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April 17, 2012

How to Get Out of Your Own Way

Hitting a wall at work? Stuck in a relationship rut? This may be hard to hear, but the problem might be you. Ayana Byrd reports on the surprising, subconscious ways women undermine their own success—and how to stop for good

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DIANA ODRASSO, a 32-year-old film coordinator from Palm Beach, Florida, always considered herself a stellar conversationalist. But for years, she was oblivious to her annoying habit of cutting off people mid-sentence with this rapport-killing phrase: "No, I know." She was, in fact, a serial interrupter. No surprise, her penchant to talk over people didn't score points with colleagues and friends.

Odrasso admits she was far from Miss Popularity among her coworkers on the film festival circuit. Even worse, she lost many friendships and had no idea why—until a roommate intervened. "She told me that I came across as a know-it-all," Odrasso says. "At first, I felt deeply hurt. But my roommate helped me understand that I was being perceived as self-righteous and rude, like I already knew everything."

Before you label Odrasso as singularly clueless, consider this: "To one degree or another, most of us have blind spots about our own behavior," says Michael Patterson, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education and Psychology and coauthor of a new book about self-defeating behaviors, Have a Nice Conflict. These blind spots make it easy to find fault in others when things don't go our way—say, to blame our flawed parents, our crummy bosses, the entire world!—and prevent us from seeing that often the person standing in our way of happiness and success is the person staring back at us in the mirror. As the workplace becomes more competitive and relationships become more complicated due to the whims of modern life, the stakes are higher than ever.

Why are so many of us unaware of our own behavior? Our fast-paced culture is partly to blame, argues Susan Cain, author of the recent buzz-worthy book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. "It is deeply ingrained in this society to prefer action over contemplation," she says. In today's world, more people are acting (and texting and tweeting) first, and asking questions later—or never.

According to social psychologists, there's another, even deeper reason: Humans are programmed to see others more clearly than they see themselves—a phenomenon called actor/observer differences. "We read situations differently depending on whether we are the actor or the person watching," says Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational scientist at Columbia University Business School, who writes the blog The Science of Success. While others can clearly see that you frequently interrupt conversations or get red-faced and sweaty arguing a point, it's easier for you to ignore or rationalize your behavior, Grant Halvorson says. "You have access to so much information that others don't, like your past experiences, your beliefs about your own abilities, your fears and insecurities. All that extra data affects your interpretation of what you do—so self-defeating behaviors make more sense and seem more reasonable to you."

Often, many individuals have problems identifying their own negative behavior because it is rooted in a trait they're proud of. Have a Nice Conflict tells the story of John Doyle, a fictional sales manager who represents the many people Patterson sees in today's workplace who undermine their own success with unconscious behaviors. Doyle considers himself a model employee—conscientious, diligent, with a strong record—yet is repeatedly passed over for promotions. He hadn't realized that what he considered one of his best assets—his "take-charge attitude"—was considered abrasive by others. "A lot of our behavior is driven by a motivation to achieve a sense of self-worth, to feel good about ourselves, to contribute," says Patterson. "But when taken to the extreme, these strengths can turn into weaknesses."

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