Working With Clients Who Have Fixed Mindsets

There are numerous ways that psychotherapists can help clients with fixed mindsets  change to a growth mindset.  I find this particularly important for those who feel a sense of shame and uselessness because they are not experiencing a sense of purpose and effectiveness in their lives.   It is especially important for those who are retired and don’t have their jobs to give them the structure and sense of usefulness.   But there are  a few caveats.

       First, the mindset concept is not bi-modal,  but is on a continuum.  Some people are very rigid in their fixed beliefs, not even trying  to undertake  creative, intellectual  or physical activities.   Others, like Ron, whom I discussed in my last blog, at least keep attempting to become involved in meaningful, creative projects, albeit with limited success.  Second, a person can have a fixed mindset in one area, e.g., athletic activities; but have a growth mindset in another area, e.g.,  intellectual endeavors.   For example, a past client was a hunter and a good mechanic.  He did a lot of home repairs and remodeling his house.  He had no fears about venturing into unknown forested areas to hunt.  He even sometimes used a bow and arrow to hunt with!  But he felt extremely awkward in any social situation, and avoided  them if he possibly could.  He didn’t think that he had the ability to make “small talk” with strangers, and believed he could never become better at it.   Thus he had a growth mindset in hunting and in doing home repairs, but had  a fixed mindset about social interactions and his relationships with people in general.   

Another very important issue is how driven the person is to master a particular activity.  I have seen many people who were not given as children any instruction or support in a particular activity but got the idea that he or she had to be a success in the activity.  This person is put into an almost impossible bind: “I have to do this, but I don’t think I can.”  I will give an example of that dilemma as I have experienced it personally.  

My father was a very skilled person when it came to building, repairing, playing a sport or a musical instrument.  He worked as a machinist and made beautiful things  on a lathe. He could overhaul the engine in his car, fix a toaster, build structures.   But he never included me in his building or repairing activities. When I was about nine or ten  my father was preparing the paint for  some bookcases he had built.  I thought that painting would be a fun thing to do and expressed some interest in doing it with him.   But he demanded that before I starting painting, I stir the paint in the can.  Unlike today, the paints of that era were oil based and the paint was separated, the oil being on top.  I stirred and stirred and stirred, finally became bored and tired, told him I didn’t want to do it anymore, stopped and went off to read a book.    He didn’t insist that I keep stirring the paint, but it would probably have been better for me if he had.  It would have been a good opportunity to spend some time with my Dad and given me the idea that I could accomplish something like that if I stuck to it.

We moved to Los Angeles when I was 14 and when I turned 16, I asked him to teach me to drive.  He told me that before he would do that, I would have to learn how to overhaul the engine in his car.   I was shocked and indignant.  None of my friends who were my age were required by their fathers to learn auto mechanics before being taught to drive.  And again, he didn’t insist or make it sound like a fun thing to do.  He let me not do it and never did teach me to drive.  If he had indicated he really wanted me to do an activity like that with him, I would have not only learned about how to repair a car, but would have a closer relationship with my Dad.

Years later I bought a fixer-up house in Venice, California and thought that I should be able to some of the remodeling.  One day I was trying to install a new electrical box and was having trouble with the wiring.  I noticed as I struggled  that I was sweating profusely, feeling frustrated and getting more and more angry.  I  suddenly realized I was feeling shame that I was having so much difficulty.  I thought that I must be really stupid, an abject failure.  I then realized that I was expecting myself to do something I had never been taught to do.  Because my father did things like that seemingly effortlessly, I thought I should be able to do it  too.  There was a part of me I now realize had a fixed mindset, that I was utterly incompetent when it came to home repairs.

I also have had a fixed mindset about math,  but feel–have a growth mindset– about  interacting with other people, including other health professionals.  Without that self-confidence, I would never have felt able to create a new, viable private practice in the Portland area in 2003.  

Steps in Working Through Fixed Mindsets

    • The first step is helping the client understand the etiology of their fixed mindset theory about themselves. This enables them to see that their adult feelings of helplessness and inadequacy are an inevitable result of the lack of support and  education they lacked during childhood.  This awareness can help to lessen the shame they feel about their failures. 

The psychological makeup of Ron, whom I discussed in my  earlier blog, is a good example.   He had always evaluated himself in terms of his failures in sticking to and progressing in various creative endeavors.  He had a belated understanding  that there was no other possible outcome for him given his neglectful parents.   Note that this awareness can sometimes take a very long time to develop in psychotherapy.   Most people with fixed mindsets, like Ron,  are usually not aware in the beginning of therapy of the powerful impact their growing-up years have had on their views of themselves in adulthood.  And the reasons for this are twofold:  they have not had the perspective on what was missing until they have been in therapy for awhile and have explored their childhoods; and, because the awareness of what they’ve missed in their lives is very painful, they can’t allow themselves  to recognize it until they have experienced the caring and support of their therapists while experiencing those emotions. 

     •  The second step is experiencing, in the present, what they’re feeling at the moment they become discouraged or bored and give up on the creative activity.    Here’s an example from my work with Ron:

        Ron: I did it again.  I sat down to play the piano, went through a piece I learned a long time ago, and started to make mistakes.   After awhile, I just decided to give up on it.  But I feel crappy about just giving up again.   I have always done that in any creative activity . 

        ST:  Do you know what was going on inside of you when you quit playing?

        Ron:  I just thought ‘why am I torturing myself about this?’  I’ll never get any better at it. 

        ST:  Well, that’s what you thought.  But I think it’s important to notice what you were feeling at that moment.  Can you go back to the moment you decided to stop playing that piece?  Feel into your body.

      Ron:  I’m having kind of a sinking feeling in my stomach.  And my chest is tight. 

      ST:  And I see a tight  expression on your face, especially your mouth.    And I also notice your breathing is very shallow.   Could you let yourself feel that?

      Ron:  Yeah, I’m feeling kind of disgust.  Disgusted with myself.  I’m thinking, I’ll never be any good at this. Why keep trying!

      ST:  It sounds like the kind of messages we’ve seen in the past that you give yourself when you’re having trouble doing something.  No wonder you stop playing at that point.  Why keep doing it if it’s only painful?

      Ron:  But that’s the pattern of my life.  I never encourage myself; I’m always putting myself down and telling myself I can’t do it. 

     ST:  I suggest that you spend some time just sitting in front of the the piano at home.  Don’t even try to make yourself play,  but just notice what you’re feeling emotionally and physically.   And we can use your increased awareness to work on this problem at your pace.  

Approaching the Fixed Mindset Issue by Working on the Underlying Topdog-Underdog Conflict

Another tack to take with clients like Ron is alluded to in the excerpt above:  helping the client experience the overt and covert messages she or he is giving himself or herself.   I discuss this method in an earlier blog:  The Empty Chair Dialogue in Psychotherapy.    In another session I had Ron talk to himself from the perspective of his internalized critical parent or Topdog,  so that he could become more aware how he was discouraging himself.    I also had him switch to the role of the recipient of these harsh messages and see how he responded to them.  He usually just believed what his Topdog/Critical Introject was telling him.  We had done work on this conflict in earlier sessions and he was already aware of this intrapsychic process.

For those who have EMDR training, processing  those events via the bilateral stimulation method can be very helpful.  I will talk about that in my next blog about the mindset concept.