When faced with a challenge or when deciding on a goal you want to achieve, do you tackle it with a sense of confidence and the anticipation of eventual success? Or do you feel a sense of dread and impending failure? If it’s the latter, then it may be that your personal sense of self-efficacy needs some attention.
I’ve been working with our recently adopted rescue dog, Tino, on his recall — basically, his coming back to us (reliably) when we call him. If you’ve ever been involved in training a dog, or any animal actually, then you’ll know that it takes patience, persistence, consistency — and time. All of which we’re prepared to invest in our new ‘baby boy’.
So there I am at one side of the park, calling Tino back to me, and he — having found something much more interesting to sniff at than even the bits of chicken I have as a reward for obedience — is ignoring me and doing his own thing. How embarrassing is this? How much of a failure as an owner do I appear right now? On a scale of 1 to 7 (as a colleague of mine who is a CBT therapist might ask), just how incompetent do I feel at this moment? Well, I have to say that it’s up there at the 6 or 7 mark!
Mortified embarrassment aside, how confident do I feel about being able to achieve what I’ve set out to do, which is to train Tino to do what I ask him to do when I ask him to do it? Ask me that question when I’m at the wrong side of the park trying to get my dog back, and the answer would be “Not very confident at all!”. But ask me again a few hours later, and I’m feeling more confident in myself and my ability to find a solution to the problem. I know what I need to do, and I know where to go to find the extra resources — i.e., a professional trainer — for the methods or knowledge I’m unsure of. I know that my feelings of being ‘a failure’ are temporary, and stimulated in large part by an old anxiety about what other people might think about me. I’m also a sucker for immediate gratification — “I want a well-trained dog and I want him now!” But in reality I know there’s a lot more work to do. And as I said earlier, I’m committed to that process and to tackling whatever obstacles there may be on the way.
That sense of confidence that you’ll be able to achieve the goals that you set for yourself is wrapped up in a useful psychological concept called ‘self-efficacy’. It was identified by the social psychologist Albert Bandura, who argues in Self-efficacy: The exercise of control that people with ‘high self-efficacy expectations’ — in other words, individuals who strongly believe that they can achieve what they set out to achieve — tend to take on more challenging tasks rather than avoid them. They tend to make more effective choices in their lives and even tend to be healthier — mentally as well as physically — than people whose ‘low self-efficacy expectations’ lead them to doubt their ability to succeed in meeting their goals.
Feelings of self-efficacy can vary from one situation to the next: my level of self-efficacy when it comes to understanding the intricacies of my tax return is pretty low, and so I tend to avoid taking on the task of completing it (as my long-suffering accountant knows only too well). On the other hand, my sense of self-efficacy when challenged to make a roast dinner with all the trimmings for Sunday lunch is much stronger, and so cooking a big meal for a family gathering is something I relish.
So how could one’s levels of self-efficacy affect an individual’s health? Well, suppose you really wanted to give up smoking. You know that stopping smoking would be better for your health (and your wallet), but you doubt your ability to succeed; perhaps you’ve tried before and never quite managed it. How might that experience of failure influence your belief that you can succeed this time? You might even wonder to yourself whether there is actually any point in trying! And so, you carry on smoking, half-convinced that you haven’t got what it takes — low expectations of self-efficacy — to meet the challenge.
Self-efficacy can also affect how we as individuals deal with that experience of failure. If in general you have a high level of self-efficacy, then you’re more likely to see a failure or setback as a challenge to be overcome ‘next time’, rather than as a reflection of some innate weakness or lack of ability on your part.
So how much self-efficacy is ‘just enough’? Well, there’s been some research, described in Finding Flow:The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi , which suggests that the ‘optimum level’ of self-efficacy is just a little higher than an individual’s existing ability, knowledge or experience. In other words, if you feel that a given task challenges you to push yourself just a little bit beyond the edge of your current comfort zone, then you’re likely to have more confidence (higher expectation of self-efficacy) than if it seems like an enormous mountain or obstacle to overcome. Equally, goals that are not challenging enough do nothing to develop or grow your sense of belief in yourself because they give you nothing to pit yourself against — a bit like eating custard with a spoon rather than tackling a 3-course meal gives your jaws nothing substantial to work on!
I’m interested in the idea of self-efficacy because I see part of my role as a therapist as helping clients develop their own sense of personal self-efficacy in managing the issues and problems that may have brought them to counselling in the first place. When you doubt your ability to find a way through whatever crisis is engulfing you, then that may be the moment you reach out for some professional help. The most effective thing a counsellor can then do for you — in the long-term — is to help you develop the tools, skills and confidence to find your own way through whatever challenges you are faced with, or choose to tackle, in the future.
Which challenges in your life do you feel most confident about tackling, and which fill you with feelings of incompetence or failure? How does your personal sense of self-efficacy ebb and flow through your daily or weekly schedule? And how might you grow your sense of self-confidence in your ability to take on and succeed at the challenges in your life?
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by