You Are Your Own Worst Enemy

“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.

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…

15 comments

  1. J. Isadore

    Hi, I just graduated in CS this summer. Coming into uni out of foster care I always felt that things were much more difficult for me than for other students because other students had their families for support and didn’t have the same emotional baggage that I do.

    There have been times though where I’ve wondered if I was self-handicapping, how do I know that things aren’t as difficult for them? I guess I felt it would be more acceptable for someone with my background to fail or break the rules.

    Like the students you write of, I once thought I was exceptional but I’m not and it’s surprisingly difficult to be honest with yourself about that.

    • Zach

      Re: Are you self-handicapping? Probably not. You’ve got a real disadvantage. BUT that doesn’t mean you should hold yourself to any lower of a standard. I find that a useful heuristic is to automatically answer “yes” to this question. In other words, if I told you authoritatively, “YES, YOU ARE SELF-HANDICAPPING – SNAP OUT OF IT” what would you do differently? Usually, whether it’s true or not, those are the right decisions.

      Re: Exceptional. I’m sure you are. Exceptional is a vague term and that can lead to big ego swings. We can all find evidence that we’re “exceptional” and “non-exceptional” every day. The trick is to realize that assuming that your exceptional innate abilities will lead you to success without work is a myth. Just keep hustling. Excellence is a habit, not a trait.

  2. Matthew Hughes

    This is one of the best reflections on self sabotage I’ve ever read. Kudos.

    “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. ”

    Word.

  3. Jan T.

    “If you try to fail, and you succeed, which have you done?”

    You failed. If you think you succeeded you shifted your reference point post-factum!

  4. Ehmish

    “We all tend to overestimate the situational factors in our failures and overestimate the individual factors in our successes.”

    I recall reading somewhere that attribution of the factors differed by culture, with the people in the US generally blaming themselves for what happens in their life, and Europeans tending more toward external factors. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the source, so take it with a grain of salt.

    • Zach

      There’s a whole bunch of factors that affect it. It’s actually Eastern cultures that tend towards external factors (relative to us North Americans). But, in general, most people (across cultures) focus more on the individual factors than they should: it’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error.

      I’ve learned a bit about this recently in a Coursera class on social psychology. I tried to attach the lecture video but you need to be in the class to watch it. I recommend joining though – it’s fascinating (and free).

      https://class.coursera.org/socialpsychology-001/class

  5. Zach

    My favorite example of this: Book of Rhymes by Nas. A bunch of incomplete, not very impressive raps. But it’s okay! Don’t judge him! He isn’t even trying!

    “Man I found these shits up in the crib man in boxes man
    I don’t even remember when I was writing these shits
    Or what’s in these shits man probably a bunch of bullshit man
    Fuck it check it”

  6. Cleopatra W.

    Regarding eating seconds as a self-destructive act is short-sighted. The same man can both eat seconds and not be or look “like a pig”, i.e. overweight, He just needs to exercise.

    • Zach

      In this case, eating seconds is not a self-destructive act but an example of cognitive dissonance. Maybe it’s not true for everyone, but most have the feeling that they’re doing something wrong/unhealthy when they indulge in too much dessert, but they have the temptation to do it anyways.

      That’s cognitive dissonance. Self-destructive behavior is just one example of a weird way we deal with that tension (in this example, maybe that’s the person who says “I have bad genetics, so it doesn’t even matter anyways!” before stuffing their face).

    • Zach

      Self-awareness is half the battle. This isn’t the most easy, actionable advice but if you spend some time meditating on what’s important to you and focus your actions on those goals, it’ll make things pretty clear.

      On a more practical level, try to make a habit of not making excuses (to yourself or to others). Start with verbal excuses and mental ones will follow. I once wore a stupid bracelet on my wrist until I could go 21 days without making an excuse. It took a lot of tries, but eventually they just stopped coming. Most people stop handicapping themselves when they can’t advertise that they were handicapped.

      Hope this helps.

  7. Praveen

    Amazing post on self- handicapping one self. After reading it, I realized how I tried to create some illogical reason for my failure & would not feel bad if I fail.(mostly I did fail).Now, as you have pointed, I confronted the reality.
    I am glad I found your website. I also wanted to write on same pattern on my blog but I am busy with other stuff & can’t study more about psychology.Thanks

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