UPDATE, DECEMBER 2012: The original post appears to have disappeared from Planet Ill making the link below dead, so I’ve decided to reprint the article under its original title in its original form here. Enjoy:
SELF-HANDICAPPERS AND EXCUSES
I was having dinner with a friend who was telling me her relationship problems. She
often has relationships with problematic men. Not assholes or scumbags but guys that, in
her view, have minor issues that cause problems. Perfectly decent guys, just not her ideal.
Not bad enough to leave, but not good enough to be content either.
She asked me a question I’ve heard often: “I have a lot of guy friends who are mature,
caring, willing to sacrifice for me, good-looking, who would take care of me in the way I
deserve and be totally devoted…all the things I say I want. They’re friends, but I know if
I ever gave them the green light they’d step up in a heartbeat. So why do I keep choosing
frustrating guys instead?”
I told her “It’s probably that with one set of guys, you have a built-in excuse in case it
fails. Something you can point at and say was wrong with them. With the other group
of guys, they’re so perfect on paper, if it fails you may feel the only option left is that
something is wrong with you. The second type of guy is a bigger risk to your ego, so you
There’s a psychology concept called self-handicapping: the act of preserving one’s
ego by going into every endeavor with preattached excuses, thereby preventing the
preventing one from seeming responsible for a failure, and also making a success even
more impressive, because they achieve it in spite of this excuse.
Self-handicaps can self-sabotaging actions or verbalized excuses. Say you missed
classes all semester, and then go out drinking the night before the test. Plus you brag
about having been too busy to study. If you then fail the test, you can point to your self-
handicaps as the reason. And if you succeed, you can make it seem extra-impressive
because you did it in spite of the previously mentioned obstacles. Thus people can blame
outside forces for failures, but take credit for successes.
A popular example, writer’s block: “Oh if only I didn’t suffer from this damn writer’s
block! Without it, I know I’d write the greatest novel ever.” If this person actually
finished a novel, she’d have to let the world read it and risk the outcome that they’re
underwhelmed by it, or worse, hate it. She’d rather lose out on the chance to be a great
novelist than risk the possible ego annihilation of being shown she has no talent after all.
The more one cares more about appearing infallible than actually being great, the worse
they habitual handicap, something that is borne out in studies of narcissists. Without
handicaps, these people would be forced to give their all to something and risk failing at
it, with no excuses at their disposal. And the more narcissistic a person is, the harder it
is for their egos to survive the notion that they did their best and failed. Some people are
much more sensitive to the shame and embarrassment of failure and fear it irrationally.
So they choose to live the fiction that they never got the chance to do their best. Like
Marlon Brando, “I coulda been a contender.”
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Ironically, while habitual handicapping helps egos in the short term, it’s harmful in the
long run because handicappers never develop the true feeling of competence that comes
with doing your best at something and succeeding. Subconsciously they often feel like
imposters. Even worse, if a handicapper succeeds, he’ll feel better in the short term
because he can brag that he succeeded despite the handicap, but because of the greater
future expectations that accompany success, his self-handicapping will become worse
than ever because now he has an even more perfect self-image to protect and the ego
stakes are higher.
Likewise, in relationships, there are also people who habitually self-handicap, like always
choosing emotionally unavailable people, physically hot but shallow and cruel partners,
or emotionally immature people. Or even more extreme, always dating married people or
falling for their friends’ ex-es.
Habitual self-handicappers are especially prone to narcissistic delusion. Studies show
that habitual handicappers who skipped a lot of classes, missed deadlines and didn’t buy
textbooks often rated themselves in the top 10 percent of the class in intelligence, despite
having C and D grades. Likewise, habitual relationship handicappers always think they
were the more mature partners in their prior relationships, despite their self-sabotaging
behaviors to the contrary.
If you start dating someone who shows signs of being a habitual handicapper, for
example always telling excuse-filled sob stories of why past relationships didn’t work
out, don’t get sucked into trying to rescue them or trying to compensate for those past
partners. They never wanted a relationship that works. They’re choosing you specifically
because there’s something about you that they feel provides them a built-in “out” they
can use when its time to bail.
It’s tough for our egos to accept that someone might actually be with us on those
grounds, rather than because we’re so awesome, but trust me, ignore this advice at your
Click here to read my newest Planet Ill column. The topic is self-handicappers in relationships.
I don’t choose the final titles to the pieces over there, so the current title is “Do Women Date Bad Boys To Fail…On Purpose?” is kind of misleading. The self-handicapping behavior mentioned isn’t gender specific, it was meant to describe behavior by both genders. If you read the language in the article it’s actually pretty gender-neutral.
It relates to concepts I’ve brought up in articles like Ego-Driven Superiority, Ego and Locus of Control, Dunning-Kruger, Maturity Paradox Part 1 and Part 2, and others. Keep everything we’ve discussed in the past in mind whenever reading a new post. Train yourself to see how everything interrelates and how similar themes always seem to resurface in life.
By the way, earlier this year I put up a reader poll for topic suggestions, and I never did the articles based on those suggestions. The reason why is because I wanted to establish a common vocabulary of concepts I planned to use in exploring and analyzing those topics. Unfortunately, that step’s been taking longer than I originally planned, so I’ll be speeding it up from this point forward so that I can finally get around to it.