When it comes to performing at just about any task, what holds us back isn’t our coach or teacher. It’s not our training and practice. It’s often ourselves.

When we are in the middle of a performance, our mind almost always searches for an out. A rock to step on during a race, an excuse to utilize for why we are going to lose, or a story we can tell ourselves to explain why we got a D instead of a B. When it comes to measuring up, we have a really difficult time coming face to face with where the limits of our capabilities are.

It’s hard-wired in our minds and bodies. There’s a reason that your body doesn’t actually allow you to push until your heart is fully taxed and your muscles are at their limit. Your body needs to protect itself. It has much more to lose if we accidentally reach our limits than if we stay slightly under them. The same holds true for non-physical activities.

Trying to do anything well exposes your ego and self-esteem. It makes you vulnerable, open to seeing where your skill set truly lies. You have to confront reality, something that as humans, we actively avoid. It’s much easier to live in a world where we can tell ourselves that we are “good enough” at just about any activity we desire to do.

Think about the message that is sent if you fail at just about any task. I wasn’t good enough on this day to ace my test, perform the solo or give the big speech. If we confront that we actually aren’t good enough yet to solve the problem in front of us, it can leave us feeling dejected and demoralized. Our ego and self-esteem will plummet. Instead, we’ve evolved to deal with such “failure” in a multitude of ways.

According to recent research, there are four main ways that we protect our ego when failure is anticipated.

Self-Handicapping– In this method, people intentionally limit their effort to give themselves an out. You might recognize this attitude from high school when a student would intentionally not study or do the assigned reading to give themselves a reason for why they performed poorly. Or in the running world, someone doesn’t give full effort, always telling others that they didn’t fully try. The logic goes like this: If they didn’t give their full effort, then the result doesn’t truly reflect their capabilities, therefore the result doesn’t mean much. So even if they perform poorly, they can discount the result.

Feedback Avoidance- To protect our positive sense of self we do what the name says, avoid feedback. We prefer to live in our own bubble and surround ourselves with individuals who will tell us how great we are and awesome are performance was. We avoid any negative or threatening information like the plague. Preferring to live in a distorted reality where anything we do is great.

Self-Serving Bias- In this method of protection we attribute anything that we have success at to internal factors. While anything we fail at, we attribute to external or situational factors. In other words, if we win, we think it’s all because of us. Our hard work, talent or skills. If we fail, we blame the coach, the weather, the refs, or any other external factor.

Downward Social Comparison– If instead of comparing ourselves to those who seem to be better off, we compare ourselves to those who are worse off, we can save our ego. How many times have we received a poor grade on a test but resorted to saying “Well, so and so did worse?” We do that to protect our ego, making ourselves feel better about the result. We do the same thing on the athletic field and in the office.

It’s not that these ego-protecting strategies are necessarily bad. They are ingrained responses for a reason. But, we should be aware of when we are distorting reality, deluding ourselves, and it is hurting us. Often, these strategies can help initially after a poor performance, but at some point, we have to gain enough perspective to evaluate what went wrong and how to get better. If we are constantly in ego protection mode, then that becomes the default response and goal, instead of the true goal: getting better at whatever it is we do.

And when it comes to performing to the best of your ability at any task, we have to be able to confront our own limits. We have to be able to find out that we aren’t as good as we thought. We have to accept the hit on our ego. Only when we drop our ego and allow ourselves to explore our limits, do we find out what we are truly capable of.


Steve Magness is a performance coach and author of two books, Peak Performance and The Science of Running. His writing has appeared in Wired, Sports Illustrated, Outside, and other publications. He can be found on twitter @stevemagness

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