In social psychology, self-handicapping is the cognitive strategy by which people create obstacles to their success in anticipation of failure or incompetence. A simple definition of self-handicapping is when one creates a situation or anything he or she can use as an excuse for failure when they expect to fail at something.
The prevalence of self-handicapping is very high and much higher than assumed. People apply this strategy across all aspects of life, that is to say, love life, career, work, health, spiritual life, etc.
It is easy to claim responsibility for success in life. However, when it comes to claiming responsibility for failure, many people have a hard time holding themselves accountable.
With inner emotional wounds, fear of shame, lack of self-esteem, and self-confidence, people find it much more convenient to externalize their failures. If it is a success, they are responsible. If it is a failure, someone else is to blame.
It is important to understand that true personal growth and positive change, come from owning our failures as fast as we claim our wins.
By accepting responsibility for failing, we uproot the seed of failure in our hearts and mind to create room for success. Self-handicapping people have a very fragile ego and low self-esteem. Because it is a nightmare facing the reality of themselves and consciously understanding how delicate their ego is, they do anything to guard it against anything that would bruise it.
This includes not being accountable for a failure. To them, accountability would render them incompetent and less worthy. Self-handicapping helps them create an opportunity of being given a benefit of the doubt from the people around them.
For example, a student who refuses to prepare for an exam will use lack of preparation as an excuse for failing. In his mind, he believes with this excuse, people will assume that he didn’t fail because he is dumb, he failed because he didn’t prepare for the exam.
The main and underlying goal of self-handicapping is to block any situation or experience that would make one feel bad about themselves.
Why do people self-handicap themselves
Feelings of uncertainty about future performance most especially if a self-handicapping person has high expectations of himself. Because uncertainty creates a chance of failure, a self-handicapping person creates an excuse in advance to use as a scapegoat in case they fail.
Excessively big ego. Most times people with a big ego disguise it as self-esteem and often times inflate their abilities. To therefore avoid anything that would conflict with their ego, they resort to self-handicapping.
Sometimes the need to protect a reputation pushes one to create a situation or something they can use as an excuse in case they fail. It is some sort of displacement psychology to avoid the pain of self confrontation.
People resort to self-handicapping as a cover-up to compulsive laziness
Dangers of self-handicapping.
Self-handicappers face a lot of consequences for their behavior and a lot of times they do not realize that it is their self-handicapping behavior causing them. The constant consequences include;
Self-handicappers get resented by people around them. At the cost of anything or anyone, a self-handicapped person will excuse their failure including using others as scapegoats even when they have nothing to do with them.
Self-handicappers usually end up subject to self-destructive habits like drug abuse. One, they can use those habits as an obstacle to excuse their failure. Second, because they always create excuses for failing, they usually never achieve anything or little compared to their non-self-handicapping counterparts. Drugs, therefore, give them a break from their painful reality.
Self-handicappers at work: they are unreliable even though they pause as reliable employees. To be competent and reliable does not only mean doing your tasks as required but also being accountable for any inadequacies.
Relationships with self-handicappers; a healthy and fulfilling relationship requires both parties to be responsible, liable, and accountable for any mistakes. Self-handicappers however, choose to always blame their partners for the mistakes they are instead accountable to. It is always someone’s blame.
Health: self-handicappers are very neglectful of their health. The habit of self-sabotaging themselves in anticipation of failure rids them of discipline to fully commit to keeping a healthy lifestyle.
Spirituality; something I have discovered so common with self-handicappers is the superficial attitude towards their beliefs in regards to religion and spirituality. They respect spiritual laws only when it is convenient to them. Where there is a need to guard their ego or avoid taking responsibility for failure, they will do so even when it conflicts with their beliefs.
Symptoms of self-handicapping
- When you fail or make a mistake, your first impulse is to blame someone or any circumstances.
- You tend to procrastinate and put things on hold until the last moment.
- You feel tired, slightly ill, or weak more often than most people do.
- You get easily distracted by external distractions and mind wandering when you try to read.
- You would do a lot better if you tried harder.
- You enjoy sick leaves or feign sickness to abscond responsibilities.
- Sometimes you get very depressed that even easy tasks become difficult.
Examples of self-handicapping
Jack chose to go partying at the club yet he had an exam the following morning. When the results came back, he had failed. He told his mom that he failed because instead of preparing for the exam, he went to the club. In this way, his mom would think Jack failed because he didn’t prepare but not because he isn’t intelligent.
Winnie cheated on her husband Mark. Because she didn’t want to take responsibility for her promiscuity, she made up stories of her husband Mark being inadequate in bed.
How to stop self-handicapping yourself
Self-handicapping isn’t a personality disorder unbreakable like a narcissistic personality disorder. Fortunately, it is something we just learned as a defensive mechanism to protect ourselves from feeling bad about ourselves. If we learned it, we can unlearn or break it.
When you self-handicap yourself for a while, the behavior starts to operate on impulse. You start to unconsciously do it. However, once you discover that you often do it and admit doing so, you lay a foundation to break the habit. Acceptance is the first step towards breaking the habit.
Step2: Intention to break.
You have to be intentional to break the habit. Now that you are aware of it. Whenever you catch yourself blaming someone or a situation for your failure or incompetence, pause and face the reality of it. The truth is that you are responsible for failing. It is not the obstacle you created.
It will be hard and painful at first but you will eventually get to the other side a better person. Comfort and excuses never make a strong mind and heart. Pain and responsibility do. Of course, you will not break it on the first attempt. It might take time. Your commitment to breaking it will determine how it will take you.
Step3: Get an accountability partner.
If you accept being prone to self-handicapping and have decided to break the habit, talk to a friend or a colleague you trust to always let you know whenever he notices the behavior in you. To also remind you to keep track of it.
Step4: Let yourself fail.
We all hate to fail. We hate to be liable for any mistakes. But negligence does not break us free from the consequences. Accepting and being accountable does. When you fail and take responsibility, you give yourself a chance not to fail again. When you find an excuse, you numb yourself and avoid the lesson. You learned to give up because you taught yourself to believe that there are no consequences for you but for something or someone else.
Dig deep within and know who you truly are. Know your, strengths and weaknesses. A self-handicapping person hardly knows who they are. Because they are driven by ego, they never get to know anything about them except their ego.
But if you humble your ego by accepting failure and letting yourself fail without creating obstacles or excuses, you let yourself know who are. When you know yourself, your habits, your weaknesses, strengths, and thoughts, you learn to put them all within your control to get the best out of you.
Step6: Seek reconciliation
When you do all the above, seek reconciliation with yourself and the people who you may have used as a scapegoat for your failures. When you ask for forgiveness from the people who resent you for using them as a scapegoat it subconsciously sits within your mind to not go through the humbling act of asking to be forgiven again.
When you forgive yourself for the times you self-handicapped you, you cease to get hard on yourself and alleviate the bitter feelings you get when you fail. Self-compassion helps you understand that failure isn’t the end of you but a lesson and way to success.
Conclusion: Self-handicapping is a common habit. Do not alienate or curse yourself when you identify the behavior in you. Let yourself believe that it is possible to take control of your life. Understand that it is okay to fail as long as you do not give in to it. Fail and try again. However, you will not try again if you don’t let yourself understand the real impact of your failure when someone else takes the blame. You miss the lesson. Yet the lesson is what makes you learn so you can succeed. Break the habit and let yourself taste the true essence of winning. Have you ever self handicapped yourself? Share with me how you resolved it.