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Don’t Sabotage Yourself

| October 22, 2012

by Jim Bruce

The Tuesday Reading today is “Don’t Sabotage Yourself” by Susan David, founder and co-director of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching.  She is also a member of the Harvard faculty.  This essay appeared in the HBR blog.

The essay begins with David telling a story about her friend first identifying a dream job and then not applying because of a long list of self-identified reasons why she wouldn’t have any chance to get the job.  Behavioral psychologists call this “self-handicapping,” identifying an obstacle, real or imagined, that might impede success, and using the obstacle as an excuse.

“Self-handicapping allows us to protect ourselves from the pain of assuming responsibility for our features, and people do it all the time.”

Susan David suggests four steps to helping an individual to overcome self-handicapping:

1.  Watch for the warning signs.  If you are making lists of excuses, distracting yourself (with excessive almost anything) you may be engaging in self-handicapping and veering towards self-sabotage.

2.  Use “what-ifs” and “if-only” to help you generate goals instead of excuses.  The thinking you do in self-handicapping can just as easily be flipped to be motivational.  Identify the obstacles that may be in your way, the issues within your control, and take action on them.

3.  Recognize and manage your negative emotions.  Research shows that when we use our “if-onlys” to motivate ourselves, rather than excuse ourselves, we are likely to experience negative emotions such as disappointment and self-directed anger as we take more risks.  Identify these emotions and be kind to yourself as you work through them.  This can help you move to a positive empowering behavior.

4.  Go for mastery.  Trying to perform well in order to avoid negative feedback is likely to reinforce self-handicapping.  Instead go for mastery, really reaching your goal.

David concludes by observing that “by taking a risk you open yourself not only to the possibility of failure, but also the possibility of learning, growth, and real attainment.  It’s up to you to decide which is more perilous:  the risk of disappointment, or the risk of never reaching your potential.”


.  .  .  .  .  .   jim