Steven Rudolf, LCSW

Hoop Themes

Stop Selling Yourself Short

Self-handicapping keeps you under the radar—often for the worse.

Posted Dec 04, 2018

The ongoing saga of Markelle Fultz, the 2017 number one NBA draft pick who lost his ability to shoot a basketball, is unprecedented in basketball history. Clearly, confidence is a huge factor in the success of a young professional basketball player—as well as in our own lives. Selling ourselves short, or “self-handicapping,” is a behavior related to confidence that limits both our effectiveness and the respect we get from others.

But what is self-handicapping? At its core, it is when you put obstacles in the path of your own goals. Social evaluation by others is a key influencer here, since it holds the prospect of rejection due to your failures.

There are two main forms of self-handicapping, as per The Interpersonal Solution to Depression by Jeremy W. Pettit and Thomas Ellis Joiner: “claimed” or “self-reported” handicapping, and “acquired” or “behavioral” self-handicapping  Let’s examine these:

  1. Claimed or self-reported handicapping: This is when you want to keep a past failure private and invent excuses to explain performances and/or to lower expectations of future performances. In the NBA, Fultz has the unfortunate circumstance of having his games captured on video, so when he offered an explanation for his strange free-throw shooting (“the ball slipped”) (example 1), it was clear that he was creating excuses for his performance. Have you offered explanations about a work or school project—such as being tired or having too little time to prepare—as a way to lower expectations or deflect blame?
  2. Acquired or behavioral self-handicapping: This is when you experience some public success, but doubt your ability to continue it, so you put habits in place that actually create a handicap—habits such as procrastination, failing to prepare, etc. These habits give you an excuse in the case of poor performance. From all reports, Fultz is working on his jump-shot. However, his habit of driving directly into the defenders, even when he is left wide open, in order to avoid having to shoot (example 2), has been an example of acquired self-handicapping. Have you engaged in any type of self-sabotage—taking actions, for fear of failure, that actually lower your chances for success?

What is the result of these self-handicapping behaviors, in the eyes of others? As you can probably guess, it’s not good. While selling yourself short works in the short-term as a protector of your self-esteem, it hurts the views that others develop of you. Studies have shown that people who self-handicap will get worse evaluations of their performances. And when expectations that others have of you lower, it will, in turn, lead to lessened opportunities. 

This last part has played out publicly in recent weeks for Fultz. He was demoted in a recent game and replaced in his team's lineup by undrafted guard T.J. McConnell. For a number one overall pick to have this happen says that his coach has basically lost faith in him. It’s likely that the in-game, self-handicapping habits that Fultz developed had a negative effect.

So how can we combat this, and perform without selling ourselves short?

First, become aware of your self-handicapping behaviors. Do you mention at work that you were super busy and barely had time to prepare for a presentation? Do you tell your friends that you haven’t picked up a tennis racquet in years so they shouldn’t expect much? Do you put off prep for an exam or interview because you are fearful of failure?

Then, allow yourself to take part in activities and challenges without first qualifying your abilities, and ask yourself: What steps should I take right now to give myself the best chance at success? If you’re having trouble getting going, ask yourself: What’s the smallest step I can take in the next 24 hours that will get me moving in the right direction? You don’t have to change everything at once.

Remember—even if you fail, you will be seen in a better light by others than if you are self-handicapping all along. Other than some temporary feelings of relief, and guarding a tenuous bit of self-esteem, what does selling yourself short really accomplish for you?

Like Fultz, you will gain more respect—and more opportunity—by being willing to fail in public. The temporary hit to self-esteem in the case of failure is better than the long-term hit to self-belief and respect of others.

Unlike Fultz, you probably won’t have to deal with failure in front of millions of people. All the more reason to try and “go out on a limb,” and ditch the words and habits that sell yourself short.


Source:  Pettit, Jeremy W. & Ellis Joiner, Thomas. (2005) The Interpersonal Solution to Depression. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc

Rhodewalt, F., D.M. Sanbonmatsu, B. Tschanz, D.L. Feick, and A. Waller. 1995. Self-handicapping and interpersonal trade-offs: The effects of claimed self-handicaps on observers' performance evaluations and feedback. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 21 (10): 1042-50.

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