(5) People who are especially insecure and concerned about
disapproval by others will go to great lengths to avoid putting
themselves to a true test of their ability. Often they will exaggerate
any handicap which provides another explanation (rather than low
ability) for their poor performance, for instance a person may not try
very hard so he/she can still believe "I could have done better if I had
wanted to." Others may say, "I don't do well on those kinds of tests"
or "test anxiety really messed me up" or "I was really tired." There is
also "self-handicapping," i.e. actually arranging another handicap (not
inability) which can be offered as an explanation for a poor
performance. Examples: Partying all night before a test or agreeing to
help a friend instead of doing an assignment. The handicapper's
purpose is to forestall or avoid the painful conclusion that he/she just
doesn't have much ability or not as much ability as one would like to
have others believe one has. We strive mightily to keep our self-
esteem and to feel we are in control of the situation (Jones & Berglas,
1978; Baumgardner, Lake & Arkin, 1985).
There is increasing research supporting Alfred Adler's 75-year-old
ideas that we unconsciously use symptoms (physical complaints, test
anxiety, depression, drinking) as an excuse, an "alibi," for poor
performance. We also exaggerate the trauma in our background if our
personal history can be used to excuse our failures (Snyder, Higgins &
Stucky, 1983; Baumgardner, Lake & Arkin, 1985).
What an individual seeks to become determines what he remembers of his has been. In
this sense the future determines the past.
-Rollo May, Existence
No wonder we use excuses so much; they provide their own
negative reinforcement, i.e. excuses allow us to escape unpleasant
situations (see chapters 4 and 11). But the high price we pay for this
temporary relief is distortion of reality--we lie to ourselves, we fail to
see things as they really are, one part of us attempts to fool other
parts as well as other people. It is also quite clear that if we actually
drink, take drugs, have physical complaints, or procrastinate (see
chapter 4) as a means of excusing our poor performance or as a self-
defeating effort to bolster our self-esteem, we could be in serious
trouble if this excuse is used too often. The difficulties we face in this
situation are: how do we detect the stresses and self-deception before
serious damage is done? How do we control personal traits that
normally make us feel better but with close scrutiny make us feel very
uncomfortable? Discovering the unconscious is a problem for self-
helpers, i.e. all of us. I'll give you the best answer I can.