Sorry for using another Bud illustration but as his high school graduation draws near I am a little nostalgic about the past 18 years. Lately, I have been reflecting on the academic adventures of his middle school years . Only five years ago I wondered if he would actually get his high school diploma. Thirteen year old Bud seemed to possess an uncanny capacity for academic self-destruction. I can still see him painfully and grudgingly pulling his report card out of his backpack. Frequently, his grades would be delayed by his “forgetting” them in his locker. Or according to him, his teachers hadn’t given them out even though Denise and I knew that his classmates had received theirs. The eventual revelation of his less than stellar grades would initiate a predictable litany of excuses. Apparently, his teachers lost many of his meticulously completed assignments or he did them but “forgot” to turn them in. Of course, there was always the unreasonable teachers demanding perfection of him and no one could live up to their (or Denise and my) impossible standards. Or he was actually bringing the grades up but the semester ran out earlier than usual and his vigorous efforts were not reflected in his grades. Or since he considered many assignments irrelevant to his life objectives, he was not reasonably obligated to do them. Or his teachers’ were bad teachers and no one could learn under such inept instruction. Blah blah blah. After every excuse I would hold up the report card and say, “Nope. The grades are still the same. Try another excuse. I’m sure the next one will change them to all A’s.”
Eventually, when he accepted that his excuses were not having the desired effect on me or his grades, he would say, “I’ll do better next time, Dad.” I would ask him about the plan for doing better and his response would be a vague “try harder” or “work harder.” Which translated into: “The plan is to keep doing what I have been doing. I’ll continue to apply the same approach that isn’t working. Maybe I’ll even do what doesn’t work with greater vigor. But the strategy is basically the same.” Such is the perfect recipe for shooting oneself in the foot.
If you’re thinking this only happens to middle school boys, think again. I often see this same self-defeating mindset played out in adult relationships. In counseling I hear stories of people’s repeated attempts to get positive results from methods that don’t work, have never worked, and will never work. What’s even more incredible is the way self-sabotaging people will adamantly defend their right to consistently not get what they want or attain their goals. Heaven help you if you point out the obvious to a chronic self-defeater. If they believe it’s supposed to work and should work, all the evidence that it won’t work is wasted on them.
Here are my top five self-sabotaging methods that will set anyone up for failure. I like to think of each as a bullet in the gun pointed directly at one’s foot. This might not be an exhaustive list of self-defeating pitfalls but I guarantee that if you eliminate even three out five of these lethal methods, you’ll see your goal achievement increase dramatically.
- Procrastination. Putting off acting till later is the granddaddy of all self-destructive strategies. The idea is to delay-delay-delay until the inevitable crisis forces you to act. Then you’re only controlling the damage and hoping to ride out the self-induced panic storm. Procrastination is the leading serial killer for dreams and opportunities and relationships. Trust me. It is deadly efficient. Proactively engaging life rather than simply reacting to self-induced crises makes all the difference.
- Excuses. This success prophylaxis operates under the belief that “If I can convince you that there’s a plausible reason for my part in the failure then I will be exempt from any consequences.” The self-defeater puts significantly more energy into creating an explanation than in creating a plausible strategy to succeed. Excuses always have the same theme: “My diligent efforts were nullified by uncontrollable maleficent forces and people and circumstances. The failure is clearly not my fault.” Play the victim card all you want, it still won’t change the outcome. You will pay the price and so will others in your relational sphere. Taking responsibility and finding a way to reach your goals is a much better use of anyone’s energy.
- Lack of a plan. Probably the most common set-up for falling on your sword is believing you can make it up as you go and succeed. A viable plan starts with a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish. Then it’s a matter of implementing a strategy that can actually get the results you want. Simple? Oh yes. But how many times do we go off without a clue of our goals or our method. No plan equals sure failure. The only person who gets great results making it up as he goes is John McClane in the Die Hard movies. And we do understand that’s fiction, don’t we? It’s not real? Right? The real world runs on well-devised and thoughtfully executed planning.
- Magical thinking. Most of us stopped believing in magic years ago. We learned that pulling a rabbit out of a hat was just a sleight of hand. Cinderella is not a biography. Abracadabra doesn’t make your dreams come true. But most self-defeating people believe they can catch lightning in a bottle on a regular basis. They exist in an invisible cone where the natural laws of the universe are null and void. There is a fine line between being an optimist and being foolish. The foot-shooters of the world have crossed that line and aren’t able to find their way back to reality. In the real world, there is no Santa Claus. Only fully engaged parents using forethought and hard work to make the “magic” happen. Same way in relationships and life. Success does not come out of a bottle when you rub it.
- Giving up. This final self-sabotaging principle works every time for terminating goal completion. When anyone concedes, “I surrender…it’s over…I’m done trying…I quit…this is too hard…it’s a lost cause…I can’t do it” the party is really over. I’m not saying that a well-timed retreat isn’t sometimes the best tactic in battle. I’m saying that when you definitively terminate the process of refining and working your plan, you’ve just emptied the gun into your foot. Please understand: It is sometimes wise and necessary to walk away. However, chronic self-defeating people move to the “give up” option too quickly. Success comes from hanging in there and asking, “What else can I do? What’s the next move from here?”
So, the basic concepts for avoiding self-defeat involve taking responsibility and making a plan. Consider the plan of salvation as the standard for goal achievement. The entire Godhead collaborated in eternity past to create a strategy to meet humankind’s desperate need (1 Peter 1:20). The Father didn’t procrastinate till it was too late. Rather the Bible tells us that Christ came at just the right time in world history (Galatians 4:4-5). He didn’t look around for an excuse or rationalization but took responsibility for His desire to see us saved (1 Peter 2:24, Isaiah 53:5, 2 Corinthians 5:21). And then He did it (John 10:17, 18) of His own volition. The triumph of the cross wasn’t by magic but through a real death followed by a real resurrection with real and lasting effects (1 Corinthians 15:1-32). Rest assured, the Lord does not shoot Himself in the foot. Ever. And we are the eternal beneficiaries of His good and perfect planning.
Okay…it’s fortnight. Make it a good one…by having a plan that brings glory to Him who called you to such a great and intentional salvation.