When you see a promising political figure fall from grace due to his/her poor judgment or unethical acts, or a star athlete who gets into legal problems during the week prior to the championship game, how would you explain that kind of behavior? Why do they shoot themselves in the foot, before they are about to reach for new heights in their careers?
Do everyday people do this as well? Do we somehow sabotage our future success by our actions today? Of course we do, and I’m sure you can relate to this at some level. So, what do we call this behavior? “Fear of success” sounds like a good one, but it’s only a label, and does not explain WHY we do it.
One explanation, that might shed some insight on this self-defeating behavior, comes from the field of Social Psychology. The concept is called “Self-Handicapping.” This is described as a person, either consciously or unconsciously, prepares less than their full capability, prior to an important performance, so that if they succeed, they can claim credit; but if they fail, they have a built-in excuse for not doing their best. This is often confused with public verbal declarations predicting our failure, like when we tell our friends before the exam that “I am totally unprepared and going to fail.” That is an act to create lowered expectations for yourself, or an act of false modesty. Even excellent students do this. Self-handicapping is about the actual behavior of not preparing to the best of your abilities, whether you declare it publicly or not. It’s about what you are not doing enough of that counts.
Self-handicapping actions create an emotional safety blanket for us. It’s reassuring to know we have a justifiable reason for not achieving our best. Examples:
- Not getting sufficient sleep prior to an important business pitch the following day.
- Being distracted, instead of studying for the final.
- Going out partying the night before an important sports match.
If we perform well, then great, we can celebrate our success. But, if we perform below expectation, then we have something external to blame it on. The key word is “external.” Think of this: What conclusion must we make about our abilities and potential if we truly put ourselves on the line, and prepared at “110%” (as they say in sports) for that event, and failed? There are no excuses then, right? The only conclusion is look inward, that we’re just not good enough, and very few people can truly take the risk of finding out that truth.
It’s safer to stay where you are, than to take a risk to possibly succeed even further, personally or professionally. We don’t push ourselves because we may not like what we’ll find out about ourselves. Very few of us have the courage to lay it on the line, and accept what follows. Those people can accept that fate, and be truly content in trying their best.
Back in middle school, in the early 1980s, my family was part of the Taiwanese American Association, which held southwest regional gatherings every Labor Day weekend. To spice things up, the organization decided to add recreational softball to the mix, just for fun. Over the years, that recreational intention took a backseat to the competitive monster this event evolved to become. Each major Texas city had it’s own team, bought uniforms, and eventually hired softball league umpires to call the games. This afterthought tournament became our team’s mission every summer, and we practiced all summer just to win the tournament.
For a tournament of no ‘real’ consequence in the big picture, at that time in our lives, it was all we could think about. Most of us practiced every week at the local park, in the scorching heat, to exhaustion. One of my best friends, Joe, and I were the first ones to arrive, the last ones to leave, getting in extra batting and fielding practice. It was fun. It was fun to literally lay it all on the field, knowing there was nothing else we could have done at every tournament. Year after year, we would return with 2nd or 3rd place trophies, in addition to nagging injuries, feeling dejected and awaited next year’s tournament.
In hindsight, even if we never had exceeded 2nd place, I would still be very content today. Zero regrets. A terrific chapter in my life. I’m also shocked that we were that brave, to not self-handicap. We truly did give that mystical 110%. In 1987, when we did not expect to do well, actually played wonderfully, and won the title. It was a great underdog victory that year for us. We felt both a sense of joy and relief, to reach our goal. In hindsight, it wasn’t the 1st place trophy that I remember most, but the camaraderie of being on a team, working our hardest, being totally exhausted, that brought pure joy and satisfaction.
Are you holding back your best effort, self-handicapping? Are you wiling to make that risk to learn about yourself? Are you ready to find out the truth? You might surprise yourself.