Written by Step Above Stigma's Volunteer Coordinator, Lauren Gnat.
One of my favorite things about studying psychology is that I can positively and beneficially apply what I’m learning to my life. A concept I came to appreciate and apply to my own life was examining whether I approached new and/or challenging situations with a growth or fixed mindset.
If you’ve never heard these terms, I’ll to define them:
Fixed mindset → the belief that abilities (such as intelligence) are fixed, innate, static, and don’t change. People with this mindset believe that they are good at what they’re good at and avoid trying anything more challenging because they don’t believe they can go beyond their current abilities. They fear failure and criticism because they see it as a reflection of themselves, which hurts their self-esteem.
Growth mindset → the belief that with hard work, you can go beyond your current skills to grow and develop your abilities. People with this mindset embrace challenges because they see them as an opportunity to develop and grow. They push through obstacles, use criticism as feedback to improve, and know that each failure comes with a lesson.
Which mindset we have determines how we react to our successes. For example, when you get a good grade in a course, do you say it’s because I’m smart at this (fixed) or worked hard to get good at this (growth)?
Psychology researchers tested out these theories with children. They gave them an easy or hard puzzle and either rewarded them for their effort (growth mindset) or their ability (fixed mindset). The resulted showed that children who were rewarded for their effort not only felt confident in their puzzle making skills, but they were also motivated to do a harder one to continue growing their puzzle abilities. On the other hand, children who were praised for their ability only wanted to do the easy ones because they were afraid that they wouldn’t be good enough if they failed at the harder one. This is one of the many ways we can see a fixed mindset holding us back from challenging ourselves to grow and do more.
This principle of a growth mindset can be applied to so much more than just doing a puzzle. I thought I’d give some examples in my own life where a growth mindset either did or could have, benefited me:
1. Exercising → from a young age, I always thought of myself as lazy and one of those unathletic kids. This left me feeling unmotivated and embarrassed at the thought of working out. Regardless, I challenged my fixed mindset that said I couldn't do it, by starting to work out frequently over the December break of first year. Rather than seeing myself as “never being fit,” I viewed each work out as an opportunity to get stronger, build more muscles, and know that it would be easier the next time with every time I worked out. Now, rather than believing that I’ll never be able to run a marathon, I get that much stronger and just a bit better can build up over time.
2. Textbook readings → going into second year psychology, I never knew how many chapters of textbooks I’d have to read. I was terrified and worried that I could never do it all since I was a “slow reader.” However, I realized that with every chapter I read, I get a little faster, better at writing down my thoughts, and learning the new and important skill of note-taking. Now I am not only quicker at getting through the many chapters assigned to me each, but I am also much more confident in my ability to do them.
3. Volunteering → I volunteer for a telephone helpline, a texting helpline (for confidentiality purposes, I won’t say which ones), and the Peer Support Centre. When I started these, I was terrified that if I messed up, I would be a useless failure, and the person I was trying to help would feel worse. I didn’t see failure as an option; however, I learned quickly that I’m not immediately good at things I’ve never done before. It sounds shocking, but I soon realized it’s all about making mistakes, recognizing and learning from them, and then picking yourself back up and trying again. I always remember that I’m doing my best, giving it 100%, and getting better with each time.
4. Meeting new people → despite my seemingly calm and friendly persona, meeting new people can be terrifying for me. I sometimes worry that when I say one thing wrong, the people I’m around are immediately judging and dislike me. Eventually, I realized that is my fixed mindset holding me back from being true to myself. A fixed mindset would say I could never be myself around people because I will never make new friends again if I mess up. However, I adjusted my thinking because I realized I couldn't hold back who I am because of my fear of judgment. I like who I am, and like to be myself around people. Even if it takes time to get comfortable with people, I know I can get there, and each time I put myself out there, I am allowing myself to grow and meet great people and get to know me. Meeting so many more people and getting involved in many extracurriculars here at Queen's has reminded me that it doesn't matter how long it takes you to open up to people. Just make sure to be yourself and know that the right people for you will like who you are.
The message of a growth mindset is to reward yourself for every step of the process and use your experience to prove your doubts wrong. By that, I mean, think about times when you thought, "I can never do this" or "things will never get better," but eventually, you could do them, and things did get better. Remember that you were the one who accomplished your goals, got through that hard time, tried again after failing, and no one else did it for you. Persevering through our failures can help us realize that they're not as scary or catastrophic as we think, and we are strong enough to keep going. Thinking like this can help us because it reminds us to reward ourselves for our efforts, be compassionate to ourselves when we struggle, and open to using mistakes as learning experiences.