Date Updated: 04/14/2020

Is your mindset getting in the way of making positive changes in your life?

After decades of research, psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., developed a new theory that your mindset can be a powerful tool for achieving behavior change. She identified two main types of mindset: fixed mindset and growth mindset.

A growth mindset is a belief that we can develop our talents even further. We can "grow" our abilities through hard work, a willingness to learn and an openness to feedback.

The flip side of the coin is a fixed mindset. An individual with a fixed mindset says, "My talents are what they are—I'm very strong in this area, not so strong in that area, and that's the way it is." The fixed mindset is less open to learning and more resistant to feedback.

Nicole Guerton, M.S., MCHES, NBC-HWC, a health and wellness coach and trained behavior change expert at Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, uses those insights on mindset every day to help people achieve their personal wellness goals.

"It can be important that people understand the difference between growth and fixed mindset," Guerton says. "If you have a fixed mindset, it's much more difficult to make the changes needed to reach your goals."

In contrast, Guerton says, a growth mindset drives achievement and behavior change. It can help you reach personal wellness goals like improving your sleep habits, eating healthier or increasing your energy.

But it's not quite so simple as an either/or. Guerton says that each of us is actually a blend of both growth and fixed mindsets. But, importantly, whichever mindset we practice most tends to get cemented in our brains.

What science says about changing your mindset

Researchers have just begun to explore the obvious question: Can we change a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?

In one study, educators who wanted to close the learning gap between high- and low-achieving students experimented with an intervention. Students were "conditioned" for a growth mindset by completing a short online program that delivered the message that their intellectual abilities weren't fixed, that they could grow and improve. It worked. Those students made substantial gains in their math grades when compared to students who didn't complete the program.

In another study of recent college graduates, researchers found that it was easier to change behavior in heavy drinkers who had stronger growth mindsets; the stronger the growth mindset, the more open they were to interventions that helped them drink less alcohol.

"I see people improve their growth mindset all the time," Guerton says. "Sometimes you just don't realize that you've been in this fixed growth mindset, where criticism or feedback is seen as a threat, rather than an opportunity for learning. A third-party perspective can help us become less defensive and take the blinders off."

Tactics to bolster a growth mindset

So, what can you do to strengthen your growth mindset? Guerton recommends starting with these three things:

1. Welcome feedback, criticism and suggestions for improvement.

Criticism can feel threatening or demeaning. That triggers insecurity and defensiveness. But, criticism can also be very helpful. Stay open to the idea that feedback can help you build a new path forward.

2. Look for opportunities, not roadblocks.

A co-worker got the promotion you wanted? You can choose to see that as an obstacle to your own success or choose instead to learn from that co-worker. How did she get there? Can you do that, too? Stay open-minded to new ways of doing familiar jobs.

3. Build a support network.

Working with a health and wellness coach like Guerton can help shift your perspective, but you can also turn to like-minded friends to help motivate and support your wellness goals. Those friends can remind you: There're opportunities inside every disappointment.

Guerton cautions that having a growth mindset shouldn't be confused with a Pollyanna-ish all's-right-with-the-world outlook. "Growth mindset is a realistic viewpoint that says, 'I can do this, I can learn more,' rather than staying stuck and stagnant."

Priming the mind can be a powerful tool. Remember those students who improved their math scores after hearing the message that everyone can learn, change and grow? Delivering that same message to yourself can help you begin to cultivate a growth mindset in order to achieve your wellness goals.

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