Handicapped Part 1: Self-Handicapped

Psychologists wonder at the phenomenon of self-handicapping.  What is self-handicapping?  Self-handicapping is a way of protecting yourself.  It happens when a person creates a real or imagined barrier to their success in order to lessen the pain of failure.  If I play ping-pong with you, I can lose.  If I play ping-pong with you blind-folded, in essence I can’t lose.  If you win the game, I didn’t “really” lose.  I was blindfolded.  If I win, I’m extra good.  I’ve created a no-lose situation by self-handicapping.

The real-life example one often reads in psych textbooks is the college student who doesn’t study for a test and stays out late the night before partying.  Why would a college student do this?  Or why would a student wait until the night before to write the final paper?  One reason: the student has protected himself and his ego.  If he fails the test or the paper, he can justify himself and tell himself that he could have done better if he had just applied himself.

Personally, I am not to upset by the fact that I was never a star tennis player.  In the back of my mind, I know that I never fully applied myself to the task.  How devastated would I be, however, if I truly gave everything to tennis, practicing hours every day, watching my diet, and moving across the country to learn from the best coaches, and yet still did not succeed?  By giving less than all, I protect myself and my emotions.  90% or even 95% of best leaves a little room to believe that I could have been great.

Obviously, no one can give 100% to every task, but what things do I really want to accomplish?  What do I dream about?  Am I willing to be devastated in order to create the opportunity that it could happen?

What would happen if people didn’t self-handicap?  Yes, it would open the door for great failure.  But without the risk of failure, it is guaranteed that the greatest success will not happen.

(I’m not sure if you need to cite sources on a blog, but since I didn’t come up with the term “self-handicapping” I thought I’d lead you to the people who did.

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, 200-206.

Also see almost any intro or social psychology textbook.)


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