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Don’t Know, Don’t Believe, or Just Don’t Care?

Strategies and goals

hanging onWhy do we so often have trouble following through with the way we want to be and act? Unfortunately for me, I face this question all the time. Having made a study of habits and motivation, I have an almost endless supply of tools and tricks to get myself out of a bad mood, figure out what to do next, or get on track–yet even though these tools and tricks have made a huge positive impact in my life, I still manage to be far from perfect. Sometimes I’m late despite knowing exactly how not to be late; sometimes I become disorganized despite having terrific organizational systems at my disposal; and sometimes I fall short on goals or fail to change in the way I’d like to. Why? It seems to come down to three kinds of problems: not knowing, not believing, or not caring.

Here’s an example: recently I’ve been doing some reading that brings me to believe that the advice we’ve been given for decades about how to fend off heart attacks and strokes and all of that is completely wrong (see my recent article “Wait–Eating Lots of Fat Is GOOD for Your Heart?“). Once I’ve decided that what I’ve read is compelling enough to act on, why wouldn’t I become instantly and completely compliant with all of the new guidelines I’ve learned? After all, it could be literally a matter of life and death.

Don’t know: Before I started reading up on the “fats good, sugars bad” perspective, I had lots of misinformation that was fed to me–and that continues to be fed to me–by mostly well-meaning nutritionists, government officials, and doctors. If I don’t have good information, I can’t very well act on it. It’s very hard to change a habit, for instance, without knowing how habits work (by the way, this site has a number of clear, specific, and carefully researched articles on that subject).

Don’t believe: There are different versions of the belief problem, but one example is plain old doubt. For instance, I might find Dr. Peter Attia’s posts about fat very compelling, but still be nervous to switch to a fat-driven diet because I have a hard time believing that almost all of the information I’d received on the subject in the past was wrong.

Worse, and perhaps even more common, is lack of belief in ourselves. If I don’t believe I can make a change in my life, then all of my efforts in that direction will begin to seem pointless, and it will be very hard to keep myself going.

My belief might be from old information I’m having trouble letting go of, or new and conflicting information, even if it’s from the same old sources or if I know the information I already have is better. Maybe I have friends, family members, coworkers, teachers, colleagues, or role models who don’t believe what I believe, and that’s making sticking to my guns harder.

Don’t care: Perhaps worst of all is when I know what to do and I believe it will make a difference, but I just don’t care at that point. Maybe I’ve had a rough day or a bad night’s sleep and don’t feel as though I can put the effort into one more thing. Maybe I’m concentrating on the things I don’t like about what I’m doing or on things that I can’t or shouldn’t do if I want to pursue that goal instead of on what I can be doing next or on what inspires me. Sometimes I might just not be able to get up any enthusiasm for working on a goal that might never be realized, or that would only have an effect in the distant future. Or it could be that I’m just distracted, preoccupied with other things and not able to spare the attention and interest.

Regardless of which of these problems I have, realizing that I’m faced with a problem in knowledge, belief, or caring makes an instant improvement. Asking myself what I don’t know can lead me to the information I need, and realizing I’m having trouble believing or caring can lead me back to whatever inspired me to believe or care in the first place. When these kinds of obstacles are addressed, then the problem vanishes as if by magic, and suddenly I’m back on track.

Photo by Sharon Morrow.

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If You Think People Don’t Change, You Need to Get Out More

Society and culture

Recently I had the misfortune of seeing the movie Young Adult. It offers some interesting story elements, with very good acting and direction, and it does a great job of realistically depicting a writer’s job (something most movies about writers fail at miserably, despite presumably having been written by writers) but the storyline is appalling, and I can’t recommend the movie at all. The end of the movie actually had me shouting at the television with indignation and disgust … although really, I was shouting at the screenwriter, Diablo Cody.

Ms. Cody wrote one of my favorite movies of all time, Juno, so I don’t mean to suggest that she writes only bad movies. I got some insight into where she was coming from when I read this excerpt from a Huffington Post article about the movie:

“I feel like Facebook is, in a lot of ways, proof that people don’t change,” Cody said. “The fact that we can keep up with the people that we used to know and watch them progress or not progress — which is the case most of the time — it’s interesting and it’s a little sad.”

So in that framework, the movie makes sense. If you believe people don’t change, you might then write a movie about a person who is a mess and doesn’t change. However, writing a movie like that doesn’t make it a workable story–nor does it make it true.

People who think people don’t change need to spend time with more and different people.  Have you ever met a recovered alcoholic? Ever met someone who went back to school later in life and started a new career? Someone who lost a bunch of weight and got the fitness bug? I certainly do.

Facebook certainly isn’t proof that people don’t change: in fact, the primary reason I seek people out on Facebook is to find out how they have changed. What are their relationships like now? What kind of work do they do? What’s important to them? Where do they live? How are they spending their time? Are they happy? What happened later in the story of that person I used to know and have lost touch with?

It’s true, though, that we’re built to resist change. Our habitual behaviors are expressed in our brains as neural connections that strengthen over time, and it takes concerted effort or a stark change of circumstances to build new connections. However, this is worlds away from saying we don’t change. With the right influence or effort, virtually anything about us can change. Unskilled people can become masterful (see “Do You Have Enough Talent to Become Great at It?“); unhealthy people can become healthy (“Finding Exercise You Love: The Taekwondo Example“); and unhappy people can get used to having joy in their lives (see “The Best 40 Percent of Happiness“), for example.

The thing that most upsets me about the idea that people don’t change is that it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a meta-study about willpower done a few years back, a key finding was that individuals who were trying to change their habits generally didn’t succeed unless they believed they could. This makes sense: how much effort will we realistically invest in something that we feel won’t pan out?

Trying to convince people wholesale that change isn’t possible hacks away at the foundation of confidence we need to be able to change, and that foundation is essential even when we fail at first. For example, consider that a smoker who has unsuccessfully tried to quit before has a better chance of quitting now, statistically, than a smoker who has never tried to quit before. In some cases, the mistaken belief that the smoker could quit on the first or second attempt allowed that person to get far enough along to successfully quit on a later attempt.

People accomplish real change every day, but it’s far more likely that change will happen when we understand and believe it’s possible in the first place.


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Does Simply Believing That You Can Improve Help You Improve?

States of mind

An intriguing post from Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck offers the idea that simpler believing you can learn to do better can give you an advantage in performance, over time.

Dr. Dweck describes two ways to look at skills and abilities: the “growth mindset” and the “fixed mindset.” The growth mindset is a belief that practice and experience can improve skill. The fixed mindset is a belief that you’ve either got it or you don’t.

Based on other research, the growth mindset appears to be a lot more accurate: see past articles on such as “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?,” “Why I’m Proud to Have Been an Unoriginal, Talentless Hack,” and “Practice versus Deliberate Practice.” However, this isn’t Dr. Dweck’s point. Instead, she describes how the very belief in the possibility of improving tends to boost ability over time:

The fixed mindset, in which you have only a certain amount of a valued talent or ability, leads people to want to look good at all times. You need to prove that you are talented and not do anything to contradict that impression, so people in a fixed mindset try to highlight their proficiencies and hide their deficiencies (see, e.g., Rhodewalt, 1994) … In contrast, the growth mindset, in which you can develop your ability, leads people to want to do just that. It leads them to put a premium on learning.

Some interesting additional details: in studies, Dr. Dweck and colleagues found that people might have a growth mindset in one area but a fixed mindset in another. For instance, you might believe you can get better at drawing, but not at socializing, or you might think you can improve at baseball but not at math.

Mindsets are fairly durable, but as Dr. Dweck points out, “they are beliefs, and beliefs can be changed.” The lesson for all of us seems to be that having faith in our own ability to improve will serve us well regardless of what area of life we’re talking about. To cultivate this belief, I can recommend a couple of books: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated.

Photo by Express Monorail. Thanks to Vince Favilla for tweeting Dr. Dweck’s article.

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How to Believe

States of mind

Accomplishing new goals in our lives usually means changing our habits, and changing habits requires commitment to a goal. Underneath that commitment, though, there has to be faith. There’s a goodly amount of research out there to support the idea that if we don’t believe we can do something difficult, we won’t make a very good attempt at it.

Why belief is important to success
Belief’s importance makes a lot of sense: after all, accomplishing something difficult means putting in effort and attention over time, and as human beings, we tend to be very bad at putting time and effort into something when we don’t believe we’ll succeed–and rightly so! It doesn’t make much sense to expend our efforts in areas where we expect to fail.

But a problem comes up when something that we really can do feels impossible. We might want very much to do that thing and know exactly what steps we should be taking, but if we have trouble picturing success, eventually resolve tends to falter. We stop putting in effort because we have a crisis of faith, and that interruption causes our effort to fail, which reinforces the idea that what we wanted to do was impossible in the first place.

While fortunately we human beings tend to compensate for this sometimes with bull-headedness and unrealistic expectations (and I really do think that’s fortunate–otherwise we’d be like movie studios that only produce copycat movies for fear that something original will flop), more often, lack of belief leads to failure.

So sometimes, the reason you don’t believe you can earn a degree and get a better job is just that you’ve never had a better job, or the reason you can’t really believe you’ll lose weight is because you haven’t done it successfully before. Yet both of these things, for example, are achievable by almost anyone.

Building belief
So how can we help ourselves believe in our goals? Here are some ways to make that happen:

  • Talk to or research someone else who’s done it. Seeing is very close to believing.
  • Learn about how things work. For instance, learning about the relationship between building new muscle and increasing metabolism can provide more reason to be optimistic that exercise will lead to weight loss.
  • Root out broken ideas. It’s common to tell ourselves “facts” that don’t really hold up on examination. The page “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair” provides resources to learn how to repair broken ideas.
  • Track your progress. Every step toward your goal provides evidence that you can get closer. Be aware of your successes to bolster your confidence and your missteps to know where you need to be cautious. For more on this, see “How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation.”
  • Revisit past successes. If you’ve quit smoking for a couple of months in the past, or if you’ve been caught up with all of your correspondence at other times in your life, remind yourself of what you did and what you were able to accomplish.
  • Visualize success. Imagining a situation vividly enough helps it feel more real. Visualization is a way to get motivation from our own potential future successes.
  • Talk it out with someone supportive. Finding someone who wants to encourage you toward your goals can make a real difference (see “How Supporters and Partners Help Motivate Us“). Sympathetic friends or family members may not have the same blind spots we often have about ourselves, and a little encouragement can go a long way.

Photo by ornellaswouldgo

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Great Expectations Alone Won’t Cut It

Handling negative emotions

I’ve been reading Dickens’ Great Expectations, and there’s a lot for me to like in it. The thing I like the least, I’ve been thinking, is how some characters persist miserably in behavior that isn’t any good for them. Miss Havisham wallows for decade after decade in her anger and disappointment at being a jilted bride, and as she drifts ghost-like through her house in the rags of her wedding dress, I mentally shout at her, “What are you doing? Is this really what’s going to make you happy?”

And Pip, the main character, is worse: after being elevated to wealth by an unknown benefactor, he torments himself by pursuing a beautiful woman who makes him miserable, stops visiting the people who love him and make him happy because they’re beneath his station, and uses his wealth to run up huge debts by living beyond even his newly extravagant means. It makes me want to take him by the shoulders, shake him, and shout “Wake up! Why are you making yourself miserable?”

At least, it does until I realize how much I do the same things sometimes: maintaining a negative emotion because of having become attached to it, or spending huge effort pursuing an unworthy goal, or looking away from the difficult but ultimately more satisfying choices.

These are the patterns of most of our miseries, and there are five things we need to get through to go from there to a happier life:

  1. Awareness. We can’t do anything about our problems before we admit that they’re problems–which presumably is why admitting you have a problem is the foundational first step in twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  2. Belief. Pip believes there’s nothing he can do about his attraction to Estella, but in fact we have enormous influence over our own beliefs, preferences, and drives. Believing that our problems can be changed is more or less essential to purposely making that change.
  3. Knowledge. It doesn’t help to want to change if we don’t know what we want to stop doing and what we need to start doing instead. Understanding what success looks like, and how that differs from what we’re doing now, gets us from just wanting to change to being able to see what that change would be.
  4. Habit. Many of our behaviors are ingrained and will stay with us unless disrupted by accident or on purpose. Even if we know how we want to change our actions, we won’t act that way automatically: we need to build new habits and disrupt old ones. (Note: this long, hard-work phase is often skipped in novels and other stories, in which the realizations alone are sometimes portrayed as being enough. In real life, not so much.)
  5. Time and attention. Our resources are limited, including our time, strength, attention, and focus. Some of these resources need to be dedicated to making a change if a change is desired, and that generally means that they have to come from somewhere else.

Dickens being Dickens, I have a hard time imagining that Pip will come to a bad end. If he does win out in the end, I’ll be interested to see how he gets through these five steps (or at least the first three) to find his real strength.

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Why Long-Term Happiness Levels Tend to Stay the Same

States of mind

In yesterday’s article (“The Best 40 Percent of Happiness”) I talked about the factors that the current research suggests go into determining how happy we are. About 50% seems to be genetic, 40% from attitude, and only 10% from our life situation.

But this flies in the face of what seems like common sense. After all, the things that cause the most worry and excitement in our lives–jobs, money, romance, new experiences, health, etc.–really do change. We might have a job we hate one year and a job we love the next; we fall in love or get married or split up; we get illnesses or lose weight. Why wouldn’t these make major, long-term changes in our level of happiness? In fact, there are several reasons they generally don’t:

Hedonic Adaptation: “I could get used to this”
Hedonic adaptation is the process we go through of getting used to pleasurable things so that they no longer provide as much bliss as when we first encountered them. The first bite of a really delicious meal or the first week of an incredible romance, tends to provide a lot of stimuli we really like, triggering pleasurable mental and physiological reactions. However, our brains are designed to get used to these stimuli so that the reactions gradually lessen. This seems cruel, but on the bright side it’s also true of stimuli we don’t like, which is why we gradually get used to bad smells, for instance.

So eating caviar every single day eventually will begin to feel about the same as eating oatmeal every single day.

So anything we do that’s pleasurable has a short-term effect unless it’s alternated with other different, pleasurable things. For instance, if you love France and move there, then over time France will likely feel less and less like something special and more and more like the same old neighborhood. But if you move to a new country you like every year (due presumably to being an international jewel thief or space shuttle salesperson or something), then you’ll continue to be engaged by the new places, sights, and sounds–though you might get exhausted after a while and start thinking about the attractions of a good old boring home, too.

There’s more to it than just the one thing
Another reason situations tend not to affect our long-term happiness in the ways we expect is that we tend to focus on just the single most obvious result of a big change. For instance, if you think about winning the lottery, probably the thing that keeps your attention is having a ton of money or being able to quitting your job. You probably won’t be thinking about having to spend more time with your annoying sister-in-law, about people asking you for handouts day after day, or about how bored you might get if you don’t have a structured thing to do, like a job. That’s not to say that the pleasure wouldn’t balance out the inconveniences, at least in the short term, but it does mean that any good thing that happens to us is unlikely to be 100% blissful.

And these factors work the same way on troubles: people with physical disabilities get used to them; people who suffer losses become accustomed to making do with whatever’s left over; and things that are very painful at first tend to become less painful in time.

Cultivating long-term happiness
Whatever the reasons, the research seems clear that attitude means a lot more than situation–even if cultivating a better attitude makes our situation worse. That’s not to say that we should give up and not do anything about our troubles, although it’s possible that’s a route to happiness for some people. Most of us will want to work on our situation and on our attitude.

The important thing to know about cultivating an attitude that creates happiness is that just as we tend to get used to new stimuli, we also tend to get used to anything that inspires us temporarily–so that just trying to have a new attitude is unlikely to produce long-term change because after a while we’ll stop being inspired to do it and go back to our old ways. What will produce long-term change is cultivating habits that change attitude. As these habits become part of our daily behavior, they make a durable and lasting impact on how we see and react to the world, digging out the happiness that’s available from the situations we’re already in.

Photo by keeping it real

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What’s Drawing You Forward?

States of mind

Being motivated generally means being drawn toward something. Even running away from a ravenous smilodon is motivated in a way by a desperate desire to keep on living (though when we get down to the reptile brain like that–eating, sleeping, procreating–the rules are a little different, and a little more fundamental, than when we’re trying to motivate ourselves to complete a term paper or clean out the garage).

The question is, what are you being drawn toward? You don’t necessarily need an end goal, and in fact most kinds of personal improvement have to do with acquiring habits you’ll want to keep for the future, habits you’ll want to keep for a lifetime rather than just use to get to a finish line. The best way to complete one novel is to become the kind of person who writes a lot; the best way to lose weight and stay fit is to become the kind of person who eats well and loves to exercise; and so on.

So we’re not looking for some kind of end state or finish line: instead, we’re looking for a vision of the future, some point along the line when you’ve accomplished some of the things you would most like to accomplish. What does that vision look like?

The reason this vision for the future is important is because we tend to align ourselves with imagined situations, an effect called “mood congruity.” If I vividly imagine a cold, drizzly, depressing day, I’ll tend to feel more depressed. If I vividly imagine a ravenous smilodon, I’ll tend to feel afraid. And if I picture myself in a house that is perfectly organized, I’ll tend to get excited about organizing my house. Our mental imagery affects our current mood and even our desires. That’s why thinking about playing video games instead of studying is a bad way to prevent yourself from playing video games instead of studying: the more we picture something, the more we tend to make choices that are affected by the image.

One last note about drawing ourselves forward: while visions of a good future can help make us enthusiastic about making good choices in the present, the future in question doesn’t have to be a distant one. For instance, if I want to clean the garage, it can be very effective to imagine myself just a couple of hours in the future with a small part of the garage completely taken care of, even if the garage as a whole is going to take me weeks to sort out. Or I might imagine what it will be like to show my spouse that newly-clean corner of the garage, or to think about what I’ll do in a couple of weeks with the money I make selling unneeded things I dig out of the garage on Craigslist. In fact, sometimes the little, short-term payoffs are the most motivating.

So short-term or long, what’s drawing you forward?

Photo by rogiro

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How to Stop in Mid-Fail

States of mind

When we make bad decisions, where’s the real point of no return?

Let’s say Meg decides she really want to go to Sweden, and she plans an incredible 3-week vacation there: great hotels, tours, plane tickets, the whole shebang. As she’s making these reservations, she thinks to herself “I probably can’t afford this–but I’ve always wanted to go to Sweden, and who knows when I’ll have the chance next?” Everything’s set. Once the reservations are made, is it too late for her to change her mind?

Two weeks before the trip she looks briefly at her finances and begins to worry about what will happen to her credit card debt if she goes. Is she really going to be able to pay all that money off? It turns out she doesn’t have it in savings, as she was kind of hoping she would. Now is it too late?

The day before she leaves, the anxiety is too much for her, and she sits down and runs the numbers. It turns out that the trip isn’t just a little out of her reach: it’s going to cause havoc to her whole budget–she might even run out of money while on the trip! And she hadn’t realized the hotel was going to cost that much, and should she really have booked the more expensive flight so that she didn’t have to leave at 5:30 in the morning? Is it too late now?

It may feel too late. When you’re driving away from the fast food restaurant or about to drop that angry letter in the mailbox or standing at the counter while the sales clerk rings up your purchases, it may feel as though you’re committed to the bad choice you’ve made, even if you now realize it’s a bad choice. For some of us (and this is completely typical of the old eating habits I’ve been painstakingly overcoming for years), you may be halfway through eating something, realize you’re not enjoying it at all, and still finish it because oh well, you already bought it and started eating it, and you don’t want it to go to waste, right? Because making you unhappy and contributing to your ill health is much less going to waste than throwing it away … uh, right?

Yet it’s never actually too late until it’s literally impossible to take whatever it is back. Even if it would take a lot of effort to backtrack, or if you lose money by changing your plans, or if you have to do something that seems random and embarrasses you, it’s better to reverse a bad choice at the last minute than to never reverse it at all. The day before Meg’s trip, she can say to herself “This is ridiculous: I can’t afford this, and I won’t even be able to enjoy the trip because I’ll be worrying about money the whole time.” Then she can call the airline and see if she can get a refund or credit for the flight, call the hotels and tours and cancel her reservations, and so on. If she’s past the deadline for getting much money back from the trip–for instance, if she got non-refundable plane tickets and the airline won’t give her credit toward future travel–then maybe it is too late, but if she just has to take a hit of a few hundred dollars instead of spending thousands she doesn’t have, then canceling (or scaling back to much cheaper arrangements) is still the right decision for her.

On the surface, this kind of reversal looks stupid: you go to a lot of trouble to arrange something, then you go to a lot of trouble to cancel it, and lose money in the bargain. The important thing to realize is that the value Meg was trying to get at the beginning was an illusion: the trip was not really something she wanted on those terms. If she took it, she would be less happy and less empowered than if she didn’t. Once she realized this, the value of the trip as she understood it changed. It’s as though you made arrangements to buy a nice car and then found out the car was a lemon. Would you still buy the car (and for the same amount) just because it seemed like it was worth more before you knew better?

There are two benefits to reversing a bad decision even after the bad decision has already cost you something. The first is that the bad decision hurts you less if you don’t follow all the way through with it. The second is that you give yourself a memorable and meaningful lesson. The canceled trip will, we hope, really stick in Meg’s memory, so that the next time she tries to buy something that she can’t afford, she can reflect on it and say “Remember when I almost bankrupted myself on that trip to Sweden I wanted? This is like that. Why don’t I steer clear this time?”

Is it ever too late to get a little smarter?

Photo by tricky

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Mental Schemas #7: Vulnerability to Harm

Handling negative emotions

This is the seventh in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

How vulnerability schemas work
A person with the vulnerability schema has thoughts like these:

  • What if something happens to the plane while we’re in flight?
  • He’s late. Maybe he got in an accident.
  • Business hasn’t been good lately. What if I get fired and can’t get another job?
  • I can’t sleep when it rains because I keep worrying about flooding

Being vulnerable is part of being alive. No one is completely immune to natural catastrophes, disease, accidents, war, financial setbacks, crime, and all of the other kinds of trouble that can arise even when things are going well. Most of us either ignore this (“I’ll deal with it if it ever comes up”) or accept it on some level (“Sometimes bad things happen; I’ll just try to be prepared and not worry too much about it”), but people with the vulnerability schema have a lot of trouble letting go of these worries. Fear of something bad happening causes them to be overprotective, hyperanxious, or too timid to take chances.

People with the vulnerability schema generally get it from a parent who worried too much about things that might happen and passed the idea along to their children, insisting that the world is a dangerous place. Some children don’t acquire these ideas from the parents, learning from others or from experience that harm doesn’t lurk around every corner. Others, however, follow the model their parents (or other significant people in their lives) set.

Getting past a vulnerability schema
As with any schema, the vulnerability schema tends to come out in part as a series of broken ideas, like fortune telling (“I’m going to get swine flu from a sick kid at school!”) and emotional reasoning (“I’m so worried about earthquakes that I know one will happen before long.”) The day to day healthy habit of repairing these kinds of ideas helps weaken the vulnerability schema.

Also as with any schema, getting past a vulnerability schema means both accepting the idea of harm (“Sometimes bad things happen, and I’ll just do the best I can to get through them when they come up.”) and rejecting an obsession with harm (“Just because I’ve been worried about all of these things in the past doesn’t mean that I have to continue to be worried about them, or that I’m justified in my worry.”)

Photo by tj.blackwell

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Mental Schemas #6: Incompetence

Handling negative emotions

This is the sixth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

Ever felt stupid? Not just like you did something stupid, but that you are stupid, can’t learn, are incompetent, are talentless or useless? That you in a basic and profound way are just not up to the mark?

Most of us feel some of that at least a few times in our lives, but people with the incompetence schema feel that way every day. On a basic level, they feel as though they’re not good enough. If this feels like you or sounds like someone you know, learning about this schema might come in handy for you.

How incompetence schemas work
Incompetence schemas usually develop in childhood, when parents or other important figures in a kid’s life start telling them–whether in so many words or through attitudes and actions–that they can’t hack it, that they’re not up to the challenge.

Studies of randomly-generated praise have shown that when someone is doing a task, even completely meaningless, computer-generated encouragement tends to improve their mood and make them feel more competent. I suspect on some basic level it’s built into us to need a certain amount of encouragement. Some of us eventually internalize that encouragement and can provide it for ourselves, mentally telling ourselves “You’ve got this!” and “You’re going to kick butt!”

People with this schema never got enough of that encouragement in their formative years and therefore have trouble generating their own encouragement or believing other people’s. This can lead to expecting failure, fearing challenges, and shying away from anything that might “prove” the incompetence.

Getting past an incompetence schema
How do you get the best of an incompetence schema? Well, external encouragement may help, but there are two things that have to happen inside a person for a real change to emerge over time: acceptance that failure is a normal part of life, but also understanding that one failure doesn’t doesn’t define a person. A person can fail without being a failure. People who have failed once may very well succeed when the next challenge comes along. Thomas Edison claimed famously that he had thousands of failed attempts  before he came up with a working light bulb.

In terms of broken ideas, an incompetence schema can show up in a variety of ways: all-or-nothing thinking (“I’m completely incompetent at math.”), overgeneralization (“The woman I asked last year turned me down for a date, so I’m obviously not desirable”), mental filtering (“Winning that poetry prize was a fluke; the judges probably just felt sorry for me”), fortune telling (“I know I’m going to screw up this project”), and so on. Each of these ideas can be detected and repaired on its own, slowly breaking away the barrier of feeling incompetent and revealing the truer, brighter possibilities behind it.

Photo by Paul in Uijeongbu

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