Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory By Richard B. Joelson, DSW on 1/13/21 - 2:17 PM

After several tries, Jim, age twenty-five, was finally accepted into a prestigious bank management program. Once in the program, however, Jim found it difficult to make time to study. Assignments were handed in late, if even completed at all, and Jim developed severe headaches, all of which eventually led to his being the only trainee to leave the program, just days before he would have been forced to withdraw.

Alice, a first-year student in the Ph.D. program in psychology at a northern university had a similar experience. An otherwise unusually hard working 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, she neglected or mishandled her own papers, and her presentations were neglected to the point where her status in the program became jeopardized.

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Both Jim and Alice exhibit a pattern of self-defeating behaviors—clusters of thoughts, ideas and actions that sabotage 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. Simply stated, a self-defeating behavior is any behavior that keeps someone from reaching their goals or sabotages their ability to be successful in ways that matter to them.

The obvious questions that arise in situations like these are “Why exactly do these people become their own worst enemies?” and “What would make bright, upwardly mobile, and ambitious individuals self-sabotage?”

Many explanations have been proposed for these behaviors. The most traditional analysis claims that people who repeatedly “shoot themselves in the foot” fear success, feel guilty about their behavior, or simply suffer from low self-esteem. Other explanations include the possibility that self-defeatists have inflated opinions of themselves, and that they use self-defeat 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 could take comfort in the belief that she would have succeeded if only she would have finished. Her self-defeating handicap protected her from the risk of failure.

I have had success working with self-defeating individuals like Jim and Alice by helping them to learn to reflect rather than react and by identifying the negative self-beliefs that were partly responsible for their propensity to self-sabotage. With Alice, these beliefs caused low expectations for success and, hence, little motivation to try for better performance in future endeavors. This precipitated additional failure and helped to create a cycle of self-defeating behaviors for which she constructed defenses (e.g. rationalization) as her only means of coping. Therapy consisted of eliminating the irrational negative beliefs associated with self-defeat and replacing them with positive and rational alternative ones that she could gradually accept as valid. In addition, Alice was encouraged to consider alternative explanations for her failures. This was accomplished by considering hypothetical explanations for various events in which she was unable to succeed. With Jim, we were able to shift his attribution for failure from his claim that he lacked the ability to succeed to the realization that his failure in the bank management program had more to do with his insufficient effort. This enabled him to develop an expectation of possible success and helped him to imagine that he could, in fact, succeed if he was willing to try, and try differently, a second time.

A question that has had a great deal of traction with clients like Alice and Jim has been, “If you could do this over again, what would you do differently?” This helps them to begin a conversation that allows them to consider a different pathway, one that takes them to success rather than defeat.The satisfaction I was able to enjoy with both Jim and Alice had a great deal to do with their ability to tolerate the insights that illuminated their histories of self-defeat.

Gradually, they were able to relinquish the distorted beliefs and rationalizations that camouflaged and perpetuated their self-sabotage. Both of them were good examples of how insights become a blueprint for change in the course of a psychotherapeutic experience. Too often, the people I work with become "insight rich and change poor," which is why, for some, therapy feels moderately helpful, but not sufficiently productive and fulfilling. Good therapy has both therapist and client keeping a careful eye on the extent to which insights are implemented and identifiable and measurable change is able to occur.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy