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Summary:

Self-handicapping is finding excuses and obstacles that explain why we’re not responsible for our mistakes, failures, or poor performance. Most of us start experiencing it as students, but the habit also tends to stay with us even when we turn into capable professionals.

If after reading this post you realize that you don’t like it, I apologize. After all, I didn’t spend too much time on it. Maybe a few hours here and there. See, I was cramming so I didn’t give it my best. And that’s probably why the writing suffered. Oh, if only I had enough time I’m sure I would’ve done better. Also, I had a headache so that probably had a negative effect too.

Does the above paragraph sound familiar? If it does, then we have something in common:  self-handicapping. It’s finding excuses and obstacles that explain why we’re not responsible for our mistakes, failures, or poor performance. Most of us start experiencing it as students during our first few years at school, but the habit also tends to stay with us even when we turn into capable professionals. An article from The New York Times cites a study where, in workplace scenarios, people’s “…impressions of a character began to sour after the second time the person cited a handicap.”

To avoid self-handicapping at work, we need to recognize it when it occurs. Here are some behaviors associated with self-handicapping:

  • Decreased effort. Sometimes, this comes in the form of procrastination, especially when you expect to be evaluated. Self-handicapping also shows when you spend less time preparing or practicing. Research shows that giving in to self-handicapping in one task may lead to having less motivation to complete a succeeding task, too.
  • Setting unrealistic goals. Aiming high or having ambitions is a good thing, but it helps to be aware of your true motivations. Sometimes setting unattainable goals is a form of self-handicapping.
  • Creating or emphasizing physical or psychological handicaps. We sometimes tell ourselves that we don’t have the right training, state of mind, experiences, and other traits that would make us perform well for a certain task. We make excuses — even flimsy ones — just so our mistakes will be the fault of some external force instead of our own.

The bad news is that like most qualities deeply ingrained in us, there’s no magic pill, no one-size-fits-all cure for self-handicapping. But there are a couple of new mindsets that I’m trying out:

  • Praise our own effort rather than talent. While it’s OK to recognize innate skills, acknowledging effort, practice and hard work as the source of your success has greater benefits. This kind of attitude leaves us less afraid of failure, more inclined to try again, and even to have better performance.
  • Accepting pain as part of the job. Not physical pain, but the painful idea that you won’t always be as good as you want to be, that sometimes you’ll fail. Self-handicapping is all about protecting your self-image, so one way to “hack” it is to come to terms with the fact that failing is normal. It comes with being human. A few mistakes won’t make you less of a good worker or even a good person. It’s rare that you’ll fail hard enough that it’s irreparable or unforgivable.

Do you experience self-handicapping or self-sabotage? How does it affect your work and how do you deal with it?

Photo by stock.xchng user somadjinn

  1. Atle Iversen Monday, July 5, 2010

    Unfortunately, self-handicapping is contagious; as you see people around you slack off, and you see that the reduced effort has no (visible) consequences, you start to question why you should “go the extra mile”… If you don’t value quality in people (or products/services), you probably won’t get it either – and people will automatically lower their expectations too.

    Hard work has always been, and will always be, the most important key to success !

  2. Michael Craig Monday, July 5, 2010

    Our mostly unspoken (and subconscious) priority in life is “I must always look good.” This is present in all of us from failures in childhood, and creates within us a habit of doing and saying anything to keep us safe. Excuses supposedly give us an “out” so that our surrogate parents – society – will not judge or punish us. We cling to being small (and therefore safe) out of both fear and habit – even if it costs us our success. There are other – mostly hidden – decisions we made long ago about “the way things are” and our roles in the world. Breaking these habits and changing the hidden decisions will take a commitment to self-awareness and willingness to explore the origins of thoughts and feelings. Merely trying harder without addressing these issues only lead to more failure . . . or “success” if you are committed to staying small!

  3. Very true. Self-sabotage is the worst crime you can ever commit as a freelancer. I guess, this results from lack of motivation or performance feedback that one can receive when you’re working in the office. When you’re working all by yourself, you can be your own best friend and nemesis. It’s easy to entertain all those negative thoughts. Yes, I experience this every now and then. It affects how I write too. To recover, I watch ‘The Secret’ DVD, or get me a nice self-help book to keep me grounded.

  4. John Waller Monday, July 5, 2010

    Do you think self-handicapping is related to personality? to those with perfectionist tendencies?

    I have a strong perfectionist streak and deal with self-handicapping daily. My wife has no perfectionist tendencies (big creative streak) and does not understand self-handicapping.

    1. I think so – being a perfectionist means you have a hard time dealing with those times when you know what you want to do, but don’t yet have the ability to pull it off to your liking.

      That will inevitably lead to an avoidance of those situations, which can then hold you back from new experiences.

  5. Self Handicaping Becoming a Nuisance Monday, July 5, 2010

    [...] Via webworkerdaily. com [...]

  6. This is probably a lot more common than we realise. How many times do we say things like “I wish I could do that, but it looks too hard”? That’s self-handicapping!

    A lot of the time, things we think are hard, are only “hard” because we have no experience of them. Once you start taking the first steps, you will realise it’s not that hard after all.

    In the context of a web professional, this can apply to almost anything – from learning a new CSS technique to using a new framework to speed up your development time.

  7. Yeah, great argument – the sun will come up tomorrow etc. Leaving that aside, really crass use of “handicap”. This is a parody, right? A sick joke? No. Oh. Has the author considered at all how wheelchair users might feel after reading her article? Think about where the term comes from. It was originally used to describe people who begged for money because they were disabled. Now generally not used as it’s understood, at least by some, that society disables people. Put in a ramp and someone in a wheelchair can get involved, can get a job, is no longer “handicapped”. Casually equating disability with a bad work attitude is lazy and unfair.

    1. Hey A,

      ‘Handicap’ is a valid word to describe something that holds you back, stops you performing to your best (check out sports like golf and horse racing for similar uses of this word). Being disabled (wheelchair or not) does not equate to being handicapped.

      Without wanting to sound too facetious, being too casually politically correct is also lazy and unfair.

      1. Did I say “casually”? I meant creepily.

        This hasn’t got anything to do with “handicap” being valid or not. The word is commonly understood, at least in the UK, as deriving from cap in hand and when applied outside of sports is a pretty loaded term. It carries the implication, at least in the UK, at least among people I know, yeah who tend to read the Guardian, that whoever it describes is a charity case.

        But apart from my own prejudices about the term, have a look at the article again.

        There’s this great big logo at the top of the piece which is used in the UK and elsewhere to signify a space for disabled people. It then goes on to list the ways in which people hold themselves back through being negative, by blaming their surroundings rather than facing up and dealing with their personal shortcomings. Nice big subhead follows – an example of self-handicapping behaviour: “Creating or emphasizing physical or psychological handicaps”.

        Flick from the photo to the subhead: quite a clear connection being made there, don’t you think?

        I’m not being politically correct. I’m just pointing out that many disabled people will find this article offensive and with good reason.

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