Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) for many, when dealing with failure they rarely realise at that point of time that unconsciously they employ self-protective strategies in order to deal with failure. These deflective strategies, defensive pessimism and self-handicapping act by skewing and minimizing one’s ‘true’ level of ability in order to protect self-worth and regulate one’s emotions.
- Defensive pessimism is a cognitive strategy used to a alter the meaning of failure by setting exceedingly low expectations for tasks with evaluation. By doing so, students afraid of failing are ‘protected’ and ‘cushioned’ against these anxiety-inducing tasks, and keep one’s expectations in check by minimising the gap between expectations and disappointment.
- Self-handicapping similarly alters the meaning of failure, by deflecting the causes of failure away from the students and onto other excuses in order to keep failure from hurting self-esteem. Other reasons for this include self-enhancement and maintaining an image (both for themselves and others). A typical self-handicapping situation would be a student blaming their low exam grade on not having enough time, or not having studied.
Whilst both these strategies may work in the short-term to preserve self -esteem, they have seen to confirm doubts about one’s ability, and can result in downward spirals of mental health. When excuses run out or when you ‘fail’ too many times, students become disengaged from learning. It is also found to be detrimental to student motivation, mental health, academic performance, general adjustment, and behaviour in later life.
Although this post relates these strategies to a student, they’re also found in people of all ages. For those unaware that they’re doing this, hopefully opening your eyes to these strategies make you more self-aware and on the road to stopping.