Do You Really Believe You Can Change?

There’s something about an “against all odds” account that gets people going. I know I love them. I’m a sucker for a good sports tribute or even a good story that circulates on Facebook. Being in the field I’m in, I’ve seen it thousands of times. Heck, look through the MDA Success Stories and see how many are those jaw-dropping surprises you wouldn’t believe except you’re seeing it there in full pixel glory. Behind every one of those accounts is some kind of energy. It’s not unique. It’s just persistent. It’s a belief that you can leave behind old behavior and restriction. It’s a belief that you can walk into a new way of living the same way anyone else can. It’s the belief that you have what it takes to show up for yourself on a daily basis, accomplish the task you’ve set out to do and let the momentum take you to levels of health you desperately want or maybe can’t even envision yet. It’s the concept of self-efficacy.

Research consistently confirms that our sense of self-efficacy will predict short-term and long-term success in behavior change. In other words, if we believe we can make a change, we’re much more likely to actually have success in making change happen. If under the facade of wanting change, however, we ultimately feel we’re incapable of accepting or sticking to the necessary behaviors, we’re sabotaging ourselves from the start.

The concept of self-efficacy was defined by the famous psychologist Albert Bandura in 1986. In a seminal article from that same year, a group of researchers applied the concept of self-efficacy to health behavior, separating it into two parts, namely our “outcome expectations,” the “expectations about the outcomes that will result from one’s engaging in a behavior” and our “efficacy expectations,” the “expectations about one’s ability to engage in or execute the behavior.” Outcome expectations can come into play we can get stuck in thinking, as the researchers suggest, that nothing – not even the most extensive and smart lifestyle change – will help us stave off a disease we fully expect to get, like inheriting our parents’ diabetes or high blood pressure. Unfortunately, in the nearly three decades since this seminal article, I’d say the fatalistic mindset has more of a collective impact than ever. Culturally, we’ve come to believe that disease is normal. We should fully anticipate developing one or more significant health conditions as we approach old age if not middle age. Too many people these days resign themselves to a life of ill health chalking it up to “aging.”

That said, it’s the self-efficacy expectations that undermine most of us. We don’t have a problem believing that living Primally will help us lose the weight, gain the energy, build the physical strength and stamina, and achieve great health as it’s done for so many. Beyond the confidence in the approach, however, we wonder if we ourselves will really be able to hack it – to follow through on all the dietary, exercise and lifestyle changes we want to make. At the end of the day, there’s this nagging old voice in the back of our minds asking if we really have it in us to thrive. Is that kind of success really for us to experience, or do we on some half-conscious level believe thriving is for “other people”? Will we end up dropping our better expectations for ourselves or curtailing our goals in lieu of “more reasonable” objectives that diminish the benefits we allow ourselves to experience? How far will our personal sense of self-efficacy take us? Where do we hit the end of the line – our (too often) self-imposed limitations?

Let’s jump ahead for a moment. The takeaways from self-efficacy research as it applies to health behavior suggest a number of points. First off, we’re generally better off thinking along the lines of a mastery “succession” that takes new behaviors through stages. This is especially important for those who are the types to hurl themselves into the pool, taking on every massive change at once only to get burned out quickly or caught off guard by influences/choices we can’t handle yet. Yes, it can work to accept multiple changes simultaneously, but expecting mastery right away in all of them is a setup for major frustration. Self-efficacy shifts based on a number of factors, including “magnitude,” which reflects the varying levels of difficulty. We can feel a sense of self-efficacy for the early level(s) of an endeavor but not feel it for higher levels of difficulty. Personal experience over time – in addition to the model of others’ successes and verbal encouragement – can convince us later to feel self-efficacy for these further, more advanced demands.

Likewise, the researchers suggest, we need to view our “lapses” through a more productive lens. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we can choose to assess what influenced the detour. It’s that core Primal concept of “no failure – only feedback.”

What hits the nail on the head for me about self-efficacy research are the parameters often assigned to the definition itself: self-efficacy for a particular task at a particular time. Well, we can say self-efficacy for changing health, but in truth we need to get more specific. What is the particular task we’re trying to accomplish? What is the particular time in which we’re attempting to live the behavior change? I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with who completely trip themselves up on the fact that they can’t see themselves as the svelte man/woman at the beach. Likewise, they’ll say they can’t look into the future and see themselves as people who run 10Ks or who can lift what other people at the gym. They can’t envision doing five years from now what they can barely motivate themselves to do now. They’ll never lose the weight. They’ll never feel energetic the way they used to.

Therein lies the vast majority of self-efficacy issues in my mind. The beach bod example isn’t the behavior change itself. That’s self-image. If you’re wrapped around self-image and can’t extricate yourself from the negative messaging, you’ll never get to self-efficacy. The “I’ll never” statements? Those are the old stories we tell ourselves – old self-concept we need to let go of in order to assess our present reality rather than be stuck in a distorted perception that imposes its story on everything. Sure, you could call it generalizing poor self-efficacy. How about we just call it horse (blank)? Extract the all-consuming fiction from momentary fact. You’re able-bodied. You have a kitchen and money to buy food. There’s no place for “I’ll never” in this equation. Fluff – falsehood to be ejected from any further thinking. Likewise, squinting at “the future” and not seeing the ability to keep exercising is irrelevant. You aren’t making a commitment to be exercising five years from now. Who can commit to doing anything five years from now?

Self-efficacy is about your perception of your ability to complete a task – not to become a different person. Neither is it a blanket statement about your character or ability to take on any and all change. It’s about a particular change at a specific time. We live life, after all, in the particulars, in the day to day. Can I eat an omelet instead of Frosted Flakes for breakfast? Can I do 20 minutes of body weight exercise over the lunch hour? Can I get to bed by ten o’clock tonight? That’s really all that matters. When we focus on our capacity for the task, it depersonalizes the process. Suddenly, our baggage can’t rear its ugly head to manipulate or justify. Those negative, self-defeating storylines feed off of vagueness – the collapsing of past into distant future. They lose their intimidating dimensions in the present day.

Research aside now, I’ve said before that who you are tomorrow will decide what you’re capable of tomorrow. Your job is simply to decide today based on who you are and what you’re ready for today. That’s it. None of us can make judgments about ourselves five years from now or even five weeks from now. I’d argue that five days from now is irrelevant. It’s literally today. What can you believe you’re capable of accomplishing today? Scale it down to Grok scope. Yes, there was a sense of larger patterns, but life was lived in the action of the present moment.

I think of those parenting suggestions you read now about how to give your children confidence. Naturally, the younger generation is on my mind this week with the release of Paleo Girl. The experts agree that we don’t foster confidence in our children – whether preschoolers or adolescents – by assigning descriptives to them: “Oh, you’re so smart,” “You’re great at sports,” “You’re a natural leader,” “You’re beautiful and healthy,” blah, blah. Offering them blanket statements imposes blanket truths they can’t possibly live up to all the time. From there, the dissonance inevitably confuses and possibly derails them. The better way is to praise their effort, to note their dedication, to celebrate the time and passion they put into their endeavors.

Funny how what works for the young’uns still works for the older folks. I’d argue we do ourselves a disservice when we trump up self-efficacy as a larger than life confidence or even swagger to achieve whatever we can envision. The truth is, we can build our own sense of self-efficacy by witnessing the evidence of our own dedication to the tasks we set for ourselves. The question isn’t so much “Can I achieve this?” as much as it is “Can I show up for this?” It’s an inquiry into both willingness and readiness. What’s blocking either or both of those elements?

Finally, I’d suggest that self-efficacy is a commitment to self-knowledge and even self-experimentation (you know I’m fond of that). When we choose to get healthy, to get strong, to feel better throughout our day, to enhance our life and longevity, we’re not really signing up for living by a particular formula. Formulas are like “diets”: they’re not sustainable in the long-run. I see self-efficacy as a dynamic force that requires continual investment, that has to respond, live and breathe in the present. There’s no settling for abstractions or living off your laurels. It’s about having the courage and determination to show up for real-time self-discovery. What do you need to let go of to feel up to a task? What influences, messages, people? What positive inputs do you require to maintain the perception of your capacity? We can cultivate true self-efficacy by focusing on the task but appreciating the dimensions of our process in getting there.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What thoughts does the subject bring up for you? How do you invest in your own self-efficacy, and how do you benefit? Share your feedback, and have a great end to the week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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