Pscyhologists and internet “success gurus”, not to mention a ton of life coaches, talk about having a growth mindset as the secret to success. They’re talking to neurotypical people without trauma. Before those of us who have experienced trauma, may live with PTSD/cPTSD, or are neurodivergent can try to cultivate a growth mindset, which isn’t a bad thing, we need to heal first.
You can’t just slap a growth mindset over your trauma wounds like a single layer of thin gauze and call it “positive vibes only”, expecting it to work miracles. Instead, your trauma is going to bleed right through. You’ll be left with a bloody bandage and no miracles, wondering why it failed.
Let’s begin by talking about the definition of a growth mindset. A growth mindset is something you have when you believe your talents, abilities, and skills can be developed further. When you believe that failure is not who you are or a bad thing, but an opportunity for growth.
However, for many of us who are neurodivergent, the single message we’ve been given our entire life is that we aren’t good enough. We aren’t successful and we’ll never be. That’s the message delivered through trauma to many neurodivergent people. You have to feel safe in order to stretch your wings, and if you don’t feel safe to begin with, you’ll believe you can’t fly.
The growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard this before. Whether from coaches or supervisors at work, or even parents and friends. They feel as if they have your best interests at heart, but to you, it probably feels like gaslighting. There’s probably a voice telling you that you’ve done all of this and nothing has changed–so now what?
If that’s you (and hey, it’s me, too. You’re not alone!), I’m here to let you in on a little secret. Pushing a growth mindset in the traditional manner, well that’s what neurotypical people do. They don’t understand that our brains work differently. They don’t get that we can’t just “fool” ourselves into affirming good things and changing what we think about ourselves. We see through bullshit like that. Except, there’s a second part of this fallacy. Our minds lie to us, too. Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (Here’s an indepth article from the Cleveland Clinic.) can affect the way we look at neutral or even negative interactions and outcome. RSD makes it difficult for us to try and find a silver lining. (Though there doesn’t have to be a reason for things to happen. Bad stuff happens regularly without a “reason” or “lesson”.) And if we’ve internalized the messages we’ve been given through trauma and abuse, well even without RSD that makes it difficult to cultivate a growth mindset.
Does everyone need a growth mindset?
Nope. Just because a growth mindset is something that a lot of people preach because it works for them, you’re free to completely disregard it. George Washington had severe self-doubt about whether he’d live up to people’s expectations. John Steinbeck, who wrote The Red Pony, lamented about his writing and about him being ignorant. (He also wrote The Grapes of Wrath.) Even Michelangelo (the sculptor, not the ninja turtle) battled self-doubt. (Want to read more?)
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s okay if you doubt yourself, if you fear rejection, if you worry that you’re not good enough. Giving yourself self-love and grace, understanding that these are perfectly normal emotions and very human emotions, is the first step toward understanding your trauma and eventually healing those open wounds.
Instead of using harsh inner language that makes you feel worse, stop forcing yourself to “feel better” and “get over it”. Healing is messy. It’s a process, and if we keep trying to layer that thin gauze of a growth mindset over it before it’s ready, it’s not going to protect you the way you expect. Understand that a growth mindset isn’t something everyone needs all the time. In fact, I think a little self-doubt, a little worry about failure, is healthy.
The next time you see a coach or guru pushing “positive vibes” and “growth mindset”, ask yourself. Are they giving out flimsy band-aids or are they really inviting people to get messy and heal?