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  • Writer's pictureDr Maike Neuhaus

Self-handicapping: What it is and how to avoid it (+ an example)

In the complex realm of human psychology, there exists a paradoxical phenomenon known as self-handicapping. Many of us might have, unknowingly, engaged in self-handicapping behaviours without understanding their implications. So, this week, I wanted to shed some light on this fascinating psychological concept.

Self-handicapping: What it is and how to avoid it (+ an example)
Self-handicapping: What it is and how to avoid it (+ an example)

What is Self-Handicapping?

Self-handicapping is a fascinating and complex psychological strategy that individuals employ to pre-emptively protect their self-esteem from potential failure or negative feedback. Essentially, it involves creating obstacles or excuses that can be blamed in the event of poor performance, thus shielding one's self-image from the impact of failure.

The concept of self-handicapping was first introduced in the late 1970s by American psychologist Edward E. Jones and his colleague Steven Berglas. Their groundbreaking research brought to light this intriguing aspect of human behaviour, highlighting the lengths individuals might go to protect their self-worth.

In practical terms, self-handicapping can take many forms. For example, an individual might deliberately delay starting a task until the last minute, consume alcohol before a public speaking event, or set unrealistic goals that are unlikely to be achieved. These actions or excuses set the stage for potential failure, but if the individual does indeed fail, they can attribute their lack of success to these self-imposed obstacles, rather than their own lack of ability or effort.

The Psychology of Self-Handicapping

It's important to note that self-handicapping is not merely an avoidance tactic, but a nuanced psychological defence mechanism. While on the surface, it may seem illogical to deliberately impede one's own success, self-handicapping serves to safeguard an individual's self-esteem and public image. By blaming external factors or circumstances for failure, individuals can maintain the belief in their own competence and skill, thus preserving their self-worth.

Research and Evidence on Self-Handicapping

Extensive research has been conducted on self-handicapping, highlighting its prevalence and impacts. For instance, a study by Berglas and Jones (1978) found that when individuals anticipate a high likelihood of failure, they're more prone to self-handicap. More recent research has continued to support this, further emphasising the implications of self-handicapping on various life domains.

The Impact of Self-Handicapping

Self-handicapping can significantly impact personal development, relationships, and work productivity. It tends to create a self-perpetuating cycle of underachievement, where the individual not only undermines their potential but also reinforces their belief in their lack of capabilities. Consequently, this impacts relationships and workplace productivity, as others start perceiving these individuals as less competent and reliable.

Self-Handicapping: an Example

Let's consider Anna, a woman in her mid-thirties who recently secured a senior leadership position at a tech firm. Despite her years of experience and proven skills, Anna often feels like an imposter, fearing that she may not live up to the expectations of her role.
In the run-up to a crucial board meeting where she has to present her department's strategy, she begins to doubt her ability to deliver an impactful presentation. Instead of spending time on thorough preparation, she becomes consumed by these doubts and begins procrastinating, spending her time on less important tasks. She frequently stays late at the office, ostensibly working hard, but in reality, she's avoiding focusing on the presentation. She rationalises that if she fails, it will be because she didn't have enough time to prepare, not because she lacks competence.
In the meeting, Anna's presentation lacks the detail and clarity her colleagues were expecting. They attribute this to her last-minute preparation, just as Anna planned. Anna's self-handicapping strategy has protected her self-esteem - she attributes her failure to external factors (lack of time) instead of internal factors (lack of ability). However, in the long run, these self-handicapping behaviours can undermine her potential and the trust others place in her, affecting both her personal growth and her career advancement.

Strategies to Overcome Self-Handicapping

While the concept of self-handicapping can seem complex and deeply ingrained, there are several evidence-based strategies that can assist individuals in overcoming these self-imposed barriers. It is important to note that the effectiveness of each strategy can depend on individual circumstances and needs, highlighting the importance of a personalised approach.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

As previously mentioned, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has shown considerable promise in modifying self-defeating behaviours such as self-handicapping. This type of therapy encourages the development of personal coping strategies that target solving current problems and changing unhelpful patterns in cognition, behaviours, and emotional regulation. It is based on the belief that thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are interconnected and that by identifying and challenging negative thought patterns, one can alter their behaviours and emotions.

Specifically in the context of self-handicapping, CBT can assist individuals in challenging the irrational beliefs that often underpin this behaviour, helping them to develop healthier coping mechanisms and to perceive potential failure or criticism in a less threatening manner.

Mindfulness and Self-Compassion Exercises

Beyond CBT, mindfulness and self-compassion exercises can provide valuable support in breaking the self-handicapping cycle. Mindfulness, which entails maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and surroundings, can help individuals become more aware of their self-handicapping tendencies, viewing them objectively rather than being carried away by them.

Self-compassion exercises complement this by encouraging individuals to treat themselves with kindness and understanding when confronted with personal failings. Instead of resorting to self-handicapping to protect their self-esteem, they can learn to accept that everyone experiences failure, and it does not define their worth or competence. This approach can help to reduce the fear of failure, which is often a significant trigger for self-handicapping behaviours.

Promotion of a Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on 'growth mindset' provides another effective strategy against self-handicapping. A 'growth mindset' promotes the belief that abilities and intelligence can be developed over time. This contrasts with a 'fixed mindset', where one believes their abilities are static and unchangeable.

By promoting a growth mindset, we can help individuals understand that failure is not a negative reflection of their abilities, but rather a natural part of the learning process. With this perspective, the perceived need for self-handicapping behaviours can diminish, as individuals are less likely to fear failure and more likely to embrace challenges and potential learning opportunities.

Coaching and Self-Handicapping

Professional coaching can play a pivotal role in overcoming self-handicapping behaviours. A skilled coach can offer an objective perspective, allowing individuals to see the patterns and impacts of their self-handicapping behaviours more clearly. Moreover, coaches can employ an array of techniques to help individuals reframe their perceptions of failure and criticism, fostering a more constructive mindset.

Using a solution-focused approach, coaches can guide individuals in setting realistic goals, developing action plans, and monitoring progress, thereby promoting a sense of competence and self-efficacy. By offering a supportive and non-judgmental space, coaching can facilitate increased self-awareness, resilience, and the confidence to face challenges without resorting to self-handicapping. Coaching can serve as a powerful catalyst for change, empowering individuals to break free from the constraints of self-handicapping and strive towards their full potential.

Understanding and overcoming self-handicapping is crucial for personal and professional development. While it may serve as a temporary shield for our self-esteem, it ultimately limits our potential and hinders growth. By adopting evidence-based strategies, we can break free from the self-imposed barriers of self-handicapping.


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