Having a growth mindset is important after illness or injury. I feel it is key to crafting a life worth living when you are dealing with a challenging health issue whether your own or a loved one’s. It’s a way of believing, thinking, doing, and feeling and is based on the work done by Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. So it has an evidence base.

The idea for this blog came from the video I shared last week in which they refer to a growth mindset in relation to grief. And I thought this concept that a growth mindset is important after illness or injury deserves more attention.

Because it can be tough living with unwelcomed changes. To the point we forget to notice the good stuff which happens in our life. It feels like happiness, confidence and joy have well and truly left the building. It feels like life is so hard now and if your body has changed a lot, it feels like you have no control to effect change anymore.

So in this blog I share what a growth mindset is, why it’s important particularly in the case of dealing with challenging health issues, and the one thing you can do to set a strong foundation for developing a growth mindset. I also signpost to additional resources.

There's a picture of a woman seated in front of a window. She is crying. It's sunny outside. There's a person called sadness seated at her feet. Behind her three people representing confidence, happiness and joy are leaving the house. Joy is saying, 'Sadness has moved in and is taking up our space so we had best leave.' Happiness responds, 'Ok.' The caption reads: When you don't practice a growth mindset, happiness, confidence and joy are more likely to leave the building.

What is a growth mindset?

A person has a growth mindset when they believe they can learn and change things for themselves through effort, strategies and help from others.

You may have to put in a lot of effort, and sometimes that can be really hard. There can be obstacles and challenges, but you persevere, look for strategies to help, and get help when you need it. You feel good with the results and you look forward to learning more.

A person has a growth mindset when they believe they can learn and change things for themselves through effort, strategies and help from others. Important when you are living with a #seriouillness #seriousinjury… Click To Tweet

The opposite is a fixed mindset

When a person believes they cannot learn or change things or that one’s ability is fixed, then that is known as a fixed mindset.

For example, you believe that intelligence is fixed and you can’t or don’t want to change it. You here this in the saying, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ Or when someone says, ‘I cannot possibly learn that!’ or ‘I’m not creative.’

Challenge, obstacles and difficult people get in the way of getting what you want for yourself. You give up. There’s no point. You cannot effect change. And you generally don’t feel happy, able, satisfied, etc.

When a person believes they cannot learn or change things or that one’s ability is fixed, then that is known as a fixed mindset. This can get in the way of you living well with the impact of a challenging #health issue… Click To Tweet

Here’s an example of growth and fixed mindsets

Fixed MindsetGrowth Mindset
Mindset – Your belief about somethingYou believe that your body has changed so much it’s beyond repair.You believe that some gains in your rehabilitation can be made.
What you think and say to yourself as a result of your belief“What is the point of doing physiotherapy? Nothing is changing. And I’m never going to be able to things like I used to!”“I want to learn what I can be doing to help myself.”
What you do as a result, i.e. how that belief manifests itself in your behaviour You don’t do physiotherapy and choose to watch tv instead. You find a physiotherapist who specialises in treating your condition. You have a family member help you from time to time with your physio.
The outcome of the aboveDue to reduced movement, your function has deteriorated. You now have to use a wheelchair full time. You have to rely on others a lot to get out and about. Doing your physiotherapy exercises improves your balance and mobility. You can now use a stick when walking outside whereas previously you had to use the wheelchair.
How you feel about the outcome You feel frustrated you cannot move as freely as you used to. But this is life. You are pleased you can use mainly just the stick to get out and about.

This is a simplified example. With some conditions, gains in rehabilitation won’t be large, they can be minimal over time. Efforts at rehabilitation may largely prevent you from getting worse rather than improving your functionality. Also, having to use a wheelchair full time is no bad thing at all. A wheelchair can be someone’s legs enabling them to get out and about in the world.

What I am highlighting is the mindset you start out with, the end result, and how you feel about the end result. So even if you can’t change your physical functioning due to the health issue, the growth mindset applies to how you feel about it and deal with it.

This is a pic detailing the characteristics of growth and fixed mindsets. A growth mindset believes that intelligence can be developed. It leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. As a result they achieve more and it gives people a sense of greater free will. A fixed mindset believes that intelligence is static. It leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as fruitless or worse, ignore useful negative feedback and feel threatened by the success of others. As a result, they may plateau early and achieve less than their full potential. A fixed mindset confirms a deterministic view of the world. This demonstrates why a growth mindset is important after illness or injury.
Concept of Growth & Fixed Mindsets by Carol Dweck, Ph.D. Image by Nigel Holmes.

We all have a mixture of growth and fixed mindsets

In some situations, or with certain people we may have a growth mindset. In other situations, or with other people, it may be more fixed. We will experience both at different times. And they change as we change and experience new things. Growth and fixed mind states are not static.

Why a growth mindset is important

A growth mindset means

  • we are more flexible in our outlook, we can see the negatives and the positives,
  • we view the effort and struggle required to learn and do something new as part of the process rather than something that is negative and must be avoided,
  • we can learn from mistakes, failures and challenges rather than wallowing in them and giving up,
  • we are more willing to ask for and accept help from others, and
  • we see or can create the opportunities for ourselves.

In short, we believe we can learn. Even if there are challenges, obstacles and unhelpful people on our path. We find a way over, above, under or around them. And we learn from these experiences. As well as learning from experiences when things have gone well and came more easily to us.

Why a growth mindset is important after illness or injury

A growth mindset can help you to more quickly find ways to manage your health issue, live well enough with it, and also to thrive and flourish. It enables you to take control.

A #growthmindset can help you to more quickly find ways to manage your #health issue, live well enough with it, and also to thrive and flourish. It enables you to #takecontrol Click To Tweet

How quickly this happens for you is impossible to say. It depends on how developed your growth mindset is, when it is in operation or when a fixed mindset takes control.

Due to the inherent belief of a fixed mindset that making change is not possible, it can be harder for you to live well after experiencing a serious illness or injury. Ultimately, it can make it harder for happiness, confidence and joy to walk back into the building.

There's a picture of a woman seated. She is crying whilst thinking, 'I don't think change is possible. This is it.' There's a person called sadness seated at her feet. Sadness is crying and saying, 'I can keep you company.' Behind her three people representing confidence, happiness and joy are looking at her through a window. They are outside. Joy is saying, 'I'm not sure she is ready for us. She is still so very sad.' Confidence is saying in response to Joy, 'Not yet. I'm confident she'll eventually be ready for us.' The caption reads: A fixed mindset can make it harder to live well with the impact of illness or injury. This demonstrates that a growth mindset is important after illness or injury.

It is understandable how a fixed mindset can come about

You can become conditioned over time to focus on the difficulties and negative aspects of your health issue because you deal with it daily. For example, you know how difficult it can be to deal with a really tough treatment like chemotherapy and all its side effects. Or a lot of uncertainty about how your symptoms like chronic pain or fatigue will be from day-to-day and therefore what you can do. Or fear of relapse. Learning how to live in a changed body that doesn’t do what you used to do and still want to do.

After a time, the difficulties, fears and negative aspects become all you know. You can forget to focus on positive experiences and good things that happen. You may feel stuck in the pit of negativity and not see a way out. With some clients, a large part of our work is developing that way out.

The work involves making a conscious effort to focus on good stuff that happens and nice experiences, however small they are (tiny is fine). Doing this reminds you of your ability to notice the good and positive things in your life and strengthen it. This helps to restore a sense of balance to your experiences and therefore how you feel. I think of it as setting the foundation for developing a growth mindset.

You can see why developing a growth mindset is important after illness. It ensures you don’t end up living in the pit of negativity.

The woman is no longer sitting and crying. She is standing up with the support of sticks. She is saying to her friend who is smiling, 'Thank you for everything! I feel that change is possible now.'' Behind her three people representing Confidence, Happiness and Joy are entering the house. Confidence is saying, 'I knew she would be ready for us again.' Happiness is saying, 'I'm so happy we're back!' The caption reads: A growth mindset makes change possible. This demonstrates that a growth mindset is important after illness or injury.

So yes, it is possible to develop a growth mindset

Even if the situation which has caused all the changes to you and your life was unwelcome and traumatic like a life-changing health issue often is, it is possible with time to develop a growth mindset from it. This isn’t to say you have to be 100% positive and happy all of the time because that is just unrealistic. Nor is it to say you should not or won’t experience difficult emotions. You may and you acknowledge them as I wrote about last week. And you also learn from them.

How you develop it is a blog I’ll write for another day. But now you know why a growth mindset is important after illness or injury, here are some good resources to learn more about the topic.

What’s it like for you?

In which areas of your life do you feel you have a growth mindset and in which areas a fixed mindset? What has contributed to that? What resources would you like to help you develop a growth mindset? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below or alternatively email them to me (contact form in sidebar).  

If you are living with a challenging health issue or are caring for someone who is, and would like support on any of the issues discussed here, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2019

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