By Adam J. Pearson
One of the most interesting things I learned as a student of both psychology and pedagogy was the concept self-efficacy. This vital idea has a powerful effect on how we live our daily lives, how we teach, lead, parent, work, play, grow in our hobbies, and develop in relationships. As a result, I humbly believe that it’s something everyone would benefit from knowing about.
We have often hear about “self-esteem,” which is our subjective evaluation of our own worth. We know that too little self-esteem is associated with being depressed and unable to act and too much self-esteem is correlated with being narcissistic, arrogant, self-absorbed, and inconsiderate of others. Healthy self-esteem recognizes our own worthiness while balancing that with humility, openness to growth, a realistic assessment of our own abilities, and care and respect for others.
“Self-efficacy” is a different construct that we don’t hear about as often. This idea was originally put forth by psychologist Albert Bandura. While self-esteem is our evaluation of our own worth, self-efficacy is our belief in our ability to take appropriate action to produce the results we want. Since we have to take action in pursuit of goals throughout all aspects of our daily life, self-efficacy affects literally everything we do.
Bandura (2010) points out that “A strong sense of self-efficacy promotes human accomplishment and personal well-being. A person with high self-efficacy views challenges as things that are supposed to be mastered rather than threats to avoid. These people are able to recover from failure faster and are more likely to attribute failure to a lack of effort. They approach threatening situations with the belief that they can control them. These things have been linked to lower levels of stress and a lower vulnerability to depression.”
In contrast, Bandura (2010) adds that “people with a low sense of self-efficacy view difficult tasks as personal threats and shy away from them. Difficult tasks lead them to look at the skills they lack rather than the ones they have. It is easy for them to lose faith in their own abilities after a failure. Low self-efficacy can be linked to higher levels of stress and depression.”
Self-efficacy is related to our belief in (1) our competence at being able to do a particular thing (e.g. our tasks at work, our hobbies, and (2) our ability to overcome challenges we face while doing something. There are degrees or levels of self-efficacy as with self-esteem. People with a healthy level of self-efficacy are aware of their skills, strengths, and the limits of what they can do alone, could do with help, or couldn’t do even with help. As a result, they know when to tackle a task by themselves and when to reach out to others to benefit from skills they lack.
In contrast, having too little and too much self-efficacy can be a bad thing for different reasons and cause both people in this situation and people around around them unnecessary suffering and difficulties. People who have too little self-efficacy downplay and underestimate their strengths, abilities to do things, and power to overcome challenges. As a result, like people with low self-esteem, people with low self-efficacy tend to end up feeling helpless, hopeless, depressed, dependent on others, and like they need to avoid risks, threats, and challenges. They are deluded in the sense that they are capable of more than they think they are and more resilient than they think they are.
The task of people with low self-efficacy is to become (a) more mindful of their ability to overcome challenges using the evidence of what they’ve overcome in the past and (b) better at more accurately evaluating their strengths and abilities. These two things are skills that need to be learned and practiced. Good feedback from others and therapy can be very useful for people in this situation. Working on these two aspects helps increase these people’s self-efficacy into a healthier and more realistic range. Sometimes, medications can also help reinforce this process, each depending on the specific needs and conditions of the individual.
In contrast, people whose self-efficacy is too high both (a) falsely believe that they are more competent at particular tasks than they are and (b) better able to overcome challenges than they are. Their self-efficacy is exaggerated because they lack genuine insight into their actual abilities. When they fail to perform at the level they expect, they tend to deny it, make excuses for why they were unable to perform, and/or blame others for their own mistakes. Their inability to accurately evaluate their abilities can cause frustration for themselves and others, poor results, and an inability to grow and develop. Growth and development depend on our ability to be aware of our actual current level of skill at a given task and what we need to practice more and learn more about. People with too high self-efficacy lack this ability, so they tend to stay stuck and stagnate.
The task for people with too high self-esteem is to learn (a) to more accurately gauge their actual abilities and strengths, and (b) to better assess the limits of their ability to overcome a given challenge and when it is wise to seek new resources, strategies, knowledge, or help from others. This can be difficult, however, due to these people’s lack of insight into their need to change. Learning to listen to other people more and to value their feedback can sometimes be helpful for these people, as can reflecting on and taking responsibility for times in the past when they were unable to perform at the level at which they would have liked to perform.
The goal for all of us is to aim for a balanced, moderate, and realistic level of both self-esteem and self-efficacy in ourselves. Our role as parents, friends, partners, leaders, teachers, mentors, managers, and anyone else responsible for nurturing the growth of others is to help them to develop realistic levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy.
We can help cultivate self-esteem in others by giving people feedback that makes them more aware of their worth (e.g. from Brene Brown, “regardless of what gets done or doesn’t get done today, you’re enough and worthy of love and belonging” or “you’re a valuable member of this team; I really appreciate your work”).
We can help cultivate self-efficacy in others by giving people feedback that makes them more aware of (a) their abilities (e.g. “the way you organized your presentation was really effective,” “thank you for doing such a perfect job of folding these clothes; you made them totally wrinkle-free!” Or “when you did __in bed, that made me feel good,” or “you cut these carrots at the perfect size for this soup; now they won’t take too long to cook or get too mushy”).
Some Questions for Reflection to Promote Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy:
- Do I believe I am worthy of love and belonging? What evidence do I have from what I’ve managed to do in the past and what others have told me that I am valuable and worthy?
- What are my abilities and what are their limits? When do I need to seek more information, resources, tools, strategies, or advice and help from others? In what situations do I know enough and am skilled enough to do things on my own?
- How do I give feedback to those around me? How can I give feedback more effectively to promote self-esteem and self-efficacy in myself and others?
Bandura, Albert (2010), “Self-Efficacy”, The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, American Cancer Society, pp. 1–3.
Read More from Adam Pearson at http://philosophadam.wordpress.com/
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