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Coping with Setbacks and Shutdowns – Shifting from Stymied and Stuck to Engaged and Empowered

Coping with Setbacks and Shutdowns – Shifting from Stymied and Stuck to Engaged and Empowered

My mom grew up poor, on a farm in northern Minnesota, during the Great Depression.  The family had food to eat, but not much else. She told me once how, for amusement and play while walking 3 miles to school, she would kick a horse turd into town and, if it didn’t break up on the way to school, she would kick it back home again.

My father grew up not quite so poor in the Great Depression; his father still had a job digging sewer ditches for the city of Chicago. But money for amusement and play was tight.  So every Saturday he and his brother would take turns going to watch a movie at the local cinema (5 cents) and then come home and tell the other one the story, detail by detail.

Many, many people are struggling now in the current coronavirus pandemic: to keep a job, to go to school online if wi-fi and a device are available, to keep kids entertained and connected with friends. And I’m hearing from everywhere stories of people being creative in how they stay connected with family and friends while we’re sheltering-in-place: Playing virtual card and board games with friends, holding book clubs and church services by Zoom. My local bookstore, Book Passage, is hosting conversations with local authors, free and accessible forever on their website.

This post is not so much full of specific suggestions of how to access new creative activities during this time of sheltering in place, but to suggest the underlying process of shifting from feeling stuck and bored to re-engaging with meaningful, nurturing activities, and an excellent exercise to catalyze that shift.

Psychologist Carol Dweck wrote her book Mindset 12 years ago while she was at Columbia University and focused on the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset in how we deal with failure, setbacks, disappointments. Her findings are especially applicable to resilience.

Her findings boil down to:

Fixed mindset:  a system of beliefs that talents, aptitudes, temperaments, personality traits and preferences are fixed; either you have the smarts or the good looks or the talents, or you don’t. And that success or failure is a true measure of one’s intelligence, competence, self-worth.

Folks with the fixed mindset feel an urgency to prove over and over again that they are as good as they believe they are (or, more likely, that others believe they are); to meet expectations, to succeed, to never fail. 

Hence, folks with a fixed mindset are supersensitive to being judged and very vulnerable to feeling “rejected, a failure, an idiot, a loser, worthless, nobody loves me, pitiful.”  And the response to failure or a setback is to fear challenge, devalue effort, and avoid risk, to stop trying, to give up, retreat, withdraw, veg out.  The fixed mindset robs people of capacities to cope.

Growth mindset: a system of beliefs that talents, aptitudes, temperaments, personality traits and preferences are simply a starting point for development.  The growth mindset fosters curiosity and a passion for learning through effort and experience. 

People with growth mindsets respond especially well when things are not going well; they tend to stretch themselves, confront obstacles, embrace risk, and stick through the hard times.  Rather than being embarrassed or blocked by a sense of deficiency, they can acknowledge what skill or capacity is missing and set to work to cultivate it. They take direct, wise, and compassionate action. “Love of challenge, belief in effort, resilience in the face of setbacks, greater creativity and success” are hallmarks of the growth mindset.

And in Dweck’s view, we can intentionally choose to cultivate a growth mindset – that would be characteristic of the growth mindset right there; our mindsets are not fixed; we can put in the effort to shift our orientation to life events from fixed to growth.  We can shift how we filter our perceptions of ourselves and our experiences. 

That means we live our lives not about avoiding failure or disappointment but about grabbing a hold of failure or disappointment as an opportunity to learn, to improve, to master.  Choosing to cultivate a growth mindset changes everything.

Exercise: Shift from Fixed Mindset to Growth Mindset

1.  Take a moment to reflect on many different situations where you faced a challenge, even something simply new or unknown.  Reflect on your own thought process and your own behaviors.  Discern times when you did hang back, hesitate, or refuse to attempt something you perceived a bit beyond your capacities.  Discern times also when you approached a challenge as a learning opportunity, with interest, curiosity, and some confidence, at least willingness to give it a go.  Most of us have experienced elements of both fixed mindset and growth mindsets.

2. For one of your times acting from a growth mindset, reflect on what made your decision to try and your perseverance in trying possible.  Identify both internal and external resources.

3.  For one of your times being caught in a fixed mindset, imagine how you could have behaved differently, finding your courage and encouragement from others to go ahead and try, engage, persevere, try again and again until you experienced some success, or at least a healthy pride in your effort.

4.  Identify a new situation now where you could try coming from a growth mindset rather a fixed mindset.  Choose a situation where you might realistically have a chance for success.  Focus on shifting your mindset from fixed to growth. 

Reflect on any difference this choice makes on your behavior. “What will you do when a setback/adversity happens?”

This exercise reliable helps us move toward a more resilient mindset.

I am no longer afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship. – Louisa May Alcott

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