Part One: The Protective Tendency of the Disclaimer
I see this all the time.
Someone will be entering into a competitive situation or an experience that will require something of them and, before the event begins, they will make a statement such as, “I rolled my ankle yesterday,” or, “I slept really poorly last night,” or, “I don’t really know what I am doing,” and they all end with a proclamation of, “So I probably won’t be at my best.”
If you made such a disclaimer in the face of such an event then you are a victim of Self-Handicapping.
To avoid the risk, you sabotage a potential outcome, and your "best" is left in the unknown future.
You might be anxious about a performance so you provide a reason why you might not do as well as you want.
Maybe you put off a goal or behavioral change by claiming you are too busy or the timing isn't right for the first step when really it is a fear of under-performing or risking a challenge that would cost you something that you don't want to give up.
Or you may be entering a test and, in the uncertainty of how well or how poorly it might go, you mention that you haven’t even studied or prepared - just in case you need to validate a potentially lower than desired score.
Or you have a streak of several failed relationships and, to avoid having to confront deeper issues, you claim that you weren’t even into any of those significant others in the first place or that you have a personality that just pushes people away so you are pre-destined to not have the next one work either.
We have a tendency to protect ourselves.
But in the process we also limit ourselves.
So what is self-handicapping and what does it have to do with self-stealing?
Part two: Defining Self-Handicapping
Self-Handicapping is any action or choice of performance setting that enhances the opportunity to externalize or excuse failure while also internalizing and giving credit for success that you portrayed as especially difficult because of said external circumstances.
In all of the above situations, there was a potential for failure - you wouldn’t perform as ideally as you would want to during the workout or test or relationship or you don't want to take on a challenging situation so you anticipate the negative outcome from the failure and its undesirable effects on your image. To prevent the negative, we shift the blame to some externalized factor beforehand and, as a result, we give ourselves a handicap.
Self-handicapping gives a justifiable reason why the desired outcome isn’t as likely to happen because of said external factor. Which obviously declares, of course, that it is out of your control.
If we can minimize the expectation (because I slept poorly, I won’t be able to perform as well), people now anticipate a less-than-ideal result. We have to do this before the performance begins to show that we already know the outcome will be less than desirable and, as a result, we avoid responsibility for any perceived failure.
Whatever that external factor is can now be blamed for failure instead of my own ability. Also a benefit, if I happen to still perform well, I look like an achiever - despite such a drastic impediment, I still performed well against those odds. The achievement is not nearly what it could have potentially been if we went in without the handicap, but now a sub-par performance or product can be highlighted as a success that makes us look especially resilient. On the normal spectrum, it is average and not worth celebrating. In your debilitated context, you appear to have overcome the odds and we can celebrate that you have won a self-victory even if it is well below the standard of celebration…all because your protective disclaimer makes it appear as if you did something remarkable.
You create the handicap (I.e., excuse).
The handicap protects us from blame.
We avoid looking bad as well as open the opportunity to look especially good as a result. You got a C on your test? Well you didn’t even study - that still pretty good. Or you get a B on your test without studying! Look at you overcoming the odds!
Self-Handicapping will either protect your reputation by externalizing the blame (you aren’t a C student, it is the lack of studying that primarily reflects the outcome) or will enhance your self image because you did better than you should have with the aforementioned external factors (you still managed to do decent and we can celebrate your resilience).
You see this with athletes occasionally (not necessarily professional athletes, but certainly with more amateur levels - also note: I'm not claiming this is true of all injuries) where they claim to be playing through injury. Immediately, the expectation is that they will not excel in the event so the pressure is off - which is why you see a lot of young athletes claim injury; now they don’t have to be great, they only have to supersede the smaller expectation put on them. Performing on an average level now still seems pretty good for their handicapped situation.
And it isn’t just with sports or studying - we do this all the time:
We proclaim that we haven’t slept well.
Or that we don’t have much experience with ____ (enter pretty much any task here).
We aren’t feeling well today.
We bring up a negative shared history with a certain event or experience naming that we aren’t sure how something will go.
I have had to experience this myself with public speaking. I noticed that I would often go into a particularly heightened space and I would slip to people that, "I don't do this often," or that I didn't prepare much. At that point, even if I did okay, I would get a pat on the back. I have had to, instead, enter into a public speaking moment as if I expect to be at my best and perform exceptionally. This forces me to put in the work to ensure that my rhetoric will actually be impactful. Getting rid of the handicap means that I will either fail (or simply fall short of my intended outcome) and will now have to confront what went wrong to improve it or I will excel in that space. I have had to notice that if I want to master public speaking, then I have to get rid of the handicaps. I have to be willing to enter the situation with the full expectation and accept the risk by not protecting a sub-par performance - even if it makes me uncomfortable.
Essentially, we are pretty regular with our excuses that open the expectation that others shouldn’t expect too much from us in the moment and leave the potential to surprise folks with what are pretty average results.
Self-handicapping protects us from the discomfort of not excelling.
But it also does something else.
Self-handicapping releases us from the risk that would, if taken on fully, propel us towards improvement.
Part three: Self-Stealing
When we use self-handicapping, it certainly makes the performance / event / situation easier, but it also negates the possibility of high success or development.
This is because self-handicapping is built to eliminate risk.
The risk of failure, underachieving, or losing dominate our mentality so we create the handicap to avoid the downside of the risk. However, in eliminating the negative risk, we also eliminate the positive risk. Receiving a “C” or a “B” on the test is now acceptable given your circumstances. Performing at an average level is expected in correlation to your injury or situation that is holding you back. This makes our circumstance easier - it feels better, more justified, and certainly more comfortable.
Self-handicapping leaves us with the potential to look better than expected and takes the pressure off. It avoids the risk through an external justification.
However, by eliminating the negative risk, you eliminate the positive risk at the same time.
You give yourself permission to celebrate a "C" when an "A" was possible if you leaned into the process of obtaining it. Putting in the work and expecting the "A" makes you vulnerable to under-achieving, but it also makes the "A" possible.
Someone who always plays injured may be decent, but we will never know what they were truly capable of.
Someone who always performs average, even though they are overcoming the difficult odds that are in place because of their external handicaps, will never have to express their full potential. If a negative outcome is expected as a result of the setback then average becomes acceptable, but it also means that true success is less likely.
This is why Self-Handicapping is also Self-Stealing.
The external handicap functions as a ceiling that prevents development by avoiding the process of putting your full self out there and potentially failing. Someone who always plays a sport with an injury never has to completely play at their ideal level. The handicap steals the opportunity to know and become what you are actually capable of - it only exists in the realm of possibility of what could have been had you not had this limiting factor.
In protecting ourselves from failure, we steal from ourselves our potential.
In my experience, we kind of like this, though. It is easier to say, “If that negative thing hadn’t happened to me, just imagine how good I could’ve been.” We can embellish the imaginary because we never have to prove it because, well, this unavoidable handicap got in the way. But we like living in the imaginary. We like the ambiguity of not actually knowing what we are truly capable and leaving it in the future. The idea of what we might be capable of always gets to exist and our surrounding social environment is left to assume our potential because it only exists in the untested future.
Do you want to know what you are truly capable of accomplishing at your best?
Then you will have to risk underachieving or failing and the proceeding process of putting your full self out there every single time.
Excuses will make us feel better in the short term - our competence is protected by externalizing the blame so that it isn’t your fault and you can return to daily life without the risk of failure.
But excuses also keep us from pursuing success in the future which can only come from enduring the risk associated with fully entering whatever you are trying to do.
Self-handicapping makes it so that you can’t lose - but it also makes it so that you never really gain anything, either. We need to stop sabotaging our potential for the comfort, protection, and limitation of avoiding risk.
In whatever you do, ask:
Am I doing this or not doing this to build in an excuse for potential failure?
Or I am willing to own the process and put my full self out there?
Am I limiting myself to be comfortable?
Or I am willing to risk the disappointment to truly unleash my best?
If you are dependent on justifying the average, you might be self-handicapping.
And if you are self-handicapping, you are also self-stealing at the same time.