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Self-Efficacy and Optimism: The Power of Positive Psychology

October 22, 2021 by Amanda Reill

Self-Efficacy and Optimism: The Power of Positive Psychology

With all the challenges life throws at us, forward momentum can be difficult to find and even tougher to maintain. We can have a whole list of worthwhile goals, the resources to pursue them, and the desire to attain them. But if we lack motivation, we can sometimes stay stuck on the sidelines, watching the race instead of taking part. One of the biggest obstacles in pursuing our greatest dreams and goals is a What If mindset: What if it doesn’t work out?

Facing the future with a lack of confidence is like standing at the starting line unable to get moving when the starting gun fires. No amount of wishing and dreaming can make your feet move if you’re paralyzed by a fear of failure.

So how can we break through the paralysis and take that first step across the starting line? By utilizing a powerful tool available to everyone: a positive mindset. And when it comes to a more positive outlook, two key players in setting and achieving goals are self-efficacy and optimism

When Mindsets Compete

We all have an Inner Critic that often pops up when we set a goal we’re really excited about. You know the voice; it’s the one that gives you every single reason you can’t accomplish your goals in bold, italics, and underline. But when we face our goals with that negative, self-sabotaging mindset, we can end up complaining about the steps we need to take to get there. All too often, we fail to engage our resources and support systems, or think “what’s the point?” and give up on the difficult stuff before we even start. 

Self-efficacy and optimism are two similar aspects of positive psychology. They work hand in hand, and both have their benefits. However, distinguishing between the two can help you pinpoint what is getting in your client’s way so you can make sure to recommend the right tools to address it.

Self-efficacy is a belief in your own abilities. It gets you out of bed to train for the race because you know that if you work hard, you’ll build muscle, and that every time you do something hard, it adds to your repertoire. Each goal is its own reward. Self-efficacy makes you hopeful of a good outcome because you believe in you

Optimism, on the other hand, is the broader belief that everything is going to turn out okay. When you approach your goals with optimism, you’ll get out of bed to train, and you’ll do what you need to do to get ready for the race. Ultimately, the journey is the adventure. People who face their goals with optimism may struggle to get there, but they keep going because they enjoy the ride and they believe everything will work out in the end

Enemies of Healthy Motivation

As a life coach, your clients will come to you on a whole spectrum of motivation. Some are one year away from their literal or metaphorical marathons, debating about whether to even sign up. Some are still standing on the starting-line, while some are halfway down the track and have completely forgotten how they got there. Your job is to come alongside them, help them rediscover that sense of motivation they lost, and rekindle their desire to run the race in front of them. 

A client lacking self-efficacy might:

  1. Feel Incapable. If your client doesn’t believe in their own abilities, they will exhibit a fundamental underestimation of themselves in their goal-setting. They will likely set very small goals, unwilling to dream bigger for themselves. Or they might struggle to set any goals at all. They may look at a marathon as being out of their reach, or assume, “Well, if I can’t finish, then what’s the point of trying?” This lack of confidence can also lead to signs of imposter syndrome; a deep fear that they don’t know what they’re doing and are in danger of being “unmasked” as a fraud.  
  2. Hyper-focus on Failure. A client struggling with self-efficacy may zero in on everything that goes wrong in their lives. This often appears as blaming their own lack of ability instead of understanding that setbacks are a natural part of life. 
  3. Struggle to Contextualize. Each setback will feel like an enormous thing to the client lacking self-efficacy, instead of just a part of the process. They may feel that if they mess up once, they should scrap the whole goal. Miss one day of training? Don’t even bother showing up to the race. 

On the other hand, a client lacking optimism could:

  1. Feel Victimized. They may be prone to feel like the world is out to get them, and that every bad thing that happens to them is just to be expected. This can become a vicious cycle: the more they believe this, the more it will seem to happen. 
  2. Miss the Positives. If your client is focused on the negatives, they will start to see the negatives as normal and completely miss the positive things happening in their lives. It doesn’t matter if something amazing happens to them; they will only see the downside to every situation.  
  3. Exaggerate Difficulty. If they assume that nothing is going to turn out right, then your client may feel like every bad thing that happens to them is the Worst Thing Ever. That outlook has the potential to keep them frozen in place, unable to do anything to move forward. 

Building Positive Psychology

The good news is that if your client is coming to you for help, then they already recognize that their mindset needs work. That’s half the battle!

To build self-efficacy in your client, consider the following:

  1. Set Reasonable Goals. To combat a client’s tendency to underestimate themselves, encourage your client to set more reasonable, achievable goals. Find a sweet spot between too-small and too-big. Maybe a marathon is out of their reach, but a 5k or a 10k is doable. Helping them take a step back and set reachable goals will allow them to realize how capable they actually are. The more they see themselves achieving these goals, the better they will feel and the more they will reach for their deeper hopes.  
  2. Focus on the Big Picture. If your client keeps taking all of their small failures to heart, then it may be time to help them take a step back and look at the big picture. Reflecting on their accomplishments can help them put their situation into perspective and remind them of their strengths. 
  3. Reframe Failure. If your client struggles with self-efficacy, they may view failure as a reflection of their value or ability. Helping them reframe failure as an inevitable part of pushing toward success can encourage a positive self-image, even through struggles and setbacks.

While building self-efficacy has its focus on your client’s perspective of themselves, building optimism has more to do with your client’s perception of the world around them. If your client’s issues stem from low optimism, here are a few suggestions: 

  1. Practice Gratitude. Encourage your client to infuse their life with gratitude, whether through exercises in your sessions or keeping a record of things they’re thankful for. This can reframe their perspective. The more they look for gratitude, the more they will find it, even in the hardest moments of their lives. 
  2. Find the Silver Lining. Bad days, setbacks, and disappointments are all a normal part of human life. When you encourage your client to find the “good side” to bad situations, this exercises the mental muscle that recognizes that gloomy days are normal, and always come with some good. 
  3. It’s Okay to Have Fun! When you enjoy the ride, the journey becomes the whole point. Setting goals and attaining them doesn’t have to be serious business. Encourage your client to see the fun in what they’re doing, to enjoy the ride of crafting their life into what they want it to be, and every day will be an adventure!

You’ve Got to Start Somewhere

We all have to stand on the starting line and go. The alternative is to  sit still and do nothing, and that’s not how life works. Motivation is easily thwarted by a lack of confidence in ourselves and in the world around us. It’s easy to fear the unknown future, but when we build a sense of self, and sense of joy in the journey, the path forward feels more transparent. Life coaching is the business of clearing the obstacles to let your clients run the race in front of them without fear or shame. It’s time to start. Ready, set, go! 

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