Ever since I worked to stop my acts of domestic violence and abuse, I’ve been fascinated with theories that explain how people change. Why are some people successful, while others are not? Is there a factor that makes change easier? The concept of a growth mindset, as explained in a book by Carol S. Dweck, gives an insightful answer to these questions.

Why are some people successful at change, while others are not?

Maybe you, like me, have found yourself being expected to change your behavior. Or you know it is in your best interest to do so because there are big consequences for not making some adjustments. Perhaps you have some of the same questions as I did.

Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, became an instant classic when it was published in 2006. Her powerful ideas have implications on how we can have greater success in school, our careers, sports, and relationships. While she did not specifically address changing behavior that hurts the ones we love, the conclusions of her research apply there too.

The Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

In her book, Dweck says there are two types of thinking: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that characteristics like intelligence, athletic or artistic abilities, and personality are fixed. Those with a growth mindset believe that our brain acts like a muscle: the more we use it, the stronger and smarter it becomes.

Dweck goes on to differentiate the two mindsets in how they define failure, see success, and think about effort. A person who has adopted a fixed mindset sees failure as permanent since it can’t be changed. Therefore, effort has little value because nothing they do will make them smarter or more skilled. They believe those traits have already been determined.

A person who has adopted a fixed mindset sees failure as permanent. A growth mindset view failure as a temporary setback.

In contrast, individuals who see the world with a growth mindset view failure as a temporary setback. Disappointments are viewed as a starting point, not something carved in stone. In fact, they become motivation to work harder, try different strategies, and seek help from others. They take charge of their success through effort.

Why Mindset Matters

Fixed mindset people, the author says, feel an urgency to be successful all of the time. The outcome is what matters most, and they find themselves needing to prove themselves over and over again. They struggle to accept deficiencies, criticism, and failure because, in their mind, these permanently define their worth. As a result, the fixed mindset person may shrink from challenges, cheat to win, and blame others when they are not successful.

The growth mindset group, on the other hand, has a passion for learning. For them, the journey is what matters. They appreciate the people and messages that help them grow. Since they see personal traits as something to be cultivated, they’re more likely to stretch themselves and persevere when setbacks happen.

Dweck notes that those with a fixed mindset are less likely to prosper in all areas of life than individuals with the growth mindset. This especially shows up in the face of adversity, where the fixed folks act to protect their sense of self while alienating others. Growth people, on the other hand, tend to power through the inevitable difficulties, building their abilities while demonstrating resiliency.

The Fixed and Growth Mindset in Relationships

Mindsets have particularly interesting implications on how we view relationships. When a relationship starts to require work, a fixed mindset person will see it as a sign that the connection just wasn’t meant to be. They’ll believe that their partners should know what they think and how they feel (mind reading) rather than communicating it. They may presume that their partner will agree on everything, and that there is something wrong if they don’t.

When a relationships ends, the fixed mindset person will view their partner as a bad match or full of character flaws. They’ll feel bitter, judged, and permanently labeled as unlovable. In response, they may lash out, try to control what their partner thinks or does, or get revenge for the hurt their partner has inflicted.

In contrast, a growth mindset oriented person will see relationship challenges as something that is unavoidable. They’ll sharpen their communication skills or adjust their approach to their partner if that’s what it takes for success. If the relationship ends, growth mindset people will ask themselves what they can learn from it, forgive, and then move on. The relationship did not define them as a person.

Mindsets and Our Deepest Needs

Everyone wants to feel worthy and lovable. Fixed and growth mindset people fill this need in two very different ways, however. In turn, the different viewpoints drive significantly different actions.

Those with a fixed mindset need others to put them on a pedestal. They tend to want their partners to make them feel perfect, enshrining their fixed qualities. As you can imagine, conflict, criticism, and rejection feel like major blows to their self worth.

The false beliefs associated with a fixed mindset can cause us to interpret our partner’s words or actions as big threats to our personal value. That doesn’t feel good, and it generates some pretty powerful negative emotions. When those bad feelings cause us to lash out, try to control our partner, or get revenge, we hurt them.

Individuals with a growth mindset have a similar need for feeling worthy and lovable. They, on the other hand, don’t attach failures, negative evaluations, or others’ disapproval with their personal value. Instead, those are opportunities to learn and grow as they become a better version of themselves.

Where Mindsets Come From

I wondered how people could have such opposite views of failure, success, and effort. The author addresses that question as well. Turns out we may be trained to have the mindset that we do.

We are born with a growth mindset—learning is built into our DNA. Think about a toddler learning to walk. The child takes a few steps, falls, gets up again, then takes a few more. Eventually their effort pays off and they not only become competent at walking, but also running, jumping, skipping, and maybe even dancing.

The problem with labels is that they don’t suggest that effort will improve our outcomes.

Unfortunately, many of us are also exposed to messages that teach us a fixed mindset. We’re told directly (or through rewards) that we are smart or “a natural”, or maybe that we are dumb or a hopeless case. The problem with labels, negative or positive, is that they are fixed—there is nothing we can do to change them. They don’t suggest that effort will improve our position or outcomes in life, which is not true.

Changing Our Mindset

The good news is that, even if we’re operating with a fixed mindset, it can be changed. Mindsets are belief systems that we adopt—often not consciously, but from erroneous messages we’ve received in life. Understanding the lie, and maybe where it came from, is the first step toward embracing a better growth mindset.

Switching from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset can be as easy as choosing to take a different viewpoint. The implication of not flipping the way we think means we stay stuck with our current abilities and circumstances. Swapping to a growth mindset feels better when we make mistakes and opens doors for future improvements.

The Fixed and Growth Mindset and Domestic Violence

As I look back on the hurtful things I’ve said and done, I see I was in a fixed mindset. I did not handle criticism well. I freaked out over anything that looked like failure. Rejection was crushing. I was trying to protect a positive sense of myself by trying to convince, coerce, and control others.

I’d love to say that I’m always in a growth mindset, but I’m not. Positive changes happen when I let go of those faulty beliefs and take on a growth mindset. When my thinking is more like the fixed mindset, my progress stalls.

Do you see your abilities as fixed, or your current capabilities as just your starting point?

As you read about the mindsets, which one best describes your thinking? Do you see your abilities as already fixed, or your current capabilities as just your starting point? As you honestly evaluate your actions, do they indicate you are operating with a fixed or growth mindset?

Fixed mindsets create thoughts that needlessly cause us to feel hurt at the deepest level. It drives behavior that harms our partner, and therefore, us. And it can keep us stuck believing there is nothing we can do to change.

The growth mindset removes much of the sting we feel when our ideas or character are challenged. It frees us to continually  make changes, grow, and improve without interpreting that effort to mean there is something wrong with us. It sets us up to not only make necessary behavior changes, but to achieve success in all areas of life.

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