When You Pull The Rug Out From Beneath Your Own Feet
Have you ever sabotaged yourself without even knowing why? Maybe you did it multiple times, knowing each time what happened and resolving that you wouldn’t repeat the mistake, but every time it seems to happen again without your control. In part 1 of this article, I spoke about how people self handicap because it protects their ego against failure. I also briefly touched on the fact that there can be other reasons for self handicapping, and that’s what this article will cover. The causes for self handicapping can come from various sources, such as:
Learned behaviour from parents
Behaviour reinforced from previous experiences
Something said by a role model at a critical point in time
Lack of tools to overcome the obstacle
After writing part 1, I had a personal insight into my own failings and self handicapping in a past chapter of my life. I’ve previously written about my lowest point following my discharge from the military, but it isn’t the whole story. There was a story within that story, and it was in fact the reason for my self destruction and the most difficult period of my life.
I applied for a whole heap of intelligence jobs when I got out of the military and didn’t get any of them. Oh, I was often probably one of the best or an excellent candidate, but I self handicapped the entire way. The one where I made the most progress and eventually the biggest mistake was with an agency that you don’t hear about on the news or in any of the media. I was doing really well in the process — I passed all of their tests, I showed my skills at analysis and I was all the way to the final stage of recruitment. I’d already been verbally told what position I’d be in, what area I’d be covering and the employee level I’d be. The only thing left was the final psych interview. I’d been through heaps of these already, I knew what they’d ask, how they’d ask and how the game was played.
About two hours into that interview, I was talking about my time in the army and how I loved my job but didn’t like the restrictions of being in the military so much. I mentioned off handedly that I was writing a book about my experience. As soon as I said it the alarm bell went off inside of me. The psychologist betrayed the slightest widening of her eyes that said the alarm bell went off for her too. Despite the fact that I was in the final stage, that I held the highest security clearance, that I knew exactly what this was all about, I essentially told her that I couldn’t be trusted to keep secrets and I could be a possible whistleblower. I walked out of that interview with a single thought in my head: “you fucking idiot, you’ve just blown it”.
I tried to stay positive and convince myself that maybe I’d still make it through and it wouldn’t be a big deal, but a few weeks later the letter arrived, informing me that my application was unsuccessful. The aftermath of that wasn’t pretty. I knew that I and I alone was the reason that I was now unemployed, that my dreams of being an analyst in that intelligence organisation were gone forever. That sent me into a 3 month long depressive episode. Not only was I angry at myself, I was utterly ashamed and felt humiliated. “If I’m so smart, how could I fuck up and do something so stupid?” I thought.
At the time I had a whole bunch of friends telling me that it wasn’t my fault when I missed out on jobs, the hiring people just had no clue. They told me to aim higher than I should have, that I was a shoe in and so on. It was everything I wanted to hear so I ate it up. Those closest to me though? They were trying to warn me. They were trying to suggest that maybe I was the reason I wasn’t getting these jobs. The problem is, however, that telling a self handicapper what they are doing rarely works. For me, I was in the middle of a vicious cycle: miss out on job, get angry, frustrated, confused. Take it personally, assume the hiring people were too stupid to realise how good I was.
And here’s where we get to the crux of the issue with self handicapping: more often than not, we will see it as the world being against us and things just not working out. We’ll fail to realise that we are the problem and that the entire reason we are doing it is something that we would never even consider. We can self handicap for a variety of reasons, but to find out exactly what the underlying cause is requires us to go deep inside of ourselves, to some dark and confronting places that we may not wish to go. For all but the most self aware people, it may even require therapy to uncover.
For me though? Writing part 1 helped me to uncover this and truth be told, it came to me in a sudden flash of insight. I had to face a pretty uncomfortable truth that I would really not have preferred to — that somewhere inside me I harbour a desire for attention and praise. I began drilling deep down into my past and the events that shaped such psychological needs. I remembered missing out on certain awards that I expected to get in high school and were really important to me. At the time I remember feeling massively cheated and wronged. The fact that I can remember such events 20 years on told me that they were significant.
When I was in the army, I saw people get publicly commended merely for being in the right place at the right time (hard to explain unless you worked where I worked), whilst some of my substantial achievements when unnoticed except by the people whom they benefited. At the time it really pissed me off, because it made me question what I had to do for some kind of recognition. When I started interviewing for intelligence agencies, I expected my achievements and education to speak for themselves. I (unrealistically) expected those hiring to be impressed with what I’d done and to want me to work there. When they didn’t, I became confused and frustrated.
So when I was sitting in that psychologist’s chair in that final interview, I think my unmet need for attention and my ego took over. I don’t know if I subconsciously wanted to impress this person or not, but the result was me blurting out something that, every day of the week, I knew was the totally wrong thing to say.
Now this might all sound pretty simple and an easily arrived at conclusion, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m in a great job in a great company, and my life is great. If I was still in my old job, I’d doubtless be kicking myself and hating myself even now for blowing the biggest opportunity of my life. And that’s the risk, when you go searching for these things in the darkest dungeons of your soul, you’d better be ready for what you find. I can forgive myself for that mistake now, because I’ve been through a gigantic personal and professional transformation since that event but for many people, it could be a catastrophic discovery without a therapist to guide them through it.
One of the hardest things for me to deal with when it came to sabotaging myself is that the message we get bombarded with from the media is the guy that ‘“could have”. If Noah Kagan had managed to stay employed at Facebook just a few months longer, he would’ve gotten a stock option and been worth $200 million dollars. If Jim hadn’t sold his Apple shares in the 90s, he’d be worth a fortune. If Pete had stayed with the Beatles, he would’ve been a superstar.
All of these stories focus on the fact that someone screwed up, so they can’t possibly be living a life of happiness now. It’s as though one mistake defines someone, one act of self handicapping has screwed their chances for the rest of their life. It’s an awful message because it’s just not true.
How did I stop self handicapping? Well, that didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t a conscious process either. I guess I channeled my need for attention and to be recognised into my writing, and whenever I felt the need come up in personal interaction, I swallowed it like someone swallows a disgusting medicine that is nevertheless good for them. Knowing what the issue is hasn’t suddenly made it go away, but I recognise that it’s a significant force in my subconscious, so I can restrain it. How do I keep it at bay?
*I recognise that it isn’t my fault, that it’s a result of my experiences growing up
*I journal most nights, and use it to get those thoughts out of my head
*I have a few very trusted friends who I constantly bounce ideas off
*I channel it into worthwhile activities
That works for me, but all things considered, needing attention is a relatively benign personality flaw. For people that sabotage their own relationships, their health, their careers, there will doubtless be much more dangerous psychological issues to work through. Some people are lucky — they don’t have any glaring issues that ruin important things in their life. If any of the below are realities for you, however, you may very well be self handicapping and it may stem from something you have no idea of:
If your intimate relationships always turn bad
You can never lose weight and keep it off
You can never keep a job
You keep failing every single time you go for a job
You can’t save any money
You keep making poor financial decisions
You can never stick with anything
You keep leaving things until the last minute
There are of course many other situations where we sabotage ourselves, but the above will ring true for a lot of people. The first way to get on top of your self handicapping is to look for situations in which you consistently make the wrong choice or do the wrong thing — especially when you know that you’ve had an issue in the past. When you say things like “why do I always do this to myself?”, that’s a big sign that you’re self handicapping and you need to get to the root cause.
Be ready for what you find, because it might not be a pleasant truth that you find down there. You might discover that your parents play a large part in the fault or are directly responsible for it, you might find a betrayal of trust from an authority figure. Even when you find the source, you may need professional help to put systems in place so you can overcome the urge to keep doing it. This stuff isn’t easy and it isn’t something you can just decide to change about yourself, because it can have a pretty deep hold in your psychology.
That certainly shouldn’t discourage you from trying though. Despite the hardship involved in changing our psychology, the result is of course completely worth it. Most people have no grasp of their own psychology — what makes them do what they do, why they become frustrated at particular things or why they just can’t succeed at that thing they’ve tried over and over. The ultimate key to personal power in life isn’t wealth, it’s the ability to understand our own psychology.
When you can do that, the world truly becomes open to you.