“If you try to fail, and you succeed, which have you done?”
Have you ever experienced that depressing discomfort as you sheepishly ask for a second helping of cheesecake? Among other things (like your growing waistline), that feeling is caused by cognitive dissonance: the tension of simultaneously holding two incompatible beliefs. In this case, “I’m not a disgusting pig” and “But it tastes so good.”Our brains don’t like cognitive dissonance. In fact, they’ll go to crazy lengths to prevent it.
There’s lots of ways to shrink that gap. Sometimes, the discomfort motivates us to change our behavior (“No thanks, I’ll pass on seconds”). Sometimes, we close our eyes to the truth that the outside world is giving us (“Everyone goes back for seconds sometimes. It doesn’t make me a pig. I just saw Aunt Margie do it!”). But there’s one psychological mechanism to deal with cognitive dissonance that seems completely counter-intuitive:
Self-sabotage seems like a self-destructive behavior, but that often isn’t the case. It’s more often meant to be self-protective. By creating impediments that make success less likely, we give ourselves an easy out from personal responsibility. “I’m not really a failure! I would have done well if it wasn’t for ______.”
We all tend to overestimate the situational factors in our failures and overestimate the individual factors in our successes. So you can see how, with the fear of failure in mind, people might handicap themselves by partying the night before an exam or not training for an athletic event.
If you fail, you fail because of the handicap. If you succeed, you succeed despite of it. It’s a perfect recipe for self-delusion.
This has been seen in studies of self-handicapping students who regularly skip class, miss deadlines, etc. The majority of these students rated themselves as in the top 10% of their class in intelligence, despite having C or D grades. “I’m a boy genius” and “My marks are embarrassing” can easily be made compatible with “Because I don’t give two shits about school, yo!”
All this is caused by one problem: because self-image is tied up with performance, it can be more painful to our egos to try hard and fail than to have a ready excuse. By self-handicapping, we can cling to a sense of competence while we fail.
Consider this study, where students were asked a series of aptitude questions so difficult that they’d need to guess some answers. Upon completion, they were told that they had received one of the best scores to date. They were then instructed to consume one of two drugs before retaking a similar test: one that aids intellectual performance, and one that disrupts it. The more common choice? The disruptive drug, which would give the students a handy excuse for their anticipated poorer performance in round two.
It seems that subconsciously, we value looking infallible more than actually being great. But I don’t think this is what most of us really want. At least, it isn’t what I want.
Even if you were just an ego-maximizing machine, you’d find that although habitually self-handicapping might boost ego in the short term, it would hurt the ego in the long term by stifling real accomplishment. And you aren’t just an ego-maximizing machine anyways, are you? Actually accomplishing things is more important than feeling like you could accomplish them, right?
In Stare Down Your Problems, I discussed how interacting with the real world and facing the harsh realities that it teaches you are crucial steps towards finding truth and, ultimately, being successful. Let the world teach you what works and what doesn’t. To self-handicap is a defence mechanism against the greatest gift the world can offer you: constant feedback on the validity of your ideas.
You can hide from the truth or you can learn from it, but you can’t change it.
In the end, you’re judged (by yourself and by others) on what you do. Not what you think about doing. Not what you plan to do. Just what you do. Those deep down beliefs that you never act on? Those aren’t beliefs; they’re excuses. As my homeboy Jesus put it, “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit… Thus they will recognize them by their fruits.”
And all the self-sabotaging in the world doesn’t lead to better fruit. It’s like putting a band-aid on an infection: you’re just covering things up well enough to keep you from dealing with the underlying issue. Sure, there may be short term pain. But shattering your delusions of greatness is just the first step towards actual greatness.
The only path to real improvement is to have the vulnerability to give it your best shot and open yourself up to honest feedback. Otherwise, who knows?
As Marlon Brando famously complains in On the Waterfront, “I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody!” Sure, maybe…