Self-Efficacy: The Power of I Think I Can
Life is full of challenges. Some are the good kind that help us thrive. Other challenges are hard and test our mettle. Why is it that some people seem to navigate right on through these challenges and reach their goals while others struggle? They aren’t just lucky. Like the little train in the childhood story, they think they can.
It’s no secret that how you think about yourself and your ability to do something has a powerful influence on your actions. It’s a concept known as self-efficacy, and it can motivate you towards change or it can keep you stuck.
People with high self-efficacy are generally optimistic and realistic about situations and their ability to cope. They tend to be more able to resist temptations and have a persistence that helps them get through challenging times.
As you might expect, people with low self-efficacy tend to be more pessimistic about their ability to succeed or cope. They give in to temptations more easily and will resort to unhelpful or ineffective coping strategies. Not surprisingly, they are more prone to giving up or avoiding challenges altogether.
People who live with body-focused repetitive disorders (BFRBs) like hair pulling or skin picking struggle with self-beliefs like self-esteem and self-confidence. The repetitive, sometimes overwhelming urge to pull can undermine your sense of control and self-efficacy making it hard to believe that you can do something about it. In fact, feeling powerless to stop pulling is a sentiment commonly heard from people who struggle with BFRBs like hair pulling. Negative thinking and “I can’t” takes over.
This pattern of recurrence, relapse, and struggles with self-efficacy is not unique to BFRBs. It’s a phenomenon seen in many other disorders such as substance abuse where relapse is a significant issue.
Feeling unable to overcome a challenge erodes self-efficacy, and without a healthy belief in your ability to change, achieving that goal can be a struggle. Can improving self-efficacy improve the ability to manage relapses and other challenging situations? A new study looked at improving self-efficacy for substance abuse and relapse prevention using mindfulness-based therapy. The results suggest that changing the way you think about and approach challenges can have a profound effect on your sense of self-efficacy and ability to handle challenges.
Our self-efficacy doesn’t just appear. Instead, it is formed over time based on experiences we have. Albert Bandura, the founder of social learning theory, identified four main sources of self-efficacy:
- Experiencing Mastery – These are the experiences we have of trying to master a skill or overcome an obstacle. When we succeed, we gain confidence in our ability. When we don’t succeed, it sends the message of “I can’t”.
- Vicarious Experiences – This is the experience of watching others achieve something. From observing, you can estimate your chances of success based on how similar or different you view yourself from the other person.
- Verbal Persuasion – This is the “You can do it!” and “I think I can”! Bandura believed that verbal encouragement is a powerful motivator for people, whether from others or the things we tell ourselves.
- Physiological Arousal - Also known as emotional arousal, this is the relationship between the emotional state and the ability to perform. For example, emotional issues like depression or anxiety are known to affect self-esteem and feelings of competency.
Self-efficacy is not static, and it can be different depending on the situation. You might be quite confident in your approach to your work. You might lack self-efficacy when it comes to managing your health or your relationships. Your sense of self-efficacy can also change over time based on your experiences and what you do.
Improving Self-Efficacy Through Mindfulness
One of the most powerful ways you can improve your self-efficacy is through the practice of mindfulness. In fact, positive psychology considers self-esteem, self-efficacy and mindfulness to be important factors of overall well-being. Mindfulness allows the person to remain in the here-and-now and learn to accept challenges without judgment.
Relapse prevention is based on cognitive-behavioral principles that help someone to learn to identify risky situations that precede relapse, then build skills to reduce the risk of relapse. Mindfulness-based therapy is similar in its approach, but it also teaches the person to respond with acceptance and a non-judgmental attitude. This difference may sound small, but it avoids the negative assessments that can undermine self-efficacy. Mindfulness-based therapy has shown to be effective as an approach for relapse prevention.
The study chose to use a mindfulness-based approach to explore self-efficacy and the risk of relapse. The findings of the study support the effectiveness of mindfulness-based therapy for increased self-efficacy and its role in relapse prevention. Of course, more research is needed, but the findings suggest that improving self-efficacy might be beneficial in other areas of life and for other disorders as well.
Improving self-efficacy can help you to face challenges with more confidence and determination. The good news is self-efficacy is a psychological skill that you can build and strengthen. There are things you can do to begin rebuilding your self-efficacy and sense of “I think I can.”
- Take a tip from Bandera’s four sources of self-efficacy: try something new, observe others doing what you want to do, get feedback from others, and be your own cheerleader.
- Get out of your comfort zone – It’s easy to stay where you are, especially when you don’t feel confident to try something different. According to Badura, the most effective way to increase self-efficacy is through mastery experiences. We learn through doing and success fuels belief in yourself.
- Set small realistic goals – Set yourself up for success. Effective goal setting has been linked to better self-efficacy in a number of circumstances including health-related behavior change. Sometimes referred to as SMART goals, set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time limited. Goals that are too big or ambiguous are difficult to achieve.
- Practice positive self-talk – What you tell yourself is powerful. Be your own cheerleader. When those negative thoughts creep in, replace them with more positive self-statements and feedback.
- Observe your role models – Take time to observe how others are doing the things you want to be able to do. What can you learn from them?
- Practice mindfulness – Practicing mindfulness strategies can help you be more aware of your self-efficacy and perceptions. Mindfulness can help you think outside the box and find creative ways to focus on your actions and your goals.
Strengthening your belief in yourself and your ability to succeed can help you face the everyday challenges and the challenges you don’t expect.
1. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191–215. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1977-25733-001
2. Rehm, I., Moulding, R., Nedeljkovic, M., & Thomas, A. (2013, July). The role of self-beliefs in trichotillomania [Paper presentation]. 7th World Congress of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies, Lima, Peru. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280489066_The_role_of_self-beliefs_in_trichotillomania
3. Moniz-Lewis, D. I., Stein, E. R., Bowen, S., & Witkiewitz, K. (2022). Self-efficacy as a potential mechanism of behavior change in mindfulness-based relapse prevention. Mindfulness, 13(9), 2175-2185. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-022-01946-z
4. Chandna, S., Sharma, P., & Moosath, H. (2022). The Mindful Self: Exploring Mindfulness in Relation with Self-esteem and Self-efficacy in Indian Population. Psychological studies, 67(2), 261–272. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8808471/
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