The Psychology of Self-Handicapping — and How to Stop


Have you ever stopped yourself from working hard to avoid higher expectations?

You do just enough for people to think that you are intelligent, accomplished and more. But, as far as raising the bar even higher, it’s an absolute no-go. Well, that, my friend, is self-handicapping—and I do it too.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want people to look at me and think, “Wow, she failed? She looks dumb.” But, the reality is, who cares?!

You want to live an exciting life and create more opportunities for yourself. But those opportunities can’t manifest if you are carefully crafting your personal brand to appease an audience that isn’t even thinking much about you in the first place.

To overcome self-handicapping, you have to understand it first. So let’s take a closer look at this very common phenomenon.

What Is Self-Handicapping?

Self-handicapping is a cognitive strategy used by people to avoid putting in too much effort in the hope that they will avoid failure, getting hurt, or bruising their self-esteem.

Self-handicapping is something that humans have done forever. Still, there wasn’t a word for it until the 1970s when social psychology researchers Steven Berglas and Edward Jones named the phenomenon.

The two conducted a study where they randomly assigned college students—both men and women— to complete anagrams. Some of the problems were solvable, and others were not. All study participants were told that they did great—even students with unsolvable problems.

The students were confused (I mean, who wouldn’t be!), but then, they were asked if they wanted to take either a performance-enhancing or performance-inhibiting drug before taking another test. Surprisingly, the students who received the unsolvable problems wanted to take the inhibiting drug.

Based upon the results of this test, Berglas and Jones found that people who weren’t comfortable with their abilities were more likely to engage in self-handicapping by sabotaging their performance and then blaming outside sources for their poor performance. Since the initial discovery, there have been several other studies done by many psychologists trying to get to the root of the problem.

In this sense, self-handicapping is another form of self-preservation. Our brains are hardwired to protect us from all types of danger. In most cases, that’s great! But when it comes to achieving a specific goal, it turns out our brains can actually do more harm than good.

How to Notice When You Are Self-Handicapping

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but self-handicapping shows itself in people in very different ways. There is a measurement system for just about everything, and self-handicapping is no different. To measure the differences, many researchers use the Self-Handicapping Scale (SHS), developed by Frederick Rhodewalt in 1990.

The SHS is a series of questions where you rate the degree to which you agree or disagree, revealing how much an individual self-handicaps when faced with tasks.

4 Behaviors Often Connected With Self-Handicapping

Self-handicapping has been associated with people who tend to have lower self-esteem, neuroticism, narcissism, perfectionism, lower grade point averages, depression, and more. But people with high self-esteem aren’t immune to self-handicapping.

This cognitive strategy can affect anyone and everyone, especially when the fear of succeeding in tasks or activities is high.

A few examples of handicapping behaviors include:

  • Procrastination. Many of us struggle with procrastination. It’s the mindset that “I’ll get to it…eventually.” But, more often than not, this is just delaying the inevitable task that must be done and then blaming a lack of time for subpar results.
  • Skipping a practice before a big event. This one can be applied to all of the athletes, performers, speakers, and leaders out there. You have a big event coming up that could be a fantastic opportunity. But you are afraid of potential failure and come up with a reason not to go to pre-event practice—ultimately leading to what may be a bad performance.
  • Not getting enough sleep. You have a big test, presentation, or another significant event in the morning, but the next episode of your new TV show obsession is queued up on Netflix. Instead of getting that whole night of sleep, you watch another episode or two. Then your tiredness is an excuse for why your performance wasn’t that great the next day.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse. This is a more severe form of self-handicapping, but it’s common for more people than you think. You know that the third glass of wine, beer, or other substance isn’t what you need. But your fear and anxiety of what’s to come terrify you to the point of drinking that third glass without hesitation. However, this behavior can also be related to self-sabotage, a step beyond self-handicapping that can cause long-term damage.

Once you begin observing your behavior through the lens of self-handicapping, many behaviors may now have explanations. But, ultimately, self-handicapping goes back to how we feel about ourselves and our genuine feelings about success.

How to Stop Self-Handicapping

“Begone, self-handicapping!” —if only it were that easy.

There is never one quick fix to take the problem away for good. Good mental health requires constant and intentional effort to stop yourself from falling back into habits you no longer want in your life.

You’ve created this carefully crafted persona of who you are in the name of protecting your self-esteem, and you’ve underestimated yourself for a long time. You know more about self-handicapping and how it affects your life. Now, it’s time to stop letting self-handicapping dictate your life and take those risks that scared—or may still scare— you.

Try Prefactual Thinking

Prefactual thinking is a thought experiment where you set about viewing a situation and considering the possible outcomes before you enter into it. If you are often super-cynical and already think that you’ll fail, this is an excellent exercise for you. But, for the practice to work, you have to be intentional when considering your options.

What I do when engaging in this thought experiment:

  • Don’t get caught up in my anxiety. Anxiety is par for the course when attempting something new, but it does you no good to dwell in it.
  • Imagine all possible outcomes. Don’t dwell only on the worst outcomes. Think about the best outcomes or even just the outcomes that make you feel content.
  • Don’t value the optimistic scenarios over the negative ones (or vice versa). Giving value to one over the other will result in disappointment and unrealistic expectations.
  • List all the various situations and see what I’ve got. Lay all options out on the table and look at what each involves.

This exercise is not about becoming overly optimistic or pessimistic—it’s about being self-aware and honest with yourself about the situations that you’ve laid out.

Rethink Your Assumptions About Success

Many reasons may cause us to self-handicap. You attempted something, and people laughed at you. Maybe you failed so poorly that you decided that it was the last time anyone would see you sweat. We all do it for different reasons, but one thing is sure. We, as human beings, are at times more scared of success than failure.

Success looks different for everyone, but the feelings that come with success can set us back. You’ve accomplished that task, project, or sale, and you did a great job. Then—out of nowhere—the increased expectations, talk of raising the bar and “leveling up” with each new job you complete start demanding your attention. That just sounds terrifying for many people, let alone experiencing it.

Instead of rushing to become bigger and better than before, look for what it is—a goal you accomplished when you didn’t think you could. It’s the task that you procrastinated on in the past until you finally said enough was enough.

Success will bring you a lot of opportunities and a mix of feelings. Just remember that despite what you thought at the beginning, you did it. And that is worth celebrating all on its own.

Take the Risk

Situational outcomes that you’ve imagined in your head are not always accurate. No one is standing there waiting for you to try something new, fail, and laugh while pointing their finger at you for it. At least, no one who understands that failure is a part of life would ever do that.

Sometimes, you are going to fail when you try something new. When I push myself in a new direction, I try to remember that if I fail (and I almost always do at first), I shouldn’t be ashamed of that. I pushed out of my comfort zone and learned more than I ever would have had I not tried in the first place.

People will say I’m brave for that. Others will say I’m a dilettante. What I say is, “who cares?” Failure won’t kill you, but self-handicapping will definitely prevent you from living the life you deserve.


  1. Wow, is that wisdom that comes with turning 40?! Just kidding. But the “without judgement” part is extremely critical and so is thinking hard about possible blind spots. And this is something you have to do for your self. Nobody else (unless if someone is incredibly lucky and has a great girl friend they grew up with) can make the choice for you. Well said!

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