On Self-Sabotage

We’ve all been there. Facing a big exam, a big game, a big meeting. Sometimes the pressure is almost too much to take.

Even despite best efforts and genuine goodwill to succeed, the outcome seems uncertain.

Sometimes, but not all the time, it’s possible to observe people becoming so overwhelmed by the pressure that they throw the game, they ruin their chances before even getting to the field. I’m talking about self-sabotage.

Self-sabotage, or self-handicapping, is a behavioural strategy adopted by some to avoid effort to protect their self-esteem from a potential failure. This subconscious process is motivated by the need to externalise the self-attribution of failure through self-imposed obstacles. Self-attribution theory explains that people are motivated to preserve a positive self-image. Anything that might change one’s ability to think of him or herself in a positive light is an identity threat. As individuals have multifaceted personalities, the more core a certain aspect of the self is, the more we are motivated to protect our view of ourselves having this quality in a positive way. For example, I’m a competitive figure skater. My abilities and self-image as a successful figure skater depend on me seeing myself in a positive way and also being seen in this way by close others. Doing badly at a competition would threaten my ability to think of myself in a positive way as a figure skater. Having something to attribute failure to (e.g., “I was sick on competition day”, “I didn’t get enough sleep”) lessens the blow to my self-image. I might even subconsciously self-sabotage and not go to bed until really, really late so I have something to blame the outcome on rather than accepting that I might just be losing my edge (haha, get it?).

A number of self-handicapping strategies have been identified, from alcohol use and drug abuse to getting too little sleep before a test. Self-handicapping can take the form of excuses, and, at an extreme, phenomena like hypochondriasis. Behaviour is self-handicapping if it fuzzies the causal attributions between action and outcome, such that the outcome, should it be considered a failure, is more attributed to the circumstances rather than the individual, thereby reducing potential damage to self-esteem.

Self-handicapping can be done not only to protect self-esteem but also to impress others or enhance one’s self-image – although, behavioural scientists claim this is much less prevalent. Research in this area is tightly tied to self-esteem and understanding behaviours that are motivated to preserve positive self-image – and research has found that mostly those with relatively high self-esteem used self-handicapping to self-enhance to others rather than to protect their self-image.

I see self-handicapping as having two core components:

  • The aspect of the self that would be threatened by the potential failure is core to the self-concept.
  • There exists and uncertainty about outcome above a threshold of comfort/control enough to motivate the creation of self-constructed obstacles.

It might be hard to identify and stop self-sabotaging in yourself. But once you understand what the behaviour is, it’s possible to observe in others.  It’s one thing to see a friend self-handicapping, but what about a teammate, who’s insecurities might actually be threatening the success of the group as a whole? Although by very nature being a part of a team already lessens the direct negative self-attributions that can come from a failure at the team-level, what can you to prevent self-sabotaging behaviour on the part of a friend or teammate?

Here are some tips on how to deal with it:

  • Identify. Those who’s self-image is most at risk for failure might be likely candidates to self-handicap. Look at who’s self-image seems highly connected to the task at hand. This might be a helpful tip, or it might be confusing – in an ideal world all team members would feel passionate about the team’s work and incorporate it into their self-image. Alternatively, look for signs of low self-esteem. Someone who might not be able to take the pangs of failure.
  • Prevent. As self-esteem is intrinsically tied to self-handicapping, one strategy is to boost up your teammate. Reassure them of his or her skills and value. Point to past successes and wins in the relevant area, “you’ve done this a million times before”. Another strategy is to downplay the importance of the event and its significance. “This game isn’t even going to be broadcast on TV!” Downplaying the event might serve as less of a threat to the self in the case of failure.
  • Repair. In the case that a teammate has self-sabotaged and created an extra obstacle for the self (and therefore you as a team), react with compassion. Ultimately this is coming from a place of low self-esteem rather than a place of malicious intention. If this is a repeated behaviour, do not give in to the sabotager and give them too much positive attention, as this will just reinforce the behaviour and they will end up crying wolf. At this point, it would be more helpful to recommend to the teammate to get some additional help and support.

Have you seen a teammate or friend self-sabotage?

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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.

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