Challenge defeatist attitudes; let your body and mind work automatically without constant criticism and coaching; get into the "flow."
Seeing ourselves as helpless or as bungling has dramatic effects--we perform poorly, we stop trying, and we get depressed (Seligman, 1975). Some people respond to an actual failure by "falling apart;" others try harder. What determines the difference? One simple factor is how the performer explains the failure: if you say, "It's my fault, I can't do it," you do more poorly next time and give up. If you say, "I need to try harder, maybe I can do it," you'll do better after failure. The really good news is that people can learn to interpret failure as a sign they need to work harder (not a lack of ability), can draw from their experience to learn a better approach, and can develop their own self-instructions to achieve success (Diener & Dweck, 1978).
A related idea is that a restful, noncritical state of mind is the most efficient. Thus, teachers try to relax students and coaches try to calm players. Gallwey (1974) in The Inner Game of Tennis describes how we have two identities: one is playing tennis (or whatever we are doing), the other is telling ourselves how to do it! It certainly seems that way. The goal of this method is to quiet the critical coach that confuses things with a stream of instructions and upsets things with accusations, doubts and fears.
Gallwey's concept of performing uncritically is close to Csikszentmihalyi's (1990) notion of "flow." Sometimes you "get in the groove" and everything goes just right. You are calm and concentrating intensely on the task; things just click and you are really enjoying doing a super job. When this happens you are totally absorbed in the work. That's flow.
This method is not concerned with all aspects of low self-regard (see chapters 6 and 14) but rather (1) with detecting the barriers that keep you from trying and doing your best, (2) with reducing the inner voices of criticism and helplessness that disrupt your efforts, and (3) with finding ways to reach your maximum efficiency.
- To recognize a lack of confidence and do something about it.
- To reduce the inner critic so one can do one's best.
- To achieve maximum efficiency and interest in a task.
STEP ONE: Become aware of self-doubts.
The self-doubts and putdowns may be obvious--self-critical statements may run through your head, your stomach may be tied in knots, you may want to get away. Examples: "I'd never be able to get an A in chemistry, so forget medical school" or "She'd probably laugh at me if I asked her to go to the game with me" or "I'm such a terrible volleyball player, I hope they don't push me into playing" or a good tennis player might say, "I can't hit the serve hard and get it in" or "I don't get set before I hit the ball, I'll bet I look awkward."
The self-statements may not be so clear-cut: you may simply believe you aren't able to do something and think very little about it. You may have never even considered the possibility; the self-doubt has always been there and prevented even a wish or a fantasy. Examples: Women may think of being nurses, stenographers, personnel managers, teachers, stewardesses, but never consider being doctors, lawyers, managers, owners, professors, researchers, pilots, etc. Men may never seriously consider a more enjoyable line of work or a promotion based on new skill.
It may be necessary to ask yourself how you feel about your ability to handle certain situations, e.g.:
- How certain are you (on a scale from 0% to 100% confident) that you could and would approach a group of strangers at a social gathering and join the conversation? ____%
- How confident are you that you would approach a person of the opposite sex at a party?____%
- How certain are you that you would call them up for a date later if they hadn't called you?____%
These are just examples. The questions have to be tailored to your specific concern. If you have reason to believe that self-doubts stand in your way, the next task is to reduce the doubts. It is probably clear to you that doubts will remain until proven wrong, i.e. until you start performing better, proving you have the ability. As long as you think you don't have the ability, you will either not try or let the doubts interfere with your performance. So the assumption that you don't have the ability has to be tested out which requires you to consider, at least temporarily, a more hopeful way of viewing your behavior.
STEP TWO: Make the assumption that your performance can be improved with more effort, more practice, and/or fewer emotions.
The only true test of your potential is to prepare as best you can and give it a try. However, there has to be some hope before one will prepare and try. Where does this hope come from? (l) Skills training often increases optimism (see chapter 13). (2) Insight into attitudes and self-defeating "games" might help (see Chapters 9 and 15). (3) Generally feeling better about oneself will increase motivation (see chapter 14). (4) Talking to someone who has been successful in the same area or getting encouragement from relatives, friends and others may do the trick. (5) Maybe you can just make a firm commitment to yourself to give it a good try and see what you can do.
If the internal critic is disrupting your efforts, try Gallwey's suggestions in the next step.
Don't say foolish things to yourself, like "I can do anything if I try" or "I will make all 'A's' (if you have been a C and B student)." Keep your optimism within reason. If you are a beginning tennis student, don't aim to win a tournament at the end of the summer. How about after three years (if you practice hard)?
Experiments clearly indicate that expectations (our own and others') influence our performance; this is called a "self-fulfilling prophesy." So, a new, honest expectation of gradual improvement should encourage practice and facilitate improvement (see next method).
The "flow" concept is not based on the idea of an internal critic. It simply says that to be interesting an activity (our work) must utilize our abilities. Too easy a job is boring. Too difficult a job is stressful. When an activity matches our capabilities we are interested, absorbed, and entertained, which is flow. Thus, tennis is best when we are playing someone our equal and doing our best. An exciting career is neither too easy nor too hard for us, permitting us to use all our abilities and when we do, we do a fantastic job. Since we will be getting more able with experience, our jobs need to be made more difficult at the same time. If a job becomes stressful, it needs to be re-defined (in your mind) so it is do-able. Then with abilities equaling the demands, we are "grooving" or in "flow."
STEP THREE: With an optimistic or open-minded or non-critical attitude, prepare well and try to do your best.
After adopting a new attitude or gaining new skills and preparing, undertake an objective test of your ability. Compare your performance with prior performances. If you are able to do better than before, it has to be due to greater effort, a better attitude, or more skill. You didn't grow more innate ability! Keep on improving by using failure as a signal that you need to try harder (but do that without using disruptive criticism).
If your performance in any area is hampered by self-criticism or a defeatist attitude, try Gallwey's suggestions: (1) concentrate on the activity (say tennis or doing a lab exercise or selling a product), watch the ball (or customer), learn to 'love' it. (2) Trust yourself, don't demand perfection, do your best and enjoy it, marvel at how well you can do things. (3) Focus on what is happening, not on fears or hopes of what will happen. (4) Stop trying to win, let yourself go, get in a groove where the effort is effortless, go full force but without criticism. (5) Accept yourself, fears and mistakes and all; play a good inner mental game and the external performance will be OK; don't try too hard.
If you are seeking "flow," as described by Csikszentmihalyi (1990), you need to set your own goals (you can't get wildly enthusiastic about carrying out someone else's life mission) and work on tasks that are really important and meaningful for you. Your goals determine the challenges you face and the skills you need to succeed. Since the goals are of your own choosing and involve interesting challenges, the tasks-to-be-done or your "work" fascinates you. This is especially true if you make your specific assignments difficult enough to match your current skills and drive level.
Next, throw yourself into the work with zest, immerse yourself in the activity. Keep the difficulty of the work at a level that stretches your ability and skills. Set challenges for yourself! Develop your ability to concentrate on the task at hand. One can't get into "flow" if you are frequently distracted (you aren't in control). Skills need to be developed constantly--and the job made more difficult (or the goals set higher) in order to use those new skills.
Concentrated attention leads to thorough involvement. A great athlete must concentrate, just as a good reader or a good listener must. You become so involved that you do not attend to the external world beyond your task and, therefore, you are not self-conscious. You lose your sense of self; you become a part of the system of activity (just as a good basketball player concentrates on all the players, not just on his/her actions).
The person in "flow" enjoys the experience. Even when great goals are not being pursued, because one has learned to control his/her mind, the ordinary experiences of life (and the grimy tasks) will be satisfying. You will appreciate a song bird, watching children play, walking in a park, etc. But the final result of being so efficient and productive will be creative achievement. To remain a high level of self-satisfaction, you will develop more and more skills; thus, you will be successful in doing something worthwhile if you have chosen your goals well. You will achieve an optimal performance almost without effort; you forget time and your troubles.
You can't stay in "flow" all the time, just try to stay in the groove as much as possible.
Little time is required to ask yourself if you are hassled and/or obstructed by an inner critic. If so, it should not take long to see the logic of trying out another mental attitude. If a new skill is needed to bolster a more optimistic attitude, that will take more time.
If the nature of the job needs to be changed to match your capabilities, it may be something you can do rather easily by yourself by making it more or less demanding. If the job has to be changed radically or can't be made to challenge your mind, that may be very difficult (see chapter 13 for suggestions about choosing a career).
Common problems with the method
A defeatist attitude is hard to change. Don't confuse this destructive self-putdown attitude with the demanding attitude of perfectionists. The tennis pros may have a severe inner critic (when they get mad at themselves) but they expect to play fantastically well. The pros also know the importance of "settling down," of "loosing ourselves in the game (flow)," and of having a good mental attitude. Some people just can't let go of their self-criticism, perhaps it serves some important purpose (like avoiding criticism from others).
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
Our interpretation of doing poorly (not enough ability or not enough effort) is known to influence our subsequent performance. In some cases, our self-evaluations can be easily changed (such as by reading some self-help material). In other cases, renewed effort produces convincing results: "I'm damn good at this." There are no known dangers. We will, in a life-time of testing our limits, of course, have to occasionally face the conclusion that we are lacking in ability or that the payoffs are not worth the effort required. The alternative is to live without knowing our potential.
Gallwey, W. T. (1974). The inner game of tennis. New York: Bantam Books.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Self-efficacy; belief in oneself; positive thinking; self-fulfilling prophesy.
Self-efficacy is a very old notion (self-confidence or belief in oneself) but a popular new psychology term (Bandura, 1977b, 1980a). It influences what we try to do and for how long. Where does a belief in our ability to control or change a certain situation come from? (1) From relevant success experiences. (2) From observing others handle the situation successfully. (3) From being persuaded that we can do it. (4) From perceiving our physiological state as being prepared for the task at hand. Self-efficacy is discussed at length in method #9 in chapter 14.
Bandura contends that self-efficacy is a major underlying factor explaining the effectiveness of all therapies. That is, behavior or cognitive therapy (or a self-help method) works to the extent you believe you can use it to change. There is, in fact, a high correlation between expectations and one's performance. That doesn't prove one causes the other, however. Perhaps we just know our abilities pretty well. Nevertheless, as a theory, it suggests a simple approach: increase your positive expectations in order to improve your performance. It is noteworthy that Norman Vincent Peale's famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking, begins with these words: "Believe in yourself!" And 100 years ago William James wrote: "Our belief...insures the successful outcome...."
The previous method #13 focuses on the removal of certain destructive parts of the self. This method focuses on strengthening the positive self-expectations parts of the self.
- To improve performance by realistically increasing one's expectations.
STEP ONE: Find ways to increase your faith in your ability to change things.
Explore the ways listed in "General idea" above. (1) Nothing works like success to increase our confidence. Actual experience is much more convincing than imaginary experience. Try to insure success by taking on easy tasks first and then working up to harder assignments. Or, start by mentally rehearsing, role playing with a friend, and practicing (see chapter 13). (2) By observing others accomplish some task, we learn how to do it and we become convinced that we too can do it (if they are similar to us). (3) Our expectations are open to persuasion. Others can increase our confidence; we can talk ourselves into believing in ourselves. Reading about successful people builds our hope. The popular "Positive Mental Attitude," how-to-be-successful, and inspirational religious books may help (see chapter. 4). By their nature, most self-help books are encouraging. (4) Believing that we are physically ready to achieve some goal increases our confidence.
STEP TWO: Build confidence and increase your skills at the same time.
Although researchers need to differentiate expectations (faith or confidence or placebo) from ability (knowledge or skill or motivation), in everyday life they are usually clumped together. Unrealistically high expectations can't last long. One way of feeling competent is to be competent. Learn the skills you need and practice, practice, practice. And let the confidence grow too. The self-efficacy will motivate you to try and persevere, whereas before you hesitated and gave up.
STEP THREE: Try again with more self-confidence.
The proof is in the pudding.
Common problems with the method
As implied above, if one lacks talent, a positive expectation is of little value if that talent is required. On the other hand, if one has the necessary skills, then self-confidence will encourage their use until success is achieved.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
Except for the well documented relationship between expectation and performance, there is very little knowledge, as yet, about how to change self-efficacy or about how powerful a factor it is. A problem is separating (1) the actual effectiveness of a self-help method from the impact of (2) simply having faith in an ineffective self-help method and (3) having faith that I, as a self-helper, have special aptitude in this area that will make me especially effective. (In medicine, the effect of the drug has to be separated from the patient's improvement based on believing an inert placebo pill will help.) Placebos in medicine are fairly effective. In self-help, probably all three factors are significant factors.
If any simple method can increase the effort we will exert, it is valuable. There are no dangers.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.