Do you have faith in your ability to meet challenges head on and solve problems? Do you believe you can make a difference, or that you are effective, productive, and competent in the things you take on? If things don’t go according to plan do you tend to give up or do you try different approaches and look to different solutions in order to achieve your goals?
All these questions have a bearing on a form of coping we call self-efficacy. It is the belief we have in ourselves to make change, achieve goals and react to circumstances in a positive fashion that determines whether we have high or low self-efficacy.
When we have knock-backs in life one the first things to suffer is self-confidence. People who experience depression know this only too well. They start to doubt their abilities, feel their contributions are worthless, full of errors, or of little or no effect. Life appears full of obstacles and this leads to feelings of discouragement and the desire give up.
But you don’t need to experience depression to have low self-efficacy. Even so, low self-efficacy is linked to all manner of health behaviors. For example our intention to eat healthily, exercise, stop smoking, visit the doctor and undertake regular health screenings, all depend upon our beliefs as to the benefits of such activities. People with low self-efficacy are more likely to be dismissive of efforts to improve health or prevent illness. People with high self-efficacy tend to take a broader view of issues, find it easier to plan ahead and have a high personal belief in their ability to stay well.
We develop self-efficacy from life experiences and from the influences other people bring to our lives. The average person may have high self-efficacy in some areas and relatively low self-efficacy in others. But if we believe we can perform well in some areas we are much more likely to view other areas as something that could potentially be mastered. If we have a general belief that we perform poorly, it is more likely that other areas will be viewed as something to avoid.
Boosting self-efficacy is certainly possible but it requires time, energy and effort. This may seem counter-intuitive to someone who views him or herself as having low self-efficacy, but this itself can be the incentive to learn more about a skill or situation previously avoided.
In order to boost self-efficacy the goals set must have an element of challenge to them but must be realistic and attainable. It can be helpful to find one or more role models. These will be people you admire but you don’t necessarily need to know them. They may provide inspiration through their writing, or their work on television, or the feedback they can offer you (say through an arts, crafts or writing course).
It is rare to make improvements without stumbling along the way. It’s important to remember why you have set out to make change and to expect that the path isn’t always going to be smooth. To this end it is important to keep things in perspective and to remind yourself of your goals and your good progress to date and not to inflate setbacks beyond what they are.
Self-efficacy does not improve unless we can see success. For this to happen we need goals to achieve and the recognition that they have been accomplished. There is no harm in setting grand life goals but the steps needed to achieve them have to be realistic, may take a long time and require flexibility, patience and perseverance.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.