How to Adopt a Growth Mindset for Addiction Recovery
Having a growth mindset is one of the best ways to enhance your recovery from addiction. As discussed in a previous post, a growth mindset can help you feel less resistant to change, make you feel more confident about the good possibilities for your life, and help you transform the many challenges you will face in recovery into opportunities to grow as a person.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Our ideas about our abilities and potential are largely molded by our childhood experiences. If we’re frequently told by our parents or teachers that we’re stupid, lazy or whatever else, we often accept those assessments as limits to our possibilities.
Psychologist Carol Dweck, who developed and popularized the idea of fixed and growth mindsets, found that even well-meaning parents who praise their children as smart or talented may be doing them a disservice by reinforcing the idea that we’re all hardwired with certain abilities. Breaking out of this conditioning can be hard but it is possible. Here’s how.
What Are Fixed and Growth Mindsets?
First, a brief description may help clarify what we’re trying to accomplish by moving from a fixed to a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is believing that whatever you are now is basically how you’ll be the rest of your life. If you’re good at playing the violin, for example, then you’ll probably get a little better but if you’re not good at it, then you’re just “not musical” and you shouldn’t bother.
The same is true of anything, whether it’s math, sports, socializing, thinking creatively, or anything else. The fixed mindset tells you to stay in your lane, do things you’re already good at, and don’t embarrass yourself by trying something new.
The growth mindset, on the other hand, operates on the fairly common-sense assumption that we get better at things we practice. We may not be very good at sports or the violin--or getting through a day without a drink--right now, but with consistent effort, we can certainly get better. That’s not to say you’ll ever be the best at something--few people ever attain that status--but you can certainly improve on the things that matter most to you and your quality of life.
Notice Your Thinking
Whenever we have a challenging emotion, there is typically a thought behind it, even if we don’t notice. Fear is often a result of fixed-mindset thinking. For example, a loved one suggests you talk to a therapist or consider getting treatment for your substance use and you feel a sense of panic, perhaps followed by anger. What was the thought behind that? Was it, “I can’t live without drugs or alcohol”? “I can’t go off to treatment alone”? There are many possible thoughts for which the subtext is “I can’t handle this.”
However, treatment is not a test; it’s an opportunity to get help. You can’t fail at treatment or therapy; you can only fail to engage. The belief that you can fail or be exposed as somehow inadequate is only in your head. The first step is to become aware of these assumptions and challenge them. You may catch yourself saying something like “I can’t speak in front of groups,” perhaps because you believe you’re shy or inarticulate or whatever else.
However, in reality, plenty of people with varying personalities and skills are able to become effective at speaking in front of groups. Notice any thoughts or words that imply your abilities are fixed and make a conscious effort to challenge them.
Reframe Failure and Frustration
Too often, we take frustration or initial failure as a sign that we have no talent for something. In reality, every new thing is difficult and frustrating and you will have some failures. The challenge is to push through that initial frustration until you can acquire the minimum skills to start making real progress. One way to do this is to reframe failure and frustration.
You may have heard the expression, “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” Failure is just a part of the learning process. The important thing is to learn what you can from it and try again. This is an especially important lesson in addiction recovery since relapse is fairly common.
Similarly, don’t take frustration as an indication that you lack aptitude. Frustration is merely a sign that you’re having to push beyond your current limitations. What’s frustrating today will be easy later.
Remember Past Growth
When we’re born, we basically can’t do anything. We can’t talk, walk, read, stand, spell, feed ourselves, or do arithmetic. We can’t even focus our eyes. Pretty much everything we do all day that we don’t even have to think about took years of daily effort to master. Yet many people don’t even make it through a month of 12-Step meetings because they say it’s too hard or “not my thing.”
As adults, we take for granted the difficulty of most of our routine skills and so we doubt our ability to master comparatively easy new skills. Keep in mind that everything is hard at first but it becomes easier with practice.
Adjust Your Expectations
Related to the point above, we often underestimate the time and effort it will take to get good at something, often by orders of magnitude. For example, many people have had the experience of having had two years of Spanish in high school but then they take a trip to Mexico and they can’t even order lunch. So they throw up their hands and say, “Well, I guess I have no talent for languages.”
However, consider what it took to learn your own language. For the first four years of your life, your brain is optimized for learning language. Everyone around you only speaks in your native language and tries to help you learn it. You desperately want to learn to speak in order to meet your basic needs and desires. And yet, how many four-year-olds speak their own native language with much fluency?
From that perspective, it’s not surprising that your two years of high school Spanish didn’t make you fluent. Often, we have to accept that reaching our goals is going to take a lot more work than we had originally estimated. It doesn’t mean you lack talent or ability; it just means you’ll have to do more work than you expected.
View Challenges as Opportunities
Finally, practice viewing challenges as opportunities. Challenges are threatening to people with a fixed mindset because they are opportunities to fail. If you feel threatened by something, it could be that you fear it will expose you as weak, stupid, or somehow inadequate. People with a growth mindset view challenges much differently: They see opportunities to get stronger.
When you feel threatened by a challenge, pause and think, “Whether I succeed this time or not, it will certainly be an opportunity to learn and grow.” If you take this attitude toward challenges and even seek out new challenges, you will grow much faster.
It’s hard to change your mindset, especially since it was probably formed in childhood. However, the first step is knowing that change is possible. Everything we think or do changes our brains in some small way. If you make consistent efforts to change your brain in ways that encourage a growth mindset, you will start to notice all the possibilities that come with it.
At The Foundry, we want to help you recover from addiction, but we don’t stop there. We want you to have a more joyful, healthier, and more fulfilling life overall. We use a variety of evidence-based methods to help our clients grow and become the best versions of themselves. To learn more, call us today at (844) 955-1066.