Self-Handicapping Strategy: What It Is & How to Overcome It

Ever intentionally underprepared for a test or given an excuse for a task not yet failed? You might’ve used the Self-Handicapping Strategy!

Dive in to discover why we do it and how it shapes our everyday decisions!

Key Takeaways

  • Self-handicapping is a psychological strategy used to protect self-esteem and manage impressions of success and failure.
  • Different self-handicapping strategies, such as procrastination, can have significant impacts on an individual’s personal and professional life.
  • Awareness and understanding of self-handicapping behaviors can help individuals work towards overcoming these barriers and achieving greater success.

What is Self-Handicapping?

Origins and Theory

Dive back in time to the 1970s. Psychologists Steven Berglas and Edward E. Jones coin the term “self-handicapping.” They describe it as a way people shield their self-esteem.

Here’s the gist: Instead of facing the possibility of failing and blaming it on a lack of ability, people self-handicap. They introduce barriers that give them a ready-made excuse. “I would have aced that test if I hadn’t stayed out so late last night.” Sounds familiar?

Psychological Basis

So why do people self-handicap? It’s deeply rooted in our psychology. The main driver is the desire to protect one’s self-esteem and self-worth. We all want to see ourselves in a positive light, and admitting shortcomings or failures can be a hard pill to swallow.

When someone is unsure about their abilities or fears failure, self-handicapping acts as a safety net. By having an external factor to blame (like not studying or feeling unwell), it allows an individual to maintain a positive self-image even when things go south.

But there’s a catch. Regularly engaging in self-handicapping can be detrimental. It might give short-term emotional relief, but in the long run, it can become a crutch that prevents growth, learning, and genuine self-assessment.

So, while it’s natural to want to shield ourselves from potential failure, it’s essential to recognize when we’re self-handicapping and strive for a more authentic understanding of our capabilities.

Prevalence Among Men

In the self-handicapping world, men tend to engage more often in this behavior. There could be several reasons behind this trend. For instance, men might have been socialized to protect their self-esteem, so they adopt such strategies to avoid negative evaluations.

Moreover, culturally influenced gender stereotypes might also play a role in directing men to display self-handicapping behavior more frequently than women.

Prevalence Among Women

On the other hand, women exhibit self-handicapping tendencies to a lesser extent than men. Factors influencing this gender difference include societal expectations and values that discourage women from displaying such behaviors.

Additionally, women might also prioritize interpersonal relationships and avoid self-handicapping in order to protect their connections with others.

However, women may be more likely to engage in self-reported self-handicapping, like expressing doubts about their abilities or devaluing the importance of a task.

This type of self-handicapping may be more subtle and less risky to their social standing.

Types of Self-Handicapping Strategies

Behavioral Self-Handicapping

Imagine you have a significant test coming up, but instead of preparing adequately, you spend the night before hanging out with friends or binge-watching your favorite TV show.

You are engaging in behavioral self-handicapping, a strategy where you create real obstacles to performing well.

Behavioral self-handicapping involves actions such as procrastinating, refusing to practice, or even consuming substances that hinder your performance. These are tangible obstacles, and while they offer a convenient excuse for not doing well, they also hold you back from realizing your full potential.

You might wonder why someone would consciously place barriers in their own path. The reason is somewhat straightforward: to shield yourself from potential failure.

By having a ready-made excuse, you can avoid facing the possible shortcomings in your abilities or preparation. It’s a safety net, providing a reason external to your skills or efforts for not succeeding.

Claimed Self-Handicapping

Now picture yourself voicing concerns about your ability to perform a task effectively before even giving it a try. This is what is referred to as claimed self-handicapping. It’s the strategy of verbalizing doubts or concerns about your capabilities or the external circumstances affecting your ability to succeed.

Claimed self-handicapping can involve statements such as, “I am not feeling well today” or “I didn’t have enough time to prepare.”

These statements set a premise for a potential failure, offering you a ready excuse if things don’t go as planned. Like behavioral self-handicapping, it’s a defensive maneuver, helping you maintain your self-esteem in the face of failure.

What’s more, it shields you from the judgment of others, as they might attribute your failure to the circumstances you mentioned rather than your abilities.

However, it’s worth noting that claimed self-handicapping has a downside. Continually doubting your abilities can lead to a decrease in self-confidence over time.

Impact of Self-Handicapping

On Personal Success

Self-handicapping strategies can have a significant influence on personal success. These tactics often involve creating obstacles that make it more challenging for you to achieve your goals.

By doing so, you may protect your self-esteem in the face of failure but also hinder your overall performance.

For instance, procrastination is a common self-handicapping strategy. This can limit your ability to finish tasks on time or prepare adequately for exams and projects.

In turn, this affects your chances of success and may undermine your confidence in your abilities.

On Relationships

Self-handicapping can also impact your connections with others. When you adopt self-handicapping strategies, you may inadvertently distance yourself from friends, family, or colleagues, as they do not understand why you are creating obstacles for yourself.

This can strain relationships and may make it difficult for you to maintain a supportive network.

Here are a few tips to help combat self-handicapping in your relationships:

  • Be open and honest with your loved ones about your feelings and struggles.
  • Work on improving your communication skills to express your concerns effectively.
  • Seek feedback from those close to you to help identify self-handicapping behaviors.

In Academia

In the academic setting, self-handicapping is commonly practiced by students to protect their self-esteem. They often use strategic moves like procrastination, purposefully preparing inadequately, or even engaging in excessive socializing before an exam to create a pretext for potential failure.

Here are some instances of academic self-handicapping:

  • A student athlete might divert time from studying to their sports training, creating an excuse for poor academic performance.
  • Students who perceive a subject as challenging may intentionally underprepare to justify their possibly lower grades.

In the Workplace

In a professional environment, self-handicapping strategies may manifest differently. However, the core idea of protecting one’s self-esteem and reputation remains the same.

Here are some examples:

  • Intentionally setting unrealistic targets or deadlines to have a justification when expectations are not met.
  • Actively pointing out challenges or potential difficulties before starting a task, effectively creating a cushion for criticism if completed work falls short of goals.

Overcoming Self-Handicapping

Skills and Techniques

  1. Awareness is Key: Before you can overcome self-handicapping, you need to recognize when you’re doing it. Keep a journal or talk to a trusted friend about your feelings and actions. When you’re conscious of your habits, you can start to change them.
  2. Set Clear Goals: Sometimes, self-handicapping happens when you’re uncertain about what you want. Outline your goals clearly and remind yourself of them daily.
  3. Break Tasks into Manageable Steps: A big project can seem overwhelming, leading to procrastination. Break it down into smaller steps, making it easier to tackle one at a time.
  4. Celebrate Small Wins: Every achievement, no matter how minor, is a step towards your larger goal. Celebrate these milestones to build momentum.
  5. Stay Accountable: Share your goals with someone you trust. Knowing that someone else is aware of what you’re working towards can deter self-handicapping behaviors.
  6. Replace Negative Self-Talk: If you catch yourself thinking, “I can’t do this,” reframe it to, “I will do my best.” Your mindset shapes your actions.

Therapeutic Approaches

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps you identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors. With a therapist, you’ll work on understanding the root of your self-handicapping tendencies and develop strategies to overcome them.
  2. Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices help you stay present and become more self-aware. By recognizing self-handicapping thoughts as they arise, you can choose a different response.
  3. Group Therapy: Sharing your experiences and hearing others’ stories can be therapeutic. It can also provide additional accountability and support.
  4. Positive Psychology: Focusing on strengths and positive attributes rather than weaknesses can shift your mindset. By celebrating what you’re good at, you might be less inclined to self-handicap.

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Brenda Calisaan is a psychology graduate who strongly desires to impact society positively. She aspires to spread awareness and knowledge about mental health, its importance, and its impact on individuals and society.

She also has a passion for working with children and hopes to dedicate her career to positively impacting their lives.

Outside of work, Brenda is an avid traveler and enjoys exploring new experiences. She is also a music enthusiast and loves to listen to a variety of genres. When she's not on the road or working, Brenda can often be found watching interesting YouTube videos, such as Ted-Ed content.