in my finances, something always comes up”.
“What’s the point of starting my assignment so early? I work better under pressure”.
I’m sure you’ve probably heard every single one of these from your friends, family, and you’re probably guilty of a couple yourself. They’re so typical that we don’t even give it a second thought when we’re saying them, because “that’s just life”, right? Well, in one sense you could think of it that way, because it’s an incredibly widespread problem. Most people don’t realise that all of those statements represent different symptoms of a single cause. You’ve probably already noticed something about most of them — they’re all said in a passive voice. It is as though the universe itself is conspiring to stop them getting what they want.
Take a look at that last one though, it’s different. It doesn’t have the same “woe is me tone”, yet it’s the exact same psychological principle at work.
A few years ago, I was marking the work of a number of colleagues who were doing their bachelor degrees. They went with the “leave it until the last minute method”, and I’d ask each of them why. All of them said they worked better under pressure. I’d then have to hit them with the truth:
“You don’t work better under pressure. Look at all the red pen on the page, your work stinks, and it looks like it was written by someone who was drunk.”
That isn’t an exaggeration, I’d get it out of them pretty quickly that they wrote it between the hours of 11pm and 3am. I called one of them out on it one day. I said to him “you don’t work better under pressure, you just won’t put in real effort because you’re scared you won’t get as high a mark as you expect”. His face said it all — I’d laid him bare in a single sentence. He was good enough to admit it too, because most people won’t. Most people will continue with the lie of “I work better under pressure” and will put themselves under enormous stress every single time, instead of planning ahead and giving it their best shot.
Why do people do this? Why do people leave it until the last minute when they know exactly how things are going to go every time?
It’s because it gives them an excuse. To use the psychological term, what they are doing is self handicapping. It’s a self destructive behaviour wherein people will either erect barriers to success (in the above case, by leaving work until the last minute so they can’t do their best), or they will claim that there are barriers because it allows us to save face and our self esteem.
Think about it. You put every obstacle in your way and when you finally complete your task, (whether it be a work assignment, college essay or even your gym program) if the result is anything but catastrophic you can say “well, considering x and y, I think I did pretty well”. If it is catastrophic, you now have an excuse for it being catastrophic. It’s a win win — you put a minimal emotional investment in so when things go poorly, you don’t have to feel horrible about it. In this way, it also reduces anxiety about the outcome — when you have one or more excuses for why something isn’t going to go well, you don’t have to feel nervous about performing below your best.
People do this in all areas of life, even those they don’t necessarily believe they have a goal for, such as their intimate relationships. They’ll make it as hard as possible for a potential partner to be with them, they’ll start fights from the smallest issues, they’ll project their personal insecurities and emotional baggage, and then when the relationship inevitably falls apart they’ll blame the other person, saying something like “they obviously didn’t want to commit to me anyway”. The problem with self handicapping is that most people don’t even realise they are doing it, and will constantly complain to their friends that they “can’t find a nice guy”. Meanwhile, the long suffering friend continues to roll their eyes each time it happens, knowing that their friend’s behaviour is the reason things aren’t working out, not something as mysterious as fate.
The busy person who tries to make a change and go to the gym self handicaps as well. They’ll always miss the gym because “something came up at work” — but the reality is that it could have been left until tomorrow. Maybe they left just a little bit too late, knowing at the back of their mind it would torpedo their chance of making it to the gym on time. They like the idea of going to the gym and becoming one of those buff people, but they somehow manage to always find a reason that they can’t go. At the end of the year they’ll lament the fact that once again, work and life was just too busy to get to the gym, when the entire time they were sabotaging their own efforts.
That’s the thing about self handicapping — we usually don’t know that we’re doing it. I’ve been guilty of it in the past, and pretty much everyone has done it at some point in their lives. Some will learn from it and not make the mistake again, while many others will do it for years and in multiple areas of their lives. It’s actually a very difficult habit to break out of, because unless a person is very self aware they won’t see that they are doing it. Often when friends point out that it’s happening, the self handicapper will become defensive and go into denial.
It’s easy to figure out why people self handicap — it can be soul crushing when you put your all into something and it doesn’t go well. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a relationship, an essay, a task at work, or training for a big competition. Not only is there the personal disappointment of feeling like a failure, we also tend to catastrophise the event in the minds of others. We assume that the people who know about it are laughing behind our backs, that they are disappointed with us, that they now think less of us. Nothing could be further from the truth, because the comforting fact is that in general, no one cares.
Self handicapping can have other reasons beyond the protection of self esteem. In relationships, for example, the self handicapping can come into play because that pattern of behaviour was internalised as a child watching other people’s relationships. In the case of the athlete who self handicaps, it could be because they don’t actually want to succeed in their sport as they’ve been pushed into it by their parents. There are dozens of reasons like this, all to do with invisible psychological scripts that we’ve picked up throughout our lives.
Going back to self handicapping as a way to preserve self esteem, how widespread it is tells us a lot about the state of society right now. We want the outcome of our efforts to be perfect not just for ourselves, but for our appearance in the eyes of people who either don’t matter, or who will love us regardless. We complain that we’re being held back, that we can’t seem to get ahead and things never seem to work out. The narrative we build in our heads is so strong, and it’s comforting because it ignores the truth.
The truth is that no one needs to hold you back, because you’re doing it all by yourself. Why are you so afraid to fail, why are you so afraid to feel disappointed that something you invested a lot in didn’t work out? It’s because the happiness and accomplishment you’ll feel if you succeed is outweighed by the fear of how horrible you think you’ll feel if they don’t. So rather than putting all of your effort in and committing, with either of those extremes a possibility, you instead put barriers up and take both of them off the table. Sure, you won’t get to feel the high of success, but you don’t have to risk the low of failure either.
The underlying cause of this perspective is how we see success and failure. We see success as something so glorious, so amazing and triumphant that to actually taste it is only for people like Elon Musk or our favourite sports star. On the other hand we see failure as something so total and devastating, something that will devalue us in the eyes of our friends and loved ones that it’s too horrible to contemplate. We don’t consider the fact that those are the extremes, and there are is a huge area in between that we are more likely to end up in.
An important part of not falling into such a perspective of success and failure is learning to manage our expectations when we emotionally invest in an outcome. Too often, people will give their all for something and because they do that, they expect the best outcome as a matter of course. Naturally when this doesn’t happen, they are devastated because it’s a double blow of failure and expectations that weren’t met. When a chance to do something comes up again, they are often too scared to commit themselves because the scars from last time run too deep.
In order to manage our expectations, it’s worthwhile taking the stance common in stoic philosophy of “cheerful pessimism”. In this case, we devote ourselves to an objective or outcome, but at the same time temper our effort with the realisation that it may not work out exactly as we wished or planned. We may fall significantly short of where we wanted to be or worse, fail almost completely. If we take the stoic mindset, however, that we will learn everything we can regardless of the outcome, all is not lost. Such an attitude allows us to go after something with everything we have, without self handicapping, with our mind simultaneously prepared for the fact that we may fail to hit the mark that we were aiming for.
Such a mindset not only prevents psychological devastation, it keeps us open to possibility. No endeavour can be done perfectly — there are always mistakes made, factors unforeseen and variables we fail to consider. When we invest all our hope in a perfect outcome, we are so devastated by the failure that our mind can’t see all of the learning opportunities because it’s too busy processing the tidal wave of negative emotion. When we take the mental position of cheerful pessimism, however, our mind remains open, enabling us to see the mistakes we’ve made and how and we can do better the next time. Success in any part of life is very rarely about the big win, it’s a case of constant effort, learning from mistakes and implementing fixes.
And here’s the thing — when you continue to strive, to fully commit to going after the things you want and you take the lessons each time, even your failures will eventually become greater than the success of the people who continue to self handicap.
The intent of this article was not only to explain self handicapping, but to hold a mirror up to you at the same time. I have no doubt that in some aspects of your life, you’re self handicapping and not realising it. Whether it’s your career, your health, your relationships, your money, and look at the excuses you make to yourself and other people in these areas. What barriers are you putting up in your mind, what barriers are you putting up in your schedule to make both failure and success impossible?
Start examining and set yourself free.