- Psychologists have long regarded self-defeating behaviors as causes for neurotic tendencies.
- A new 7-scale test can help you identify the personality patterns that can interfere with your success and happiness.
- After scoring yourself on items from this test, you can gain insight into what you can do to overcome those self-defeating tendencies.
Are there times you find that you talk yourself into a bad mood? Do you strive for certain goals only to find that you block your own ability to achieve those goals? Problems such as self-defeating behavior are only one of several typical ways of responding to situations that can get in the way of your success, whether in relationships or at work.
What Leads People to Become Self-Defeating?
Writing in the early 20th century, German-born psychologist Karen Horney wisely observed that people can inadvertently create their own misery in life by virtue of their personalities. Indeed, the “neurotic personality of our time,” as she observed, is someone whose self-defeating behavior occurs due to a form of imposter syndrome, the belief that you’re not as good as you’d like people to think you are. As a result, you get in the way of your own success just to confirm that negative self-impression.
Perhaps you believe that you’re not worthy enough to receive the attention and affection of your romantic partner. Instead of enjoying your partner’s love and regard, you constantly throw obstacles in the way of your relationship such as showing up late, starting ridiculous arguments, or just doing things that you know annoy your partner. By engaging in the behaviors that put up a wall between you and your partner, you’re falling prey to the self-fulfilling prophecy which only reinforces your sense of unworthiness.
Although Horney’s work has somehow faded into the background, her observations nevertheless fit well with recent research on the problems people’s personalities can create in adapting to life. According to Tulsa-based Hogan Assessment System’s Michael Boudreaux and colleagues (2021), “personality problems” are “relatively recurring, self-defeating expressions of normal personality that reflect nonadaptive habits, coping styles, beliefs, and ways of relating to others.” The problems stemming from within your personality can “cause distress, derail academic or occupational performance, and damage social relationships” (p. 526).
As Boudreaux et al. note, despite the fact that personality problems are among the most common reason that people seek mental health treatment, there are no well-established instruments that could help provide a measure of these maladaptive qualities. The purpose of the study by Boudreaux and his fellow researchers was to devise just such a scale.
The 7-Scale Measure of Personality Problems
Using two separate undergraduate student samples (1197 and 598 participants, respectively), the research team created and then validated what they now call the Interpersonal Problems Rating Scale (IPRS). Initially beginning with a set of verbatim statements provided by a young adult sample, Boudreaux and his colleagues then went on to create a set of short phrases that would capture those sentiments. For example, one verbatim statement began with a participant’s observation that “I worry constantly that I’m not living up to my potential—I set goals that are ridiculously high and feel terrible when I can’t meet them…” The authors used this statement as the basis for draft items in the form of self-rating statements such as “having unrealistic expectations of myself” (pp. 528-529).
A series of analyses then produced 7 factors, or dimensions, that captured the initial 212 items in the draft inventory. The authors then proceeded to the next step of validating the instrument against other, related personality tests. Additional analyses showed, further, that scores on the IPRS had significant associations with measures of outcomes of adaptive functioning, including life satisfaction, social functioning, health behavior, and use of drugs and alcohol. Further drilling into the data, the authors were able to reduce the original item set down to 96.
Now it’s time to turn to the IPRS itself. As implied in the title, “Intrapersonal,” all items refer to problems regarding oneself that don’t involve the presence of another person. You have an “intra-“ personal problem, then, if you create your own difficulties. An “inter-“ personal problem would be one that you create in your relationships with other people. Central to the IPRS, though, is the idea that inner problems can have external consequences.
The items below are from each of the 7 scales of the IPRS. For each sample item, rate yourself on a scale of 0 (not a problem) to 3 (serious problem).
- Getting easily upset by small things.
- Crying too easily.
- Being too quick to anger.
- Getting easily annoyed by others.
- Feeling worthless or inadequate.
- Comparing myself too much to others.
- Feeling that other people are better than me (e.g. smarter, better looking, richer).
- Being overly critical of myself.
- Having trouble staying focused.
- Getting easily distracted.
- Not knowing what to do with my life.
- Procrastinating too much.
- Cheating or stealing from others.
- Cheating on my partner or spouse.
- Taking too many risks.
- Disregarding rules (e.g. illegal parking, speeding).
- Being unable to act spontaneously.
- Being afraid of taking chances.
- Pushing too hard to excel.
- Needing to do things perfectly.
- Being afraid of trying new things.
- Being unable to act spontaneously.
- Getting lost in fantasy.
- Having an overactive imagination.
- Feeling a lack of excitement or enthusiasm.
- Lacking strong emotions.
Now that you’ve rated yourself on these items, here is what the scores can tell you about your own tendency to experience interpersonal problems. Five of the factors had sub-scales, shown in parentheses below, but together formed the overall factor. The numbers shown here represent the scale items:
- Emotion dysregulation (difficulty managing stress and intolerant of frustration): 1-4.
- Internalizing (sadness and self-uncertainty): 5-8
- Will to achieve (lack of self-directedness and distractibility): 9-12
- Externalizing (acting out in risky behavior): 13-16
- Scrupulousness (ridigity and perfectionism): 17-22.
- Fantasy proneness: 23-24.
- Apathy: 25-26.
What do Your Scores Mean and How Can This Knowledge Help You?
Across the validation samples, the mean per item was approximately 2 (moderate problem). If you’re scoring between 2 and 3, then, you can get a sense of where your intrapersonal strengths and weaknesses might lie. More importantly, you can also see how items you feel apply to you can represent distinct patterns of problematic ways of thinking about yourself.
High scores across these 7 sets of items would indicate a general set of problems you might have in real life, but given that some of these are polar opposites (e.g. internalizing and externalizing), it’s more likely that your profile shows some peaks and valleys. Each individual scale, furthermore, suggests its own set of potential dangers that you can run into as you go through life that lead you down that "neurotic" pathway. Some of these might be self-evident (e.g. externalizing) but others represent a more subtle form of damaging tendencies.
Procrastinating, for example, is a classic form of self-defeating behavior in which you delay and delay so much that you don’t have a chance whatsoever of succeeding. You’ll either be too late in turning in an assignment or showing up for a date that your abilities or attractiveness will never be tested. You’ll also guarantee yourself failure, providing you with “proof” that you’re no good.
Distractibility is another self-defeating pattern. If you keep your attention from focusing on the task at hand you’ll, again, be unlikely to succeed at it. Fantasy proneness, similarly, can keep you distanced from reality and therefore make you less prepared to face the concrete needs of your day-to-day existence.
Scrupulousness, which seems like it should be a good quality to have, also has self-defeating ramifications. If you're overly perfectionistic, for example, the result will be the same as procrastination and you won't get your work done on time. In relationships, if you keep puttering over your appearance or on deciding what to wear, you'll inevitably show up late to events or, worse, keep both you and your partner from arriving on time for a social engagement.
One of the advantages of the IPRS framework is that it is not intended to be used for diagnostic purposes. Consequently, it can tap into a range of experiences that may create life problems. As the authors note, “Even the most successfully adjusted, symptom-free person will at times feel sad, question him or herself, and experience other problems and concerns as he or she copes with ongoing stress."
To sum up, gaining insight into your tendencies to thwart your own chances of success is an important first step in short-circuiting a self-defeating vicious cycle. You may never be able to solve all your intrapersonal problems, but gaining insight into their effect on your life can help you be that much more likely to gain long-term fulfillment.
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Boudreaux, M. J., Lengel, G. J., Oltmanns, T. F., & Ozer, D. J. (2021). Assessment of self-related problems in functioning: Intrapersonal Problems Rating Scales. Psychological Assessment, 33(6), 526–540. doi-org.ezproxy.lib.umb.edu/10.1037/pas0001007.supp (Supplemental)