In our first blog post in this series on mindset Nicole and I summarized the book “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. In the second blog post “Looking Back on Perfection and Burnout” we shared our personal history with growth and fixed mindsets. This blog post we talk about how we dealt and currently deal with our mindsets. We also talk about how we changed the way we think.
When Huib suggested that in the third part of our blog post that we talk about how we started to change our mindset, I knew that it was going to take a bit of work and a lot of reflection. The shift in mindset for me was not necessarily a conscious effort until, of course, I read the book. For me, the shift started with a burnout…and with therapy.
As I mentioned in the previous blog post, I used to work in a forensic crime lab. The training I went through was intense – they make it harder than it really is because then you are prepared for everything that might come your way. But looking back, I think that training exacerbated my already perfectionistic tendencies. I had to do everything right or a case might get thrown out. I put a lot of pressure on myself to not make any mistakes. As you might imagine, this caused an intense amount of anxiety in my life. There were days I had to go down to my car in the parking lot to just get away from work for a bit. While I was in the car, I would break down and cry. At some point, I realized that this wasn’t healthy – I couldn’t go on living my life like this. I needed to make a change.
At the same time, I had started going to therapy. This was not the first time I had been in therapy – I had been in it in the past to deal with some issues with relationships in my life. But this time I was in to try to deal with my anxiety – I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and started medication in addition to the therapy. One of the most important things I discovered during therapy was my need for people’s approval. I held the belief that everyone should like me. The most profound insight and driver in the change in the way I thought was a simple question posed to me by my therapist: “Do you like everyone?” And of course, I said no. To which she said, “Of course not. And not everyone is going to like you.” That message struck a chord and has stuck with me. There’s no need to try to prove myself to people, or even to myself. Trying my best and doing the right things in life were all I needed to do. I won’t say that I don’t still think about people’s approval – as with anything, it is a life-long learning curve. But I sure care less about it now than I did back then. I think that was the first step on my journey of shifting away from a fixed mindset.
The second step goes back to that change I said I needed to make in my life. I decided to go back to what I originally wanted to do in life, my true passion: work with animals in some capacity. So, with the help and support of my partner, I changed my hours at the lab to part-time and spent the other half of my time volunteering at the local zoo. Soon that transitioned into a part-time zookeeping job that eventually led to the job I’m in now – a combination of computers and animals, two of my favorite things. I love my job. And I think part of the reason I am not afraid to fail and take on challenges in this job is because of how much I love it. I know I have room to grow and I want to continue learning. Instead of worrying about negative feedback, I seek out feedback so that I can learn what I need to improve upon. I think finding something I truly enjoy was instrumental in starting to move towards a growth mindset and leaving the negative parts of perfectionism behind.
The “last” step of course was reading the book Mindset. Learning about mindset – putting meaning to what it is, what it drives, where it comes from – brought everything together. This lead to the awareness of having a fixed mindset in certain situations, but a growth mindset in others. My mindset change is still very much a work in progress. But now I have the advantage of knowing that it exists and am learning what things tend to trigger my fixed mindset so I can work on taking on those situations with a growth mindset instead. I think at one point in time I would have said that there are certain things you can’t change about yourself – perfectionism being one of those things. But now I think while my perfectionism may never go away, I can change how it drives and affects me. I think you can strive to be your best, and even strive for perfection, as long as you realize perfection is impossible to achieve. But it can motivate you to work hard and aim high, as long as you can use your setbacks and failures as learning experiences on the path to get better. I think that is what having a growth mindset is all about – being willing to take risks and embracing challenges in order to learn, grow, and become better. I look forward to seeing where my growth mindset can take me.
Changing your mindset is hard! But it starts with recognizing that your mindset is getting you into trouble in the first place.
My journey in dealing with my fixed mindset started when I was 27. Before that, and especially in my teens, I had many depressions caused by low self-esteem and making myself crazy with thoughts. My father and his partner took me in their house when I had my burn-out in 1997. I stayed with them for 3 months and took my first steps in adult therapy and dealing with my mental issues. I got therapy from a nice psychologist who helped me recover from my burn-out. I didn’t let him too close because I was afraid of what would surface and thus, nothing really changed. After a while gradually my old thoughts and behavior came back.
When I grew in my career into lead roles and later into management positions, I ran into more problems. I became responsible for the work of more people and my perfectionism made me feel bad if they underperformed or did not succeed. I wanted others to not make mistakes and by mentoring and coaching them, I tried to help them – sometimes literally inflicting help upon others. I struggled with self-esteem and my mind was always busy. As a pretty emotional person, I had to deal with my emotions. But I felt that emotions were stupid: I told myself I shouldn’t be influenced by them. So I was hiding my emotions constantly. I fooled myself that it’ll go away on its own when I knew it wouldn’t. I’m good at making others believe that I’m okay.
Because I knew how to recognize my dips, I didn’t become as depressed as I used to before my burn-out; a sign that I was learning. I had a sort of periodic cycle of being too busy, stressed, and taking on too much work that caused me to not sleep very well. Because of not getting enough sleep, I wasn’t able to control my negative thoughts, which made it worse and got me even less sleep. After a couple of weeks, I would be drained. I often would call my doctor to get some sleeping pills. This would help me sleep well for a week or two and that was just enough to get my thoughts under control before sliding into another burn-out or depression.
This went on until I became manager at a bank, where I ran into trouble when things would get difficult. I couldn’t deal very well with resistance or situations where things didn’t go the way I wanted them. I had trouble dealing with feedback and I became defensive quite fast. If people would ask a lot of questions about my proposals, it felt like I wasn’t clear enough and I blamed myself for this. My manager recognized this was happening and he suggested coaching. My coach helped me a lot with dealing with resistance, reaching goals, dealing with emotions, being okay with not knowing stuff, and acting less defensive, amongst other things. My coach recommended me to take therapy and deal with my underlying problems. He was right, deep inside I knew that, but I got scared and stepped away. I told myself I didn’t need to work on my myself anymore since things at work had improved quite a lot.
In 2015, I got an assignment as an interim manager at a financial service company. I had a huge team of 100+ people with too many direct reports. It was a challenging organization with a toxic management culture. I worked extremely long days because I wanted to prove myself and at home, I was preparing meetings for the next day. After a two-week holiday, I came back to work with my battery not fully charged and a new burn-out was approaching fast. I hit the brakes just in time, so I recovered in a couple of weeks instead of months. In my recovery, I went to see a haptonomist. She helped me recover from the burnout and after that, I stopped seeing her. A year later I went back to her because I needed to get rest in my head. I was getting sick and tired of always being busy and not being able to turn my head off. I tried mindfulness, and of course people recommended things like meditation and yoga, but that didn’t feel like it was something for me. I told myself it was too vague and wooly for me. My haptonomist taught me to sit still and do nothing for a while. After working with her, I was able to just sit and not react to anything happening around me.
Being able to do that helped a lot and I felt strong. Until a while later the cycle started again: too much stress, bad sleep, etc. So finally in 2019, I took a big step in dealing with my issues (see: blogpost “mastering my mindset“). I finally was done with my mental issues and ready to face the underlying problem. So I decided to go for therapy. I wanted to learn how to deal with my insecurity, my fear of failing and to get rest in my head. Looking for a therapist, I wrote down my issues and the things I wanted to change. I also wrote my “mental resume” with the issues I dealt with in my life and what I had done to overcome them. This gave me a lot of insight into myself. I saw a pattern of dealing with symptoms instead of dealing with the real problems, running away when things got too hard, and a lot of fighting. Fighting with myself, but also fighting and pushing other people, which had brought me problems several times in my career.
My therapist made me work hard and I reflected on many things. I learned that mainly it was my (negative) thoughts that were getting me into trouble. Reading the mindset book helped me understand where my fear of failing came from. In therapy I learned where my problems come from and I got enough insight to work on them. I learned to accept myself as I am and to let go of the past. I know what I still have to work on in myself in the future to reduce my fear of failure.The most important lessons for me are: being authentic is important. It saves a lot of energy if you can just be yourself. Emotional intelligence is key to dealing with your mindset. It helps understanding, expressing and managing emotions. I had to change my thinking and behaviour and in doing this, I ultimately changed my mindset. I am working on being vulnerable more often and showing empathy to build trust and relations which helps me to be a better teacher and coach but also a better person.
These positive emotions help me to think more clearly and be more present. I became a better listener, showing more interest in others, asking better questions and being more open to learning about others’ experiences. I am more self-aware and that is a good starting point.
“You have to name things in so many words. Something must be allowed to exist first and then leave it behind.”
(Griet op de Beeck in Dreamschool)
How do you find out what mindset you have and how can you deal with a fixed mindset? In our next blog post we will talk about that.