Self-Handicapping, Learned Helplessness, and Accomplishment

How many of you haven’t tried to do something because you were “sure” you wouldn’t succeed? How many of you waited until the last minute and threw something together so you could say you tried but not feel bad when you didn’t succeed? These, in psychology, are called learned helplessness and self-handicapping respectively.

These are amazingly and disturbingly common ways that we ensure we will fail. Not on purpose, of course. We are trying to protect ourselves. But in doing so, we often act as our own worst enemy.

I’ve done this a lot throughout my life. Most recently I was able to overcome the initial learned helplessness. In boxing last week, we had a plank competition- whoever could hold the longest plank (a low plank) after the workout would get a cool prize. I spent a lot of November thinking about if I wanted to enter this competition, because it would be pretty embarrassing to try and only get a really short time. They had a schedule of planks throughout the month that you could do every day to prepare. I thought a lot about taking one of the paper schedules to work on it at home, but didn’t.

When it came to November 30th, after my workout, everyone left. I wanted to leave too and skip the competition, but I had no excuses. I entered the plank competition. I asked what the longest time had been so far, and was surprised to hear that I was the first person to participate (it was the 9:30 am class, so maybe not that surprising, but there are two classes before it). Nevertheless, I had a goal in mind (3:30) and got to work.

It should come as no surprise that after a 60 minute intense workout, including planks, holding a plank was immensely difficult. Personally, I also find low planks harder than high ones. I could feel my muscles start shaking after 1 minute in. My goal seemed way too far off.

I asked the coach to tell me after each 30 second milestone for a morale boost. Time had never ticked slower. 1:30 and she could see me visibly shaking and asked how I was doing.

“Not good. But I want to get to at least 2 minutes.”

The two minute mark couldn’t come fast enough. I held my plank for a total of two minutes and two seconds. Not terribly impressive, but I had no benchmark to compare it to. Still, I was proud I had tried.

I went home, posted on Facebook, and forgot about it.

Yesterday night, I got an email saying that I won the longest plank at my club’s location and got a $25 gift certificate to the Title store.

Wait, what? I won?

My first thought was that no one else from my club participated, which is obviously the reason I won. Let me be clear and say that totally could be the case. But the fact that it’s what my mind first jumped to made me a little sad (and reflective).

It’s hard enough for us to get over our fears and try something, especially something difficult, especially when we might fail. But when we succeed and we still don’t think it’s enough, that is the worst offense we are committing against ourselves.

Even if I was the only one who competed, that shouldn’t lessen my victory any. I still had the courage to try and to keep going, even when it was difficult. I felt proud after I finished my plank. Winning shouldn’t take that away from me.

Take time to appreciate your accomplishments. Don’t lessen them. Be proud of the work that you put in- whether you succeed or not!

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