Loganholme Psychologist Greta Neilsen researched the phenomenon of self-handicapping (or self-sabotage) for her Honours thesis. Here, she explains what it means to be self-handicapped, and how it can be treated …
What is Self-Handicapping?
Self-handicapping is a strategy people sometimes use, to avoid an anticipated failure impacting negatively upon their self-concept.
It involves self-creating an obstacle to performance that allows the handicapper to blame poor performance on an external factor, but still be able to take credit for a good performance. For example, by partying the night before an exam, a self-handicapper can attribute a poor result to the partying – and not to a lack of ability on their own part. Other examples of self-handicapping might include not getting enough sleep the night before a job interview or other important meeting; using the sick role to drop out of life; or withdrawing effort in a sporting event.
In the case of poor performance, the individual can blame the handicap, discounting the result as a reflection of their own internal ability – eg “of course I failed that exam, I didn’t study at all”.
In the case of a better than expected performance, even in the presence of the handicap, the individual can augment their ability, for example “I passed that exam even though I didn’t study at all!”
By externalising poor performance, the individual is protecting their belief that they are competent. While in most situations people want accurate information about themselves and their environment so they can make appropriate decisions for success, it appears that the self-handicapper would rather not have accurate information if it may reflect poorly on them, such as if it were to expose inferiority.
So, when faced with situations that may expose uncomfortable truths, they use a defensive strategy such as self-handicapping, to protect the self-concept. The self-handicapper is not necessarily trying to fail, but rather is willing to accept that outcome – so long as it does not reflect on their own ability. For example: “I failed because I didn’t study”, instead of “I failed because I don’t have the ability to pass”.
The Origins of Self-Handicapping
The origins of self-handicapping may lie in a positive but uncertain sense of self-competence that has developed from an inconsistent reward history.
This type of reward history occurs where a child may be praised for successes, but this praise does not give an ability-related sense of competence. For example, they may feel that the success has been attributed to being part of a particular group or family, luck, or simply participating – rather than their actual ability. This places the individual in the tricky situation of feeling like they could not repeat the success if they were asked to, as they do not really know if it was their ability that made them successful in the first place. They believe it could be, but they are not sure.
As a result, they are left with a sense of being imposters or pretenders, living in fear of being exposed and having their self-concept of competence shattered. To maintain this uncertain self-competence belief they avoid any real information concerning their true level of ability by self-handicapping. They are quite prepared to do badly, and run the risk of using drugs and alcohol, to maintain control of their self-belief.
Self-handicapping does appear to work in the short term. Studies have indicated that self-handicapping leads to more positive mood following a failure and preserves feelings of competency, self-worth and self-esteem.
However, the long term effects can be disastrous. There is evidence that it undermines academic performance and leads to reduced effort on subsequent tasks. Long term use has been shown to diminish self-esteem and intrinsic motivation, and is related to increases in negative mood, depression, drug use and visits to health care providers. It can also have negative social effects with a sample of college students reporting that they would not like to have a self-handicapper as a study partner, friend or roommate.
Help – I think I’m Self-Handicapping!
Self-handicapping can become an entrenched habit, thus when the individual is used to using it, it can be a difficult habit to break.
Keep in mind, the more times you have sabotaged your performance, the longer it has been since you have had any “real” information about your actual level of competence. To get this real information, you need to give the task a “red hot go” to the best of your ability, and see what the result is.
Most of the time people are surprised by how good the result actually is. Just think, if you usually can do “OK” with self-inflicted obstacles, just imagine your performance if you took those obstacles away. However, doing this can be very scary and this is where a psychologist can help.
How can a Psychologist help?
A psychologist can help you to see your self-handicapping patterns, and explore your thoughts and motivations around this behaviour. They can support you to challenge the behaviour, while protecting your self-concept and personal competence beliefs. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy in particular can be used effectively to change this behaviour.
Author: Greta Neilsen, BA (Hons), M Psych (Clin), Grad Dip Soc Sc (Psych), MAPS.
Greta Neilsen has a special interest in the treatment of depression and anxiety in adults of all ages, and endeavours to provide her clients with a safe space to understand the challenges they face, as they develop ways to overcome their difficulties.
Please note: Greta Neilsen is no longer practising at M1 Psychology.
- Berglas, S., & Jones, E. E. (1978). Drug choice as a self-handicapping strategy in response to noncontingent success Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(4), 405-417.
- Jones, E. E., & Berglas, S. (1978). Control of attributions about the self through self-handicapping strategies: The appeal of alcohol and the role of underachievement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4(2), 200-206.