7 Mindsets That Undercut Your Mental Strength And Resilience

Your thinking can be productive or counterproductive


Last week, a medical student approached me after a workshop and asked, “Do you know anything about the imposter syndrome?” A lawyer I collaborate with attributes her rise from a rural small town to an Ivy League law school and beyond to luck. Many people who I work with tell me how their thinking keeps them stuck, awake at night going over and over something they wish they would have said differently, or drives procrastination on important projects. One of the most important skills I teach my clients is how to identify core values and beliefs that create rigid ways of thinking that keep them stuck, or worse, having the wrong fight instead of the right conversation. When I ask busy professionals if they understand what “catastrophizing” is before I explain it, most people raise their hands.


You can increase your resilience via a number of pathways, but one of the most important ways is to develop the ability to think flexibly and accurately during challenge and adversity. Resilient thinkers are better problem solvers, more quickly switch to Plan B when an idea or strategy doesn’t work, and view their stress response as a challenge, rather than a threat.


These seven mindsets interfere with your mental strength and can undercut your resilience:


Imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a deeply held belief of intellectual phoniness and sounds like this: “Man, I got lucky this time. They will soon realize that I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.” Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, like degrees, promotions or other successes, imposter syndrome makes it difficult for people to internalize or accept their success.   While a number of different traits and cognitive features nourish imposterism, the research suggests it is likely some combination of low efficacy (see below) and maladaptive perfectionism.


Low efficacy. Efficacy is the belief in your ability to solve work/life challenges and succeed. In short, it’s confidence. It’s also domain specific, which means that you may feel highly confident negotiating a contract but have little confidence in leading a new committee. High efficacy has been shown to be a strong predictor of positive affect and activates adaptive coping strategies, such as planning, positive reframing and acceptance.  In addition, people with high efficacy are better able to identify new business opportunities, create new products, think creatively, commercialize ideas and persevere under stress and pressure.


Fixed mindset. If efficacy is the belief in your ability to solve work/life challenges and succeed, then the first determination you’re going to make is whether or not you have the capacity to develop the ability in question (e.g., public speaking, business development, networking, teaching new material to others, playing basketball, etc.) People with fixed mindsets believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable and no amount of additional “trying new strategies out” will grow that capacity. As a result, those with a fixed mindset feel pressure to prove themselves over and over (perfectly, the first time trying something), avoid challenges, and give up easily, none of which builds confidence or resilience.


Thinking traps. Thinking traps are overly rigid patterns of thinking that cause you to miss critical information. Several of the most common include jumping to conclusions (making assumptions without the relevant data), mind reading (a version of jumping to conclusions where you believe you know what others are thinking and you act accordingly), all or nothing thinking (seeing a situation in only two categories and failing to recognize the middle ground), personalizing (it’s all my fault), and externalizing (it’s all your fault).  Resilience requires accuracy, and thinking traps interfere with your ability to think about situations in a fully accurate way.

Stress harms. Most of the headlines about stress tend to focus on the negative impact stress can have in our lives, and it’s true – too much stress can be harmful to your health. I know firsthand, having experienced burnout at the end of my law practice. Yet the gloom and doom headlines about stress don’t tell the whole story. A recent study surveyed almost 29,000 adults and asked them two questions:

a.  How much stress did you experience in the last year?

b.  Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?

Eight years later, the researchers checked to see whether stress impacted rates of mortality for these participants. What they found was that the participants with high levels of stress were more likely to die, BUT only if they also believed that stress was harmful to their health. The people with high levels of reported stress who did not believe that stress was harmful actually had the lowest risk of death of any group in the study.

What’s worse, having a stress harms mindset can keep you stuck thinking you must be the only one, and that’s potentially dangerous. One of the most unexpected consequences of our stress response is its subtle encouragement to seek out others.  Alia Crum and her colleagues found that people who endorse a “stress helps” mindset report less depression and anxiety, higher levels of energy, work performance, and life satisfaction.

Catastrophizing. This thinking style represents your tendency to jump to the worst- case scenario when something stressful happens. You are more likely to catastrophize when you’re run down, stressed out, tired or depleted, something you value is at stake (maybe your reputation has been called into question), it’s your first time doing something, or the situation is vague or unclear (like receiving an e-mail that only says, “Come see me now”). It’s a powerful thinking style because it shuts down your ability to take purposeful action.

Pessimistic explanatory style. How do you explain the cause of both positive and negative events (getting a flat tire; having another argument with your significant other; getting a promotion)? When you have a more pessimistic way of explaining stressful events, it sounds like: “This will be around forever (this event is permanent), it will impact multiple areas of my life (this event is pervasive), and it’s all my fault (this event is personal).” Pessimistic thinkers also tend to explain good events away, attributing success to luck or something outside of their control. These cognitive explanations fall along a continuum, and research has shown that consistent pessimistic explanations are associated with an increased likelihood of depression, anxiety, hopelessness and helplessness.

Henry Ford is famous for saying, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.” The way you think influences your emotions and the way you act under stress and pressure. Stay tuned for strategies to help you reduce the impact of these unhelpful mindsets.