Food for Thought: Why Making Excuses Hurts Us


We have all heard of self-sabotage, but what about self-handicapping?

One of the first books I read by life and business strategist Tony Robbins was Awaken the Giant Within (Free Press, 1992). In that book, he wrote about how human beings want to avoid pain and move toward pleasure. We do not want to repeat the past, and we fear failure in the future. As a result, we move away from anything that reminds us of a negative experience. I cannot help but think that the concept of pain and pleasure is a huge part of my work with clients who want to change their behavior.

Think about it. We set out to pursue a goal, are feeling good, and then something gets in the way: “It’s raining out, and I don’t feel like going to the gym,” or, “I can have a big second plate of food at Thanksgiving; I’ll start again tomorrow.”

We crave comfort and the familiar. It can be uncomfortable to change, especially when our past efforts have not been successful.

Maybe you tried to lose weight and did not succeed. Perhaps you tried to start an exercise routine, but it did not stick. You might think it would be easier to make an excuse to avoid failing again.

Self-sabotage, also called self-handicapping, is when people do something that may thwart their performance in order to provide an excuse to explain subsequent failure.

Some examples of self-handicapping include procrastinating, delaying, distracting oneself with the internet, drugs or alcohol, and making excuses.1

All these coping mechanisms lead to underachievement. If you self-handicap and fail at achieving a goal, you can blame the circumstances (procrastination or alcohol, for example). If you succeed, this increases your self-esteem, because you have done so despite challenging circumstances, and that gives you a boost.

We engage in this behavior because we want to stay safe and protected. Think about it: If you do not lose weight, you do not risk the possibility of being able to maintain it.

This coping mechanism can appear in all areas of life: career, relationships, health, and so on.

All of us have an internal voice that guides our actions. In other words, we talk to ourselves internally. “It's OK if I miss my workout today, because I ate pretty well,” or, “It is OK if I binged; I will exercise more.” These are called compensatory behaviors, and they undermine your goals.2

As we form behaviors and ways of thinking, the patterns become ingrained in our neural pathways. Cognitive distortions are the catalyst for behaviors not in line with goals. For example, projecting, assuming, and predicting what that second slice of pie would taste like, “That would taste really good; I need to have another slice,” might be an internal conversation.

So how do we stop getting in our own way? We need to start talking to ourselves. Yes, I am suggesting you have internal conversations. The key is to notice your thoughts and move on. Behaviors do not just happen. They originate at the level of thought and emotion. If you can become aware of your thoughts and emotions, you can create a gap to actively choose before engaging in the old behavior.

Coaching can help guide us to discover what those internal conversations are and increase awareness around actively choosing and etching new pathways of habit.


1. Schneider FW, Gruman JA, Coutts LM. Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc; 2011.

2. Propst K. Self Sabotage & Goal Pursuit. The Diet Doc. Published May 30, 2014. Accessed November 22, 2017.

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