The Mindset Concept and How it Helps to Understand Clients in Therapy

Why are some people who experience difficulties, even failures, in certain endeavors, work hard to improve,  while others give up when they begin to have difficulty?  

A seemingly simple theory I have found helpful in understanding this difference in clients is Mindset, a concept Carol Dweck, a social psychologist, has identified.  She defines Mindset as a self-perception or self theory that people have about themselves.  Some  have a bi-modal belief about themselves:  they see themselves as either capable or incapable in a particular area, e.g., doing math or playing a musical instrument or a sport. They believe they are stuck at their current, probably inadequate level of functioning.  Dweck describes them as having a fixed mindset.  If, however, they believe that, no matter what level they are at right now, they can, with work and effort, improve their skill, they are displaying a growth mindset.    

Dweck and other psychologists  influenced by her have done a great deal of research on this mindset concept in educational settings with various age groups all over the world. She started on this research path when she observed young children taking a math test.  She found that some children,  when faced with difficult problems,  worked hard, persevered  and ended up doing well on the test..  They even seemed to enjoy having to struggle.  Other students, however,  complained about the task, blamed their difficulties  on their lack of ability or the unfairness of the task and usually  just gave up.  

Although Dweck is a social psychologist and has been primarily interested in how people motivate themselves to learn, she has applied her work in other areas, e.g., the conflicts  between nations.    She also wrote an excellent book for laypeople called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  I recommend it highly. 

Two humanistic psychologists, Art Bohart and Karen Tallman in their excellent book,  How Clients Make Therapy Work (1999),  pointed out the Mindset concept can usefully  be applied to psychotherapy.   I have found it helpful for understanding and working with many clients, particularly those who have a fixed mindset about their ability to use therapy to grow.  They often tend to believe they were born with fixed traits,  talents and emotional awareness and are stuck with a low level of functioning in those areas.  The profession of psychiatry and the drug companies have unwittingly reinforced the fixed traits belief system by emphasizing reductive genetic and physiological causes of clients’ difficulties in living.  Many fixed mindset people either view therapy as a waste of time, saying that people don’t really change;  or, if they do enter therapy,  expect the thrapist to magically “cure” them.   Others, particularly the narcissistic type of client, will want the therapist to affirm their wonderfulness and validate their complaints about how others don’t appreciate them or thwart their efforts to thrive.   

Still others,  even those who remain in therapy for a long time, describe starting activities they think they will enjoy,  but then seem to lose interest and give them up.  They thus fail to find rewarding, meaningful activities  that would enrich their lives. 

An example of such a person is Ron.  Over the years he has embarked on various creative activities:  building model ships, writing short stores, playing the guitar, drawing.   He always had unrealistic expectations about how easily he could do these things and compared himself to professionals in these areas.  But he  described always “losing interest” fairly quickly and felt much shame about his inability to stick with any creative activity. 

In his therapy, although coming regularly, he tended to be rather passive, sitting very still, speaking very slowly.  He complained about having no friends and was quite depressed.  Exploration of the emotional and creative barrenness of  his childhood gradually helped him to understand why he had these adult difficulties.  His father had had a heart attack when he was very young,  was obviously very bitter and depressed, and paid no attention to his young son.  His mother was a religious fanatic with political far right wing beliefs, and spoke of the world in very negative terms.  She gave Ron no support or encouragement in any activity,  including school, besides telling him that he was “very smart” and “could do anything” he wanted.  But he was a mediocre student and thought that his mother must either be crazy or  was lying to him.    Not only could he not do “anything,” he began to feel he could really do nothing well. 

He was obviously on the road to developing a fixed mindset about his intellectual and creative abilities.  For example, his class one year was given the assignment to bring in a model they had built.  He created one out of wood and his mother told him it was  very creative.  When he got to school, however, he saw that his piece was vastly inferior to what the other kids had brought.  He was very ashamed and wanted to throw his model in the trash. This event reinforced his belief in his basic, fixed inadequacy; he didn’t realize that the other children probably had people in their lives who could help them build their models.  Because his mother communicated a very negative view of other people, it did not occur to him that he could reach out to others  for help.  Numerous  experiences similar to this over the years  resulted in him having a fixed mindset about his creative abilities. 

In future posts I will discuss in more detail how fixed and growth mindset clients got to be that way and how I work with them.