How Trauma Affects Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets 🧠
Unlocking Potential: A Journey from Fixed to Growth Mindset (8min Read)
Growth vs. Fixed Mindset: Embrace challenges and believe in your ability to grow, unlike a fixed mindset where abilities are seen as static.
Inspired by Dweck: Carol Dweck's research underscores the transformative power of adopting a growth mindset.
Shaped by Experience: Mindsets evolve from a mix of genetics and life experiences, proving we're not just born with them.
Real-Life Stories: Emma's story illustrates how negative reinforcement fosters a fixed mindset, while Lucas's environment nurtured a growth mindset.
Trauma's Influence: Trauma can enforce a fixed mindset, but recovery paths like Alex's show the potential for change.
Simple Shifts: Engage in practices like setting process goals and embracing learning to cultivate a growth mindset.
The Key Takeaway: It's never too late to shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. Your brain is capable of change, guided by resilience, learning, and positive experiences.
This week, we are hitting a topic near and dear to my heart!
As someone who’s studied the brain and nervous system for over twenty thousand hours, I can assure you that your brain can learn, grow, and change your entire life.
Which is why growth mindset research has always made so much sense to me!
I have also witnessed the transformational potential that lies within the adoption of a growth mindset after abusive relationships or for someone struggling to heal from past trauma.
Today we’ll cover the basics of growth vs. fixed mindsets, where they come from, how trauma affects them, and finally, how to cultivate a growth mindset in your own life!
Let’s dive in!
Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets: The Basics
Lemme just bottom-line these for us real quick.
At its core, a growth mindset embodies the belief that our talents and abilities can be developed through dedication, hard work, and perseverance.
This outlook encourages a love for learning, resilience in the face of setbacks, and a willingness to embrace challenges.
In contrast, a fixed mindset is grounded in the belief that our abilities are innate and unchangeable, leading to a reluctance to confront challenges or change, often for fear of failure or judgment.
Dr. Carol Dweck popularized the concept of these two different mindsets in her best-selling book, “Mindset.”
She is a LEGEND in the field, and no blog about mindsets would be complete without mentioning her name.
So, where do these mindsets come from? I don’t know about you, but for a long time, I just thought I was born with my mindset…
The Origins of Our Mindsets
The roots of our mindsets can be traced back to a complex interplay of genetic, neurobiological, and environmental factors.
While genetic predispositions may tilt us towards a certain mindset, it's the experiences and feedback we receive, especially in our formative years, that solidify our outlook.
Neuroscientific research points to differences in brain activity between the two mindsets, particularly in areas involved in error processing and learning, such as the prefrontal cortex and the striatum.
These findings highlight the brain's remarkable plasticity and its role in shaping our beliefs about personal growth and intelligence.
To paint a clearer picture in my mind, I’d like to share a couple stories that I think will help you understand where these mindsets come from!
Emma: A Journey Towards a Fixed Mindset
Emma grew up in a small town, the youngest of three siblings. From a young age, she was often compared to her older brothers, both of whom excelled academically and athletically. Emma's parents, though well-meaning, frequently highlighted these comparisons, unintentionally setting the stage for Emma's journey towards a fixed mindset.
In school, Emma was a bright child, but she learned early on that her efforts often went unnoticed unless they resulted in top marks or awards. "You're naturally good at this," her teachers would say when she excelled, and "Maybe this just isn't your strength," when she struggled. These experiences reinforced the idea that her abilities were innate and unchangeable, rather than something she could develop with effort.
Emma's turning point came during a regional spelling bee in fourth grade. She had worked hard to prepare, but on the day of the competition, she stumbled on a word she knew well. The audience's reaction was a mixture of sympathy and disappointment. Emma's parents consoled her by saying, "It's okay, not everyone can be good at spelling." This moment deeply ingrained in her the belief that her abilities were fixed and that failure was a reflection of her inherent limitations.
As she grew older, Emma found herself shying away from challenges, especially in areas where she had previously experienced failure. She chose classes and activities that she knew she could succeed in, avoiding any situation where she might not excel. Her fear of failure and judgment from others led her to miss out on opportunities for growth and learning.
Emma's friends noticed her reluctance to try new things, whether it was joining the school's debate team or trying out for the soccer team. "I'm just not cut out for those things," Emma would say, echoing the fixed mindset messages she had internalized over the years. Her avoidance of challenges and her belief in static abilities limited her experiences and personal growth.
In adulthood, Emma's fixed mindset manifested in her professional life. She stuck to roles where she felt confident in her abilities and was hesitant to apply for promotions or take on new projects that seemed beyond her immediate skill set. Feedback, especially if it was constructive, often discouraged her, reinforcing her belief that her talents were limited.
As you can see, it’s the simple, seemingly innocuous statements that can lead us towards this kind of mindset.
Not to mention, Emma’s story is tame compared to children who experience childhood trauma, but more on that in a moment.
You probably aren’t surprised to find out that a growth mindset is developed similarly but with different messaging!
Lucas: The Making of a Growth Mindset
Lucas was born in a bustling city, the middle child in a family that celebrated curiosity and learning above all else. From an early age, Lucas's parents encouraged him to explore, ask questions, and see every outcome as an opportunity for growth. This environment laid the foundation for Lucas to develop a growth mindset.
In Lucas's home, the effort was always applauded more than the result. "Look at how hard you've worked on this drawing," his mother would say, or "I'm proud of you for trying, even though it was tough," his father would encourage, after a challenging day at school. These affirmations taught Lucas that persistence and dedication were valuable in their own right, regardless of the immediate outcome.
Lucas's educational journey was marked by teachers who fostered a love of learning rather than a fear of mistakes. In the second grade, Lucas struggled with reading. Instead of feeling defeated, his teacher, Mr. Thompson, introduced him to a variety of resources and tailored learning strategies. "Learning to read is a journey, Lucas, and every step, even the tricky ones, is part of your adventure," Mr. Thompson would say. This approach helped Lucas see his struggles as part of the learning process, not as a reflection of his abilities.
Perhaps the most significant test of Lucas's growth mindset came in the form of a science fair project in middle school. Lucas decided to tackle a complex topic, the effects of pollution on local waterways, which proved to be more challenging than he anticipated. Despite the difficulties and initial failures, Lucas's parents encouraged him to view these setbacks as valuable lessons. "What did you learn from this experiment? How can you use that knowledge moving forward?" they would ask. With their support, Lucas adjusted his methods, learned from his mistakes, and eventually presented a project that earned him recognition at the fair.
Throughout his adolescence, Lucas's growth mindset was evident in his willingness to embrace new challenges, from learning a musical instrument to joining the debate team. His belief in the value of effort and improvement led him to seek feedback constructively, using it as a tool for personal and academic growth. Lucas's friends and peers often looked up to him for his resilience and positive outlook, qualities that inspired those around him to adopt a similar mindset.
As an adult, Lucas carried his growth mindset into his career. He was known for his innovative thinking, ability to adapt to change, and leadership in collaborative projects. Lucas viewed challenges in the workplace not as threats but as opportunities to evolve and learn. When faced with setbacks, he reflected on what he could learn from the experience, applying those lessons to future endeavors.
Our mindsets don’t just arrive in our brains and minds, they’re built over time, as you’ve seen with Emma & Lucas’s stories!
Trauma's Profound Impact on Mindset
As someone passionate about helping people heal from trauma, I couldn’t write this blog without adding how trauma can affect our mindset!
Trauma, particularly when experienced in childhood or through abusive relationships, can profoundly affect your psychological and neurological development.
This can lead to feelings of helplessness and a fixed mindset.
The psychological scars left by abuse can affect brain regions like the amygdala, known for its role in fear and emotional processing, and the hippocampus, involved in memory and learning.
This can result in an overactive stress response and difficulties in processing positive feedback or recognizing the potential for change.
Instead of getting too technical, here’s one final story, about a client of mine, who we will call Alex!
Alex: Trauma and a Fixed Mindset
Alex's transition into a fixed mindset began with an abusive relationship that eroded his self-confidence and belief in personal growth. Initially adventurous and resilient, the constant criticism and control from his partner led him to doubt his abilities and worth. Insults disguised as concern made him feel incapable and unworthy, fostering a belief that his traits were unchangeable.
This emotional toll manifested deeply when a demeaning argument made him feel utterly powerless, confirming his perceived inadequacies. Consequently, Alex avoided challenges, believing he lacked the skills for success, which affected his career and personal life. He withdrew from social activities, convinced of his fundamental flaws.
The journey to recovery started post-breakup, Alex was struggling with complex PTSD, manifesting in severe anxiety and distrust in relationships and himself.
Through therapy focused on cultivating a growth mindset, Alex began to see his past not as a life sentence but as a part of his story that could be rewritten. He learned to embrace his resilience, engage in continuous self-reflection, and gradually rebuild his sense of self-worth and trust in others by engaging in new activities, like joining a sports team and learning new skills, which helped rebuild his confidence!
So, Which is Better?
I believe that this framing is far too simplistic and can make people with fixed mindsets feel shame and guilt for something they had little control in developing.
Especially survivors of trauma, who already deal with enough shame and guilt.
That being said, I am very passionate about teaching people how powerful their brain is, and how ABSOLUTELY plastic it is, our entire lives!
I’ve found that by helping people with fixed mindsets understand the underlying brain science of a growth mindset, they’re more open to it.
I’m passionate about this because research has shown that people with growth mindsets are:
Are more satisfied with life
Are more emotionally stable
Have higher autonomy
Have healthier habits
Are more resilient, creative, and innovative
Have healthier relationships with those around them
That being said, as you saw with Emma, people with fixed mindsets didn’t ask for them, so it’s important not to guilt them into a growth mindset.
I’ve found that gently encouraging some of the following practices can be helpful to shift fixed mindsets towards growth mindsets, at any age!
Cultivating a Growth Mindset
1. Start a "Yet" Journal
How: Every day, jot down things you can't do...yet. This could range from professional skills to personal habits.
Why: It reframes challenges as temporary obstacles, emphasizing growth potential.
2. Embrace the 5-Minute Learning Rule
How: Dedicate just five minutes each day to learning something new, whether it's a language, a piece of trivia, or a skill.
Why: It reduces the pressure of learning and shows how incremental effort can lead to progress.
3. Set "Process Goals" Instead of Only "Outcome Goals"
How: For every outcome goal (e.g., lose 10 pounds), set a process goal (e.g., walk 30 minutes daily).
Why: It highlights the value of effort and the journey, not just the destination.
4. Switch Up Your Routine
How: Change one small habit or part of your routine every week, like taking a different route to work or trying a new recipe.
Why: It encourages adaptability and shows you can handle and even thrive in new situations.
5. Challenge Negative Self-Talk with Evidence
How: When you catch yourself thinking "I can't do this," list out times you've overcome similar challenges.
Why: It provides concrete evidence of your growth and challenges the fixed mindset narrative.
To Growth, or Not to Growth, You Pick
The journey from a fixed to a growth mindset, particularly for survivors of trauma, is both challenging and profoundly rewarding.
It requires patience, compassion, and a supportive community that believes in the boundless potential for change.
As you navigate this journey, remember that your brain is capable of remarkable change, and with dedication and support, growth is not just possible but inevitable!
Until next time… Live Heroically! 🧠
Dweck, C. (2006). *Mindset: The new psychology of success*. Random House.
Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. *Child Development*, 78(1), 246-263.
Mangels, J. A., Butterfield, B., Lamb, J., Good, C., & Dweck, C. S. (2006). Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model. *Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience*, 1(2), 75-86.
Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. *Educational Psychologist*, 47(4), 302-314.
Schleider, J. L., & Weisz, J. R. (2018). A single-session growth mindset intervention for adolescent anxiety and depression: 9-month outcomes of a randomized trial. *Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry*, 59(2), 160-170.
Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Romero, C., Smith, E. N., Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. *Psychological Science*, 26(6), 784-793.
Gross-Loh, C. (2016). *Parenting without borders: Surprising lessons parents around the world can teach us*. Avery.
Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. *Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences*, 113(31), 8664-8668.