Self-handicapping: when we avoid effort to protect our self-esteem

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Humans are very good at getting in their own way. We make our lives more challenging than they need to be, often without realizing it. Why do we place these hurdles in our way? What can we do to address our self-handicapping behaviors?

Self-handicapping as an insurance policy

In short, self-handicapping is an insurance policy for our public personas and our self-esteem. We want our family members, colleagues, friends, and partners to believe we are capable, competent individuals. However, when we do not have the confidence to take on challenges in our lives, we tend to put obstacles in our way. If we fail, we can blame those obstacles for our poor performance. If we succeed, we look even more competent to others because we solved a problem despite the challenges.

The phrase “self-handicap” first appeared in an article by Steven Berglas and Edward E. Jones in 1978. The two researchers gave a group of college students a problem to solve. After they solved the problem, students received one of two types of feedback. Some students were told that they solved the problem correctly because they had the proper knowledge; other students were told that while their answers were correct, they did it correctly by accident.

Next, researchers gave students the option of taking a performance-enhancing drug or a performance-inhibiting drug before solving another problem. Men who were told they solved the problem correctly by accident opted to take the performance-inhibiting drug. They did so because they expected to get a worse score the second time around. So, if they took the performance-inhibiting drug, they would be able to blame their poor scores on the medication instead of their lack of knowledge.

Common signs of self-handicapping

Self-handicapping is also referred to as self-sabotage. Some common examples of self-sabotaging behavior are:

  • The procrastination trap. When we wait until the last minute to complete a project, we can blame the lack of time for our less-than-stellar work. But the reality is often that we practiced self-handicapping by deciding to wait longer than we should have to get the work done.
  • The overcommitment alibi. If our calendars are packed with meetings and events, we can condemn our busy schedules for missing deadlines, forgetting tasks, and making mistakes.
  • The blame game. Researchers found that we sometimes blame others for our failures because it is easier than taking responsibility for ourselves. For example, we may try to blame our friends and partners for failing to do something that was ultimately our job to do.

Certain groups of people, such as perfectionists, are more likely to engage in these behaviors than others. Perfectionists set unrealistically high expectations for themselves and are overly self-critical when they fail to achieve those standards. For perfectionists, the preferred method of self-handicapping is procrastination. Perfectionists wait until the last minute to complete a project or task, so if the result is not perfect, they can blame their errors on not having enough time.

Those who suffer from impostor syndrome are also more likely to engage in self-handicapping behavior. People with imposter syndrome are afraid of being “found out.” As such, they will engage in self-handicapping behaviors to protect their image, such as procrastinating or spending too much time working on a project than is necessary.

Self-handicapping and trauma

The emotional roots of self-handicapping include doubt, shame, insecurity, low self-esteem, and low self-image. All of these emotions are linked with anxiety and depression. However, they may also have roots in childhood trauma. In the book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker explains that our tendencies to self-handicapping may result from emotional neglect in childhood. Emotional neglect is described by scientists as “a relationship pattern in which an individual’s affectional needs are consistently disregarded, ignored, invalidated, or underappreciated.”

For example, suppose a child is often ignored by their parents. That child may try to be the perfect student, athlete, or musician to get their parents’ attention. When this doesn’t work, the child may believe they are fundamentally flawed in some way. Eventually, the child grows up and brings these emotions and perfectionist tendencies into their adult lives. As an adult, they will often blame their mistakes on factors outside of their control to avoid losing the attention and approval of colleagues, partners, and friends.

Of course, emotional neglect is not the only cause of self-doubt, shame, and fear of failure. However, this example serves as a reminder that the roots of self-handicapping can go back to childhood. Reflecting on where your doubts and fears come from is a good first step towards addressing the obstacles you tend to put in your way. And, if you believe you have experienced trauma, you may wish to find support from a licensed mental health professional.

Inquiry and self-compassion as antidotes

One way to address self-handicapping behaviors is to take a cognitive-behavioral approach.

  1. Set a goal for yourself. For example, maybe you want to devote one hour a day to a professional development course you have been putting off for weeks. Or maybe you want to increase your opportunities for personal growth by getting out of your comfort zone and taking on a project with some chance of failure.
  2. Identify the obstacles. Ask yourself, what are the obstacles that are getting in the way of that goal? Are you overcommitted with other activities? Are other people taking too much of your time? This question can help you identify the obstacles you created for yourself.
  3. Perform a cost analysis. Figure out the costs of these behaviors. What do you lose when you do not carve out time for professional development, or when you do not give a shot to more ambitious projects?
  4. Make space for self-reflection. Reflect on your thoughts and feelings about the outcomes. Suppose you were able to spend an hour each day on professional development, or to participate in a challenging project. How did you feel about accomplishing that goal? If you were not able to achieve the goal, how did you feel about that? This question can help you identify some of the emotional aspects of self-handicapping, such as being too hard on yourself or engaging in negative self-talk.

Another equally important intervention is to practice self-compassion. People who practice self-compassion treat themselves with kindness, care, and concern in the face of negative experiences. Self-compassionate people avoid judging themselves and others, do not engage in harsh self-criticism, and refrain from comparing themselves to other people. They also practice mindfulness, meaning that they acknowledge their emotions but recognize they are temporary.

Self-compassionate people understand that mistakes, failure, and disappointment are all part of the human experience. They do not engage in self-handicapping behavior as often as others who do not treat themselves with kindness. Instead, they see mistakes as opportunities to grow both personally and professionally. 

It is important to be aware of our self-handicapping tendencies so that we can catch them and make better choices for ourselves. Imagine letting go of the fear of failure and your concerns about how other people perceive you. What would your life look like? What could you do? Your answers could bring you closer to becoming your best self.