How many times have you unintentionally ruined your own chances for success? Without knowing why, perhaps you’ve shown up late for an important appointment, or when you've make a mistake due to someone else's error, you found a reason to criticize yourself anyway. Maybe you’ve repeatedly approached someone for a date, even though you’ve been turned down each time before.
All of these are examples of self-defeating beliefs and self-defeating behavior.
There are definitely neurotic underpinnings to self-defeating behavior. A variety of personality theorists, many of them ex-Freudians such as Alfred Adler and Karen Horney, believed that people who feel inadequate set about committing acts that “prove” their unworthiness. For example, they engage in self-handicapping behaviors in which they almost guarantee the failure of an enterprise that’s actually important to them and their sense of self-worth.
The classic example of this type of self-handicapping is the student who doesn’t study for an important test and then, as a result, performs poorly. By not studying, the student is guaranteeing a bad outcome. It's also why you might wait until the last minute to get changed before a social occasion where you really need to look your best. Self-handicapping is literally self-defeating because you make sure that bad things will happen to you.
Another lesser-known but influential psychoanalytical theory is control mastery theory. According to this view, people who develop psychological problems have an unconscious belief in their own unworthiness, developed as a result of the way that neglectful or abusive parents treated them. These people constantly blame themselves for their mistakes, even those that weren’t their fault, because they're so used to being blamed. They then go on to engage in behaviors that actively thwart themselves just to “prove” that their parents or significant others were right about them.
In therapy, these self-handicapping individuals may constantly test the professionals who work with them via “unconscious plans” in which they see whether their therapists will fail them in the way their parents did. They want to know if the therapist will allow them to hold onto their accomplishments or, taking the cues from their parents, feel they deserve to crash and burn.
Another source of self-defeating behavior, according to control mastery theory, is your unconscious desire not to out-do significant others from your past. This is a variant of survivor guilt, in which you feel remorseful and responsible for acts that have wounded others but left you unscathed. By going to college or getting a higher-status job than your parents or siblings did, you may unconsciously believe that you don’t deserve to have a better life then they had. Never mind that they are truly happy to have helped you get where you are and are proud of your success; your illogical beliefs that you’re making them look bad become the basis for your actions in ways that become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s possible that your parents, who never had much success in life, made it clear throughout your childhood that they “sacrificed everything” for you. They may directly cause you to feel guilty by holding you back—calling you to return home every weekend from college or constantly sabotaging your efforts toward success at work. In that case, it becomes extraordinarily difficult for you to avoid feeling guilty about your good fortune compared to theirs, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Control mastery says that you're unconsciously hoping that someone will alleviate your guilt so that you can go on to succeed. Unless a perceptive teacher or advisor recognizes the pattern, you slack off and eventually drop off the pathway to success.
When self-defeating behavior occurs in relation to others, then, you may be trying to see if others will abuse, debase, criticize, or blame you the way your parents did. Whatever the cause, your constant testing through self-defeating acts that compromise your ability to succeed can make life difficult for your close personal relationships, not to mention those in your work life.
By definition, it’s difficult to know when an unconscious behavior is unconsciously caused. All you can do is look at your own patterns of behavior. Enter a study of self-defeating behavior conducted by University of Essex psychologist Mitchell J. Callan and his associates (2014) in a paper appropriately titled, “Making Sense of Misfortune.”
Exploring a constellation of behaviors and attitudes, Callan and his fellow researchers conducted a series of studies to identify those most likely to become self-defeating when confronted with bad experiences. If you’re the self-defeating type, they argued, you’d be more likely to blame yourself for misfortune, suffer a loss of self-esteem, remember more negative than positive events and, ultimately, to engage in more self-handicapping behaviors.
Participants in the Callan et al. studies ranged from college undergraduates to people in the street and online survey respondents. Importantly, these were not all “typical” 18-21 year old college students whose self-esteem is undergoing rapid change but a range of individuals from various ages and walks of life.
The main goal of the study was to see if people with low self-esteem would be particularly vulnerable to the self-defeating conclusion that they were responsible for their misfortunes—and the findings confirmed this expectation: People with low self-esteem who experienced negative outcomes (which they did not cause) were more likely to blame themselves for those outcomes. Additionally, Callan et al wanted to find out if those who were high in self-defeating behavior would engage in more self-handicapping. They did: People who believe they are "bad" feel they deserve bad outcomes, and will act in a way that guarantees they occur.
Rather than invoke neuroticism as the cause for the relationships among self-defeating beliefs, low self-esteem and self-handicapping, Callan and his team believe the reasons are cognitive in nature: If you feel that people get what they deserve, and you feel worthless, then you feel you deserve bad outcomes. Because they obtained their findings in the context of experimental, short-term studies, the researchers urge caution in applying their results to real life. Over time, though, it’s possible that a string of disappointments could lead people into chronically believing they deserve those bad outcomes.
How do you know if you’re more self-defeating than average? Some of the items in the scales used in this study could provide some clues. In the studies within the paper in which they examined self-handicapping, Callan and his co-authors used items such as these to measure self-defeating tendencies:
If you want to change your self-defeating thoughts, you need to challenge these assumptions, one by one:
Theories of personality, including control mastery theory, and the more cognitively-oriented approach taken by Callan et al agree that focusing on your self-defeating thoughts is the first step to changing them. You may not feel now that you deserve to live a better life, but once you start to question why you don’t, you may be on your way to having those better outcomes come your way.
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Callan, M. J., Kay, A. C., & Dawtry, R. J. (2014). Making sense of misfortune: Deservingness, self-esteem, and patterns of self-defeat. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 107(1), 142-162. doi:10.1037/a0036640
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014