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Why Mindset Matters for Internal Resistance

If I could find another word for 'mindset' I'd use it. But here we are.

'Mindset' is one of those words that now basically means everything and nothing. Its usage ranges from the positive-vibes-only self-help world of Instagram to Carol Dweck's celebrated study of fixed and growth mindset in education. Like 'coaching' itself, it refers to something that I wish I had a better word for, because the core underlying concept is too enabling to throw out.

In my usage, mindset refers to the way our interactions with the world are fundamentally produced by our brain's specific, usually implicit expectations, filters and commitments. This can mean everything from having pain cured by a placebo to not noticing a new chair in the living room because you're so used to seeing the old one. Mindset isn't just interpretation of what we experience; it's how we experience it in the first place. Mindset is what determines what of the outside world gets registered, as well as what gets passed to conscious awareness and/or flagged with an emotional reaction.

That process is largely unconscious, but it has little to do with the unconscious in the psychoanalytic sense. Psychoanalysis (and most therapy) is about locating a crucial story, but mindset is about denaturalising a crucial lens. It means solving for the conceptual filters you are using and the feedback loops they create. And that is crucial because internal resistance thrives on our stories. The more reasons we find for why events in our past have made stuck, the more inevitable that stuckness comes to seem.

I've written about these filters and feedback loops quite a bit in my series on creative blocks on Medium, but I want to give another example here. Imagine you're a client who finished up coaching with me in a really good place with the podcast you were stuck on. About six months later, though, you are starting to feel crappy about the podcast again. You're having a lot of worries about whether it's good enough, which leads you to worry that you're backsliding. You get afraid and avoidant and stop editing the new episode. The deadline for the release passes, which feels like more evidence things are going off the rails.

Here's how we can understand this as a mindset problem. It starts with how you interpret that initial bad feeling. Most times when we start to feel crappy again after things were going well with our work, it's because we've levelled up in some way. The task got more challenging, and it brought up all the old worries about whether we're good enough to meet the challenge. The crucial part is what happens next: rather than seeing this resurgence as totally normal and actually a sign of our progress, we freak the fuck out. We become instantly convinced we're going back to our old ways. The fear creates avoidance which creates more fear which creates more disengagement. But this feedback loop only gets going because of the original assumption that things feeling hard is a bad sign.

And that interpretation arises from our mindset. When our default for experiencing the world is that we are still half broken and liable to fall back into bad habits at any time, cognitive bias means our brains filter the world for evidence that fits this pre-existing frame. Every potential negative piece of data flashes at us like it's written in red neon, and every positive piece of data slides right under our radar. And because any bit of negative data creates anxiety—and because anxiety creates avoidance and vice versa—this mindset operates like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now imagine that when you start to feel bad about work again, you came at it from a framework of assuming that you know how to solve problems, that you're resourceful, that you are only feeling challenged because you are brave enough to sign up for challenging shit.

With that mindset in place, a whole different set of data leaps into view. Rather than seeing that you didn't get up on time that morning, you see that you worked late the night before. Rather than seeing that you still 'aren't fixed' you see what a badass you are for all the progress you've made. Rather than assuming that feeling bad means you're backsliding, you notice all the ways in which you are stretching and growing your skills, which, duh, feels crappy some times.

The initial feeling might still be a bit grim and frightening, but when you don't assume it means you're failing, you escape the spiralling effect. You can feel it without making it a sign of something horrible about you. Maybe you baby yourself a bit, you take a nap or end the day early or talk to a friend. And within a day or two, you're ready to go again.

Note that I'm not suggesting adopting a 'positive' mindset. Positive thinking would insist that the new challenge isn't actually challenging, that there's no reason to feel anxiety or insecurity, that if we’re feeling bad we must be doing it wrong. That kind of approach just demonises our emotions from another direction, by insisting that they need to be replaced by something sunnier.

But what works for internal resistance is the opposite. The more we know it's normal for challenging shit to feel challenging, the more we see those feelings as a sign we're showing up rather than screwing up, the more we can break the feedback loops of anxiety and avoidance. With this mindset in place, we can look for and find the data that shows how capable we are, which leads to feelings and actions that create more of that helpful data. We don't see the intermittent crappy feelings as a warning that we're losing our way. Instead, we understand them as proof that we're fully in the game.


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