Do You Fear Failure?

You blew the job interview. Blame it on lack of sleep. The night before you indulged in a Grande Caffé Latte, and the caffeine kicked in just as you were settling down to sleep. You arrived at the interview in a fog and stumbled through the questions. With a good night’s sleep, you would have nailed it. Knowing how caffeine affects you, why did you sabotage your interview with 16 ounces of a liquid stimulant?

Why we shoot ourselves in the foot

In a classic 1978 study, Steven Berglas and Edward E. Jones termed this type of sabotage “self-handicapping.” Failure strikes at your ego. You want to believe you will succeed, but perhaps have some doubts. Giving yourself an excuse ahead of time — “I didn’t sleep well last night” —is a way to protect your self-image should you fail. Subsequent studies have documented this as a common strategy people use, subconsciously, in a variety of situations to protect their public image and their own self-esteem.

What type of people sabotage their own efforts?

This tendency toward self-handicapping isn’t restricted to people lacking self-efficacy. Confident individuals with a history of successes need to protect their record of achievement and may engage in self-defeating behaviors to provide cover for a possible failure. Students are prime candidates for self-handicapping. Academic failure is public and makes a statement about a student’s intellectual capabilities. It is easier to show up for a test with a hangover and blame poor grades on a night of partying than to fail and admit you are not very smart.

Excuses we create to explain our failures

As in the case of the late-night latté, drug and alcohol use are common self-defeating behaviors. Procrastination is another. Put off a project until just before deadline, and the procrastinator can blame lack of time for poor results. Self-handicapping finds its way into personal relationships. A person may value, and seek, a romantic relationship, but then drive away the object of their affection with bad behavior, preemptively killing the romance before a possible rejection.

Avoiding failure, and responsibility for failure, stunts your growth

What motivates you to grow? To really dig in and work to improve yourself? Allowing yourself to experience failure can be a great motivator when it comes to self-improvement. Teasing out the factors that contributed to your failure, and recognizing those within your control, gives you a blueprint for future attempts. According to Sean McCrea, author of Self-Handicapping, Excuse Making, and Counterfactual Thinking: Consequences for Self-Esteem and Future Motivation, participants in his study on self-handicapping were less motivated to study for tests when they had ready-made excuses for poor scores on prior tests. It’s as if they believed that since they did okay on a test, despite self-created distractions, they really didn’t need to study for future exams.

Stop creating obstacles to success

When an associate of Thomas Edison commented on the inventor’s lack of results after months of intense work on storage batteries, Edison replied, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.” Edison’s attitude is one we all can embrace. Recognize that life is journey, one we travel through building knowledge and skills along the way. You most likely are unaware of the stumbling blocks you place in your path. Recognizing your tendency to self-handicap is the first step in removing these blocks. When facing a daunting project or test of skills, ask these questions:

  • What do I need to do to succeed?
  • Am I engaging in counter-productive behaviors?
  • What is the worse case scenario if I fail?
  • How long will it take me to recover from this failure?

The answers to these questions will help you understand your own motivations and image-protecting behaviors. You want to move forward with confidence, and to do this, you need to recognize that failure is not the end of your world. It is another notch in your belt of learning and gives you the opportunity to adapt and grow.