When you ask high achievers why they succeed where others fail, they often reply with what psychologists call “self-efficacy” – a belief in their ability to achieve their goals. Therapists are not much different. When you ask them what enables some clients to make lasting changes, they too will focus on the client’s belief in their ability to achieve good outcomes.
The logic is persuasive. Someone who doesn’t believe they can get rid of bad old habits, and learn more adaptive ones, will hardly bother putting in the time and effort that such a change requires. As a result, they tend to get meager results (thus reinforcing their original belief). By contrast, a person who trusts their ability to make meaningful changes is more likely to put in the hard work required for such changes (thus making them more likely to succeed).
Our beliefs are powerful, and affect how we think, feel, and act. But how important is self-efficacy really? In order to find out what empowers people to change, a large team of researchers and I analyzed a mountain of clinical studies. And after four years of digging through nearly 55.000 randomized controllied studies, we finally found an answer. It turns out self-efficacy is important – just not as much as we might have thought. In short, self-efficacy accounts for 5.7% of what we know about what helps people make a change.
It‘s not nothing, but it‘s also not a lot. By contrast, psychological flexibility and mindfulness account for nearly 55% of what we know about what helps people. I have written before about psychological flexibility, but in short, it’s about being aware of your own experience, allowing yourself to feel whatever shows up, knowing what matters to you, and acting according to it. And self efficacy can be brought into an expanded perspective of it.
If you dig into the literature on self-efficacy, you will see that your actions affect your beliefs as much or more than your beliefs affect your actions. The late Al Bandura, father of self-efficacy, predicted this in his concept of reciprocal determinism. As a consequence, rather than focusing on only changing your beliefs, you are better served by focusing especially on changing your actions that feed that belief. And note that traditional measures of self efficacy do not just measure strength of belief – they measure the strength of commitment. But how can you strengthen your commitment? How can you change your actions and build out your self-efficacy?
Failure as an avenue of success
Failure can be painful – especially when you see it reflecting on not just your actions, but on your character. But there is value to failure, because if it’s allowed to do so, it’s a pathway to success. Failure shows you which strategies aren’t working, and, if you watch closely, can point you towards better solutions. You might miss these lessons if you stay fused with stories like “nothing works” and “I’m a loser.” Instead, learn to embrace the lessons of failure and recommit to actions that can better lead to success. Even the pain of past failure can be valuable, if you let it fuel you towards taking proactive steps that will make a future difference
Fidelity: Leaps of self-faith
The biggest and brightest goal can fail to inspire you if it misses your heart. If you find yourself chasing other people’s ambitions, rather than your own, you will fight an uphill battle. And even if you go after what matters to you, make sure you know why. Why do you care about it? How does it relate to your values and who you want to be as a person? Any commitment will be easier and more gratifying if it connects to your deeper sense of self, firm in the knowledge that what you care about, matters.
Fellowship and social support
There is a myth in Western countries about the so-called “self-made person”, and how we all should strive to become, well, self-made. But nobody is an island, and we all need other people. And the larger your ambition, the more you want proper social support. This may be friends and family, who encourage your efforts and help you ease the burden. Or it may be professional help in the form of a therapeutic alliance. Regardless, dare to ask for support and remember to give, not just to receive. Long run, “we” is a more important unit than “me,” and an expanded view of self-efficacy needs to include the social efficacy of a dedicated and supportive team, group, or culture.
Follow Through – committed action matters
It may sound ironic, but oftentimes the best way to ensure future action is present action. Whatever decisions you make, right here and now, will increase the odds of you deciding in similar ways in the future. This is great if you are on track of your goals, but unfortunate if you are stuck in bad habits. Fortunately, you don’t have to start big, but can begin with small steps. Crawl if you have to. And then build from there. Repetition makes the difference; gradually building larger and larger patterns makes the difference; consistency makes the difference.
When these four Fs of flexibility are present, actions can lead to empowering forms of self-efficacy expectations that in turn reinforce future actions. And even more, your commitment to “yes, I can and will persist in doing what I deeply care about” can become stronger far beyond a mere superficial belief in yourself. Faith, fellowship, follow through, and even failure all have a place in helping you to be more psychologically flexible and to be more fully who you are in thought and action.