“Well, if I work really hard and can’t get it done, at least I’ll know I just didn’t measure up.”
My client’s words about the project’s viability disturbed me. Not because I hadn’t heard them before--I hear them all the time!--but because they’re so misplaced.
Her words confirm the pretty much universal truth of every social scroll: When it comes to self-knowledge, it’s always the wrong people who think they know too little (uh, or too much). And I’m only slightly tongue-in-cheek about “universal truth,” too. So much research tells us that we frequently (maybe even usually) overestimate our abilities in some areas (Dunning-Krueger), while radically underestimating our abilities in others (Imposter Syndrome).
Of course, my client may not be suffering from anything at all, but she was certainly deploying a related (anti-)strategy--self-handicapping.
When a person self-handicaps, they put up obstacles to thwart their potential achievement. I might, for example, put off researching a project until it’s too late to do it at all. This (rather obliquely) lowers my own expectations and thus deactivates my potential anxiety—I didn’t give myself the time to do the necessary work, so it's no big shocker when it doesn’t go well.
In the case of my client, the anxiety produced by embarking on a giant, life-changing project seemed to cause her to self-handicap—lowering her bar for achievement at the outset to just “getting it done.”
I completely understand the sentiment, and not just because I’ve heard it before. I’ve felt it myself (who hasn’t?). But self-handicapping, a cognitive response to the anxiety caused by the strength of our desire for achievement, keeps us from succeeding, even when (especially when) we really want to. It may not seem like it has the capacity to thwart ambition and derail projects, but it absolutely does. I mean, the aim to “get it done”—ever for a big project—isn’t much of an aim at all.
There’s a better way to tamp down this kind of anxiety, and that’s to articulate your goals. It sounds new-agey, or maybe Big Magic-ky (sorry), but it’s actually the opposite. Naming what you want your project to achieve forces you to figure out why (sometimes if) your project matters to you. This seems like it would ratchet up anxiety intolerably, but in fact it helpfully delimits both the project and your goals. More importantly, it helps displace anxiety away from the project, ensuring that it functions as a vehicle and not itself an end.
Ultimately, if you have something that you want to create—something big—don’t tell yourself if doesn’t matter, or that all that matters is that you get it done. Instead, buckle down and articulate (to yourself, to a colleague, to a professional) why it matters and what, exactly, you want to achieve with it. I helped my client do this before doing anything else, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to soon report back on her mileage.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.