2 Ways to Skirt Self-Handicapping

So, why don’t we choose stand out?

(Part II of a series on being distinct)

If you’ve built a business, you want to have a unique competitive advantage that others can’t copy easily. For any individual, you want to be clear what ideas you are fighting for…or perhaps discovered your superpower.  Distinction being the thing that lets us get picked for the team, or picked by customers. Or picked for a job because it’s clear what unique value one can add. Distinction allows one to be heard above the noise. Or allows you to champion a cause or idea so it is adopted broadly.

Innovators, business transformers, the change agents, people who make and ship stuff don’t just want to be distinct, they need to be distinct.

Evidence suggests, though, that even this group shies away from being distinct. Why? Well, research says that we would rather feel good about ourselves, than face a set back. You already know this: when we try something new, we risk many things – our reputation, our status, our position, the status quo, and more importantly – our understanding of ourselves. We would rather protect our definition of ourselves “as is” rather than risk trying something else and risk not being “good”.

The technical term is called Self-Handicapping. It was discovered in the 50s and no research has toppled it, most research spanning the 60+ years since the original work only confirms the concept with more fidelity. It says, we will actually give up or –perhaps worse yet – not try because we would rather feel good about what we already know than try something and risk being something less perfect. We protect and preserve, rather than grow.

As a writer, I have faced this for some time. I was an essayist for my high school newspaper, editor of my college paper, a blogger for some 6 years, an author of a published book, and so on … until I called myself a writer. Why? I didn’t want to risk putting myself out there for you to judge me. It was a way to shield myself. It was self-handicapping.

And, maybe, that’s okay. Maybe we need to sneak up to something for a while so we can give ourselves permission to try it, explore it, and experiment until its time.

That’s one approach. I also want to share a 2nd one… It’s about a definition of oneself as a learning being (or a learning organization).

I’ll share another personal and very current example. Today, I struggle with getting my ideas heard above the noise. You could argue that I am doing just fine but I know there are some key ideas for which no one else advocates, and these ideas are not being heard. At it’s very highest level it is that there is deep power in having people collaborate horizontally. But that is not distinct enough, yet. I could hide the fact that this is a struggle and keep doing what I’m doing. Or I could allow a definition of me that is a “learning being” to kick in. Last week, I talked with Tony Schwartz about this as well as Julien Smith. Both gave me advice and exercises that will enable me crisp up these ideas so I eliminate the parts that don’t matter … so the diamond of the idea shines more brightly. The point is that I know this is a struggle and not a skill I own yet for myself (I can do it fine for others!) There are times I am ashamed of myself, and wonder why I am such a cotton-headed ninnie-muggins, as Elf would say. A part of me wants to stomp around and get mad when someone doesn’t see the idea yet. But those are ways in which Self-Handicapping kicks in. It keeps me stuck by preserving and protecting my sense of self.

Which leads to a question about how do we define ourselves? Is it just what we’ve done? You’ve already heard me say that, we are always 2: Who we’ve been, and who we aspire to be. Each of us is bound by our past, our accomplishments, and our failings. But I believe we are ALSO our aspirations and dreams.  If each of us has a self-definition that allows us to appreciate the creative act of the moment…then we will stop denying energy to it. We will be okay with the trying and experimenting. Look around at any innovative company, and notice….they are okay failing because their self-definition includes the idea that they will ultimately figure it out. The story they tell themselves is that they will, which allows them to do so. It’s like the people who didn’t believe any human being could run a 4-minute mile until someone did, and then the best athletes finally believed they could (and they did). The belief forms actions that forms results.

If we define who we are just based on who we’ve been, we deny a lot of what we can contribute, change, and create. Until we start to see ourselves in some way that allows for each of us to be a learning being capable of changing, and growing and standing out, we will always fight our ability to do so. Learning beings learn. Belief drives action. This creates possibility. The possibility will always be in the future, as @syamant recently added to part I of this blog series, Are You Standing Out Today.

A message I’ve adopted as my own comes from a GlenFiddich ad. It is: “One day you will”. This language says that it’s not a matter of IF it’ll happen but when. Then, the part of my brain that wants to excel at problem solving things doesn’t fear loss but sees the issue as a matter of applying the effort and work, embracing the process and practice of pushing these ideas to the edge. This provides a framework for approaching new situation in a way that allows anyone of us to steer around self-handicapping thinking.

These are two ways to skirt self-handicapping. One is to inch towards it without public notification. The other is to simply frame it as part and parcel of who you already are.

What are your thoughts on self-handicapping?

12 Replies

  1. Terrific post Nilofer. Fear is such an enormous inhibitor and energy drain particularly as it relates to trying to define oneself. By doing so aren’t we really just seeking validation
    for who we are or who we will become? By seeking approval from others we’re setting ourselves up for continuous disappointment and heartache. Approval strokes our ego but it is fleeting and leaves me on the edge wanting more and more. I’ve been guilty of chasing it but feel most at peace, when in moments of solitude, to believe in myself. I have too because sometimes life can feel overwhelming.

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    1. Someone wrote privately that it provided fodder for some navel-gazing. Wasn’t *quite* going for that tone, but hey… whatever works. Food for thought — to own your own bigness.

  3. If I may add a couple of thoughts. The first is that the herd mentality is really strong, even in humans. We didn’t want to stand out from the herd, lest the bear or the tiger focus in on you for being bigger, brighter, or simply standing apart from the others. The GReeks knew this, and one of the most severe punishments was to banish, or ostracize, from the community. So we all have alittle voice in us that says “play it safe, don’t make waves, fit in” that comes from millenia of programming

    Second, and more to the point of self-limiting, I have found that many people are scared of failure, and more to the point, they are scared of failing at what matters most to them, so rather than risk failing at something that is important, almost sacred, many people choose to try succeed at something trivial. That way, they can always have the fanstasy (I would have been a great writer / inventor / politician / etc). Actually getting down into the ring involves getting beaten up and spattered with mud and blood, and while it is ultimately fulfilling, it looks scary from the outside, because in fact, it is.

    I have a process I like to lead clients down untli they get to a dilemma. They see that if they avoid their dreams and aspirations, then they already feel pain and failure and this is guaranteed, but if they give their dreams a shot, then, well, they have a shot. Not guaranteed, but a chance, and whether they achieve their goal or not, they have already succeeded because they are on a “path with heart,” to borrow a phrase from Carlos Castenada.

    Thanks for a great essay, Nilofer!

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Productivity Coach


  4. Excellent and thought provoking article Nilofer, I suffer from this affliction too and don’t know anyone who does not. I try & live by the philosophy I’d rather regret the things I did than regret not doing what I wanted to…

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  6. Once again, you offer another excellent post requiring both reflection and thought. To add an idea, I find people often self-handicap because of the expected comfort within a known context. It’s safe. Stimulus, response, stimulus, response… while working toward the greatest/easiest (insert adjective of choice) incentive, even if a negative as it affords a sense of control over the known and ostensibly practical. Achievement, even if considered modest or trivial, creates and supports feelings of positive gain because, to your point, “It keeps me stuck by preserving and protecting my sense of self.” That sense of self, identity, purpose, meaning, value, being and definition and personal distinction, but defined by certain contextual designs and not necessarily by our true whole and unrealized, gleaming with potential self. Sticking out and taking a shot, like replying to your post amidst a sea of ideas filled with buoyed viewpoints is scary because now I am vulnerable to the noise that is beyond my volume button’s control. “One day you will… have the courage to step outside of your ‘self’ and do one thing to demonstrate the courage to be yourself.”

  7. I, too, very much appreciate this post as a comment on how identity deeply influences risk-taking. It’s all well-said. There is cultural self-handicapping, too, I think, in the sense that we use certain words to set a boundary on what is worthwhile. “Touchy-Feely” is one; “navel-gazing” another; I’m sure there are more that suggest a limit on what is valuable to talk about. Such words, in a way represent a frontier for new ideas, and as a generic handicap, influence relationships and risk-taking, genuine individual and group learning, as well as the capacity to collaborate and the willingness to stand out. That boundary seems to show up whenever topics like the ones you address here — that have emotional power and risk uncomfortable self-knowledge — show up for consideration. Great post.

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