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Defeatist Attitude

Woman Running

Have you ever wished someone luck for an event, and they’ve retorted with something vaguely resembling ‘oh no need I’ll fail anyway’?
The other week I was planning on attending an athletics event to support a friend. She usually ran in the 800 m sprint. A few days before the race I approached her to wish her luck, and let her know I was attending. She replied that she wouldn’t be there. She’d missed a few runs lately, and hadn’t been eating well, and was convinced she’d be so slow there was no reason to bother. Cue the record scratch. What? A few lazy days and cheat meals and now she thinks there’s no way she can do it at all?

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What Is A Defeatist Attitude?

This point of view is called a defeatist attitude. Opposite to an optimistic outlook, this negative thinking fails you before you’ve even tried something. Those with this line of thinking never respond to real-life failure with a motivation to improve, just a smug ‘I knew I’d fail anyway’.

A defeatist attitude is a self-limiting belief that one’s actions are doomed to failure before even trying. Self-defeating thoughts usually validate themselves by becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.   

Let me explain, it’s simple.

You start with the belief that you cannot win before you try most things. Someone close to you tells you that you have to try nevertheless. So you listen, more to stop them from nagging you than anything else. However, because of your deep-rooted belief that you will fail, you only put a half-assed effort into your endeavor. You end up failing and that only serves to re-enforce your self-defeating behavior. You tell yourself that you were right, that you are doomed to be a failure.

But the real reason why you failed is:

You never gave it a chance to succeed. You need to work up the courage to give it all you have. You need the right mindset. More about this in a second.

Do You Have A Defeatist Attitude?

There’s a quiz (at vocabulary.com) that gives four points of view
from a player from a basketball team.
1. “We are definitely going to win.”
2. “Our players are the tallest and most skilled.”
3. “We’re never going to win.”
4. “I think we could win.”

Statement number 3 has a defeatist attitude. It’s easy to look at that and know why it’s not a constructive point of view. If you always expect to fail, then you never try. If you never try, you can never succeed. Despite this all seeming so obvious, there are many of us plagued with a self-defeating attitude at one time or another. Even if it’s not crippling, some of us may even use it to be lazy and avoid challenges.
“Oh I’m so unfit, so I may as well skip the run today because I won’t be able to complete it.”
“Oh I’ve already been over budget this week, I may as well just go shopping anyway.”
Self-defeating thoughts stop us from achieving our full potential, but there are ways to combat them.

Recognize & Acknowledge Your Self Defeating Behavior

You’re not alone. That little voice in your head? That ‘inner critic’ of everything you do or plan to do? We’ve all got it. The advantage you have (just by reading this!) is that you are acknowledging the inner-critic. Feel safe knowing you’re not abnormal or silly, everyone has a little voice in their head that doubts what they do.

Girl Lost In Introspection
Acknowledge The Inner Critic

Once you understand that, think about all the successful people in the world. They’ve often battled with voices like this, but there are prime examples that this self-defeatist attitude is something that can be overcome.

Think about:
• all the people that were desperately overweight and started a nutrition and exercise regime that turned their life around and kept it that way
• all those people that had mental health problems, withdrew from the world but then turned it around and became someone of note in the public
• people that have had every obstacle you can; poor family, bad education, non-supportive parents, that still managed to be self-starters

These people aren’t special or born with anything that helped them. The only difference between them and you is that they just defeated their defeatist attitude sooner (pun intended). But it’s not too late for you!
Be inspired by them, and know that you can prove that voice wrong!

Challenge Your Self Defeating Thoughts

If the voice in your head keeps telling you that you can’t do things or you don’t deserve things, instead of letting the voice take over and make you feel awful, challenge it. Don’t shy away from it, ask it to explain itself.
If the little voice in your head tells you that you’ll never get that promotion so don’t bother trying to network with your coworkers, ask it why. Why am I unqualified? What about me puts it out of my reach?

Take note of all these reasons, and eliminate them one by one. You can’t argue with yourself, can you?

Kathy desperately wants to travel internationally. She usually visits airline websites, just looking for the flight details. But she never buys one. Why? She imagines she wouldn’t plan a very good holiday anyway. That she’d screw it up. That it’d make her lose her job. It’ll make her broke.
So she challenges these thoughts. What is every reason that it won’t work? And then she acts on them until there’s no logical thing to defeat this idea.
She wouldn’t plan a very good holiday? She can enlist help from a travel agent.
Will it interfere with work? She can approach her boss and ask in advance when the best time for a few weeks off is.
It’ll make her poor? She can budget, ask for more shifts at work, and consult others that have done similar trips about how much they spent. She can look at her weekly spending and start saving now, well in advance, so that she’s truly prepared.
There we go. Anything else? No? Well…Kathy can get booking now, can’t she?

Belittle The Attitude To Dominate Defeatism

A way to change your thinking and start cultivating a positive mindset is to dominate defeatism. Once you can accurately analyze your own thinking, and locate times in which you give up before you’ve started, then you can start working on yourself.

Get to the bottom of why you’ve prematurely failed yourself, and then you can re-shift your focus. A good way of doing this is by belittling your negative thoughts:

  • by ridiculing them. Once your inner critic starts whispering lies, mock it. Imagine it talking to you in a whiny, comical voice, with the occasional sniffle. Be mindful of the difference – you are only treating your self-defeating thoughts with contempt, but not yourself as a person.
  • by giving them less importance. There is a big difference between self-preservation, such as “I’d better not jump into the sleeping lion’s cage, even if that means missing the opportunity to take a couple of really cool selfies” and self-defeatism. Try to ignore self-defeating thoughts that have no use for your safety or well-being.
  • by challenging them and revealing their fake foundations

Shift Your Focus, Shift Your Attitude

The road to success is paved with failure.

Focussing on the positives can help a lot. You can do that from both sides of the coin, success and failure.

shift your focus
Shift Your Focus

If you succeed: focus on how exciting it will be once you’ve succeeded. How proud everyone will be of you when you do well on the exam. How exciting it will be to finally have the job of your dreams.

If you fail: focus on how exciting it is to learn and grow from failure. How exciting it is to know that you get another chance at the test or event, another chance to improve. Or if it’s something that’s a one-off, about how it’s exciting that this last minute change in circumstance means something unexpected and different will happen in your life to replace this. This could be an opportunity to try something new? Broaden your horizons? Anything goes!

Failure is a part of life. And the beauty if it is that it is not necessarily a bad part of life. Ask the guy that got dumped by his fiance right after his income tanked dramatically how he feels 10 years later. I bet you that he’ll say that at first he was devastated. But, as time passed, he realized that it is one the best things that happened to him and that saved him from some major drama in the future.

It is my belief that successful people are not that different from the rest of us, but they do three things better:

  1. They developed a thicker skin. They understand that failure is sometimes necessary, and they do not let it take them down. It all comes down to working up the courage to try again and again, no matter the results (see, that is why it is important to give it all you got – because you will eventually succeed).
  2. They choose their battles wisely. They can identify easy wins or wins that have the biggest impact on the end goal, wins that move the needle.
  3. They take responsibility for the results they get.

Another focus shifting technique is to define some very clear long-term goals and keeping your sight on them.

There are a lot of examples of big corporations with huge budgets that went out of business because they didn’t have crystal clear targets and failed to adapt to changing consumer behavior. One such example is Blockbuster. The company failed to understand that they are in the business of providing their customers with entertainment (movies), no matter the medium that those movies were recorded on. They failed to adapt to shifting consumer behavior – that of watching movies online and on-demand. They even passed up a chance to buy Netflix.

You should keep your eyes on your main goal and not on the road that takes you there as that will definitely shift and change.

Understand The Difference Between Compromise & Self-Defeatism

We have a very big culture of equating compromise with failure. But this is simply not the case. An all or nothing personality can often lead to disappointment, if you only have one very narrow view of success, then you are more than likely to fail.


Imagine that you have an argument with your other half (oh-noez). You fall into the old pattern about who’s right and who’s not, who was wrong and when they were wrong. After analyzing your own reaction to the argument, you realize that it takes you nowhere good (nice catch). Instead of trying to place blame, you decide to figure out which is the best course of action and how to apply it. You talk to your other half and you both agree on a common goal and what needs to be done to achieve it.

You just reached a compromise that will bring good results to both sides. You avoided a lot of drama and you still get what you both want. However, from a very limited point of view (that of your wounded ego), you failed to put forward your opinion that the other side was to blame for whatever went wrong.

A defeatist attitude can cripple your chances of success. It’s like that saying, you’ve gotta be in it to win it. You can’t lose a race you never enter, but you can’t win it either.
Know that you’re not alone, everyone deals with self-doubt. But if you acknowledge it and apply the techniques above, then you can begin to free yourself from your own self-limiting belief.

The methods in this article certainly aren’t the only ways to get rid of the self-defeatist attitude, and some may work better for you than others. The road to resilience has many twists.
What worked for you? Do you have other ways to diminish the voice of the inner critic?
We’d love to hear from you!


  1. Having a defeatist attitude is one thing. But being unrealistically positive is another. Everybody can’t do everything. If somebody hasn’t even tried, that’s one thing. But there are some times where someone won’t succeed, regardless of how hard they try. Tell some horribly ugly girl she has a defeatist attitude because she doesn’t think she’ll get a job as a supermodel. Regardless of the attitude she has, they’re never going to hire her when they can hire a girl with spectacular looks. Even an average-looking girl could have that problem. After first graduating college long ago, I had average grades and no work experience. I went to a job fair where they had people with many years of job experience and really high grades. When I told my sister they’d never hire someone like me when they could hire someone like that, she said I had a defeatist attitude. I tried to tell her it was a realistic attitude, not a defeatist one. Get your heads out of the clouds!

    Of course there are cases where someone DOES have a defeatist attitude. Someone might have the ability to succeed but thinks they won’t, and doesn’t even try. That’s another matter.


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