Alice, a first year student in the Ph.D. program in psychology at New York University, had a similar experience. An unusually hardworking and effective person, she found it easier to help others than to help herself. A cherished friend, colleague and fellow student, Alice consistently failed to handle the demands of the graduate program despite a well-demonstrated ability for academic work. While ably helping fellow students with their work, her papers and presentations were neglected or mishandled to the point where her status in the program became jeopardized.
Both Jim and Alice exhibit what might be described as self-defeating behaviors, clusters of thoughts, ideas and actions that often result in sabotage of success at work and in relationships. Self-defeating behaviors include a broad spectrum of self-imposed handicaps and other ploys and tactics that may suggest emotional trouble.
The obvious questions that arise in situations like these are: Why exactly do these people become their own worst enemy?
There have been many ways to understand these behaviors. Traditional explanations claim that people who repeatedly “shoot themselves in the foot” fear success, feel guilty about their behavior or simply suffer from low self-esteem. Newer explanations include the possibility that self-defeatists suffer from inflated opinions of themselves and that they use self-defeat as a way to take control of a fear of failure. Perhaps Jim had serious doubts about his ability to successfully make it through the bank management program, so his being “too busy” to find the time to study, as well as his headaches, provided excuses that justified his exit without having to risk failing in the actual program.
Alice might have been handling her anxieties about the graduate program by developing a praiseworthy excuse for her own self-doubts and conflicts about her performance. If her sacrifices on behalf of her fellow students led to her inability to successfully complete the program, she might be able to take comfort in the belief that she would have succeeded if only she would have finished; a self-defeating handicap that protected her from the risk of failure.
Perhaps the best way that someone can stop self-defeating behaviors is to learn to reflect rather than react. When someone is faced with the consequences of negative behavior, the question to ask is, “If I could do this over again, what would I have done differently?” the answer may be the most effective way to prevent self-defeat.