The first time I heard the phrase self-efficacy was when I was talking to Dr Mary Burgess, consultant clinical psychologist at the Macmillan Centre, University College London Hospitals, about how I struggle to overcome adversity.
Faced with a difficult, stressful situation, be it physical or emotional, work- or relationship-related, my default is defeat. I give up the minute I see a hurdle in my path, throwing myself down in front of it without ever trying to climb over it. My mind never tells me I can, nor even offers me some hope that I will eventually find my way.
What it tells me is always and emphatically that I can’t – can’t pass that exam or get that job; can’t become fit, find love or survive its loss. What it tells me always and emphatically is that I can’t ever fulfil my goals or be good enough.
As Dr Burgess and I chatted, I asked her advice on how I could become more resilient. I felt I needed to woman up, to confront and find ways of solving problems instead of always seeing them as insurmountable obstructions to any future happiness. I needed to equip myself with the tools to scale these obstacles, or dig beneath them, or knock them down so that I could live a fuller life and take pride in myself by doing things I’d imagined were beyond me. In other words, said Dr Burgess, what I needed was to increase my self-efficacy.
Introduced by the psychologist Albert Bandura in 1977, self-efficacy is most succinctly described as self-belief. “That’s the core,” says Dr Burgess. “It’s really the conviction that you have the physical, emotional and intellectual resources to achieve and get through anything you set your mind to. Bandura, whom I saw lecture, defined it ‘as the belief in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the course of action required to manage prospective situations,’ but what it really boils down to is simply knowing you can cope, succeed and grow.”
Simplistically, what sets those who have self-efficacy apart from the self-doubters is their can-do attitude; they consider problems as challenges they can overcome, and use failure as a learning experience and spur to try harder, rather than as an excuse to surrender and/or proof of inadequacy. Additionally, they feel that, by and large, they’re in control of their lives, that they have it within their power to shape outcomes and events – this even reduces their susceptibility to depression.
The other huge benefit is that when people accomplish their goals and solve their problems, their self-esteem and self-confidence increase, which in turn acts as a catalyst for setting ambitious goals and striving harder, thereby creating a virtuous circle of achievement. It is such a strong determinant that some psychologists rate self-efficacy above talent when assessing a person’s likelihood to succeed.
Conversely, those with low self-efficacy are filled with self-doubt. They’re more prone to feeling anxious, depressed and helpless – all of which I’m too familiar with – and to recover slowly from setbacks.
“Lacking self-belief suffocates potential, ambition, determination, motivation and personal development,” says Dr Burgess. “It shackles people to the side-lines, and, because they don’t trust themselves to problem solve, it can leave them feeling quite helpless when they’re confronted with difficulties. Their inner voice is on a repetitive loop, telling them they can’t, so what’s the point of trying.”
If this sounds like you, you may be interested to know that you can – yes really – take action to raise your self-efficacy, primarily by following Bandura’s simple advice. He identified four sources of self-efficacy – all of which are often in abundant supply in our lives. To have faith in yourself you first need to increase your “mastery” experiences, that is your bank of skills and achievements.
Start by setting yourself one small challenge – it could be as simple as cooking a meal from scratch or even taking a 15-minute walk each day. Any achievement, no matter how tiny, boosts self-efficacy. What’s more, by increasing your mastery experiences you will be teaching yourself that you can, and giving yourself something to draw on when you next face a new challenge. Instead of thinking “I’ve never done this before, I’m going to fail,” you’ll be able to look through your past experiences and think “hang on, this is similar to x, and I managed that, so I should be able to do this”.
Next you need “vicarious” experience, which is nothing more than having a role model. There’s probably someone in your life – a family member, friend or work colleague – who has high levels of self-efficacy. Watch and learn from them. It’s amazing how much people can gain from modelling themselves on those they admire.
Bandura’s third source is verbal persuasion, which is the benefit people derive from receiving genuine praise, while his fourth is emotional and physiological state, which emphasises the importance of looking after your mental and physical health.
More recently, psychologist James Maddux has added a fifth source – imaginal experiences. “This is what we more commonly call visualisation,” says Dr Burgess. “It involves picturing yourself achieving your goals. So, for example, you imagine being able to play the piano, or speaking French, adding as much detail as you can into your script. By picturing yourself on the piano stool, playing your favourite piece by Mozart, or in a wonderful restaurant in Paris conversing with the waiters you help build the belief that you can succeed.”
For my part, boosting my self-efficacy is a work in progress. I still doubt myself, but my belief in myself is slowly improving and I am trying hard to challenge the voice telling me I can’t. Often, I’ll ask it why it thinks I can’t, and do you know what – sometimes it doesn’t have an answer. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”
Putting your self-efficacy to the test
We could all do with being more self-confident from time to time but you may already have plenty of self-efficacy; here’s how to tell…
There are several tests you can do to rate your self-efficacy. One of the most widely used is the General Self-Efficacy Scale, developed by leading experts in the field, Ralf Schwarzer and Matthias Jerusalem, in 1995. Rate the following statements from one to four (where 4 is ‘strongly agree’), according to how true they are of you. The higher your score, the higher your self-efficacy:
- I can always manage to solve difficult problems if I try hard enough.
- If someone opposes me, I can find a way to get what I want.
- I find it easy to stick to my aims and accomplish my goals.
- I am confident that I can deal with unexpected events.
- I am resourceful so I know how to handle unforeseen situations.
- I can solve most problems if I invest the necessary effort.
- I can remain calm when facing difficulties because I know I can cope.
- When a problem arises, I can usually find several solutions.
- If I am in trouble, I can usually think of a solution.
- I can usually handle whatever comes my way.
How much self-efficacy do you need to have?
As with so much else, it’s a question of finding balance. If your self-efficacy is lower than your ability you won’t fulfil your potential. On the other hand, if it exceeds your capabilities by some considerable margin you won’t reach your goals however hard you try.
The optimum level of self-efficacy to aim for is a little above ability since this will encourage personal development. This can, of course, be quite difficult to determine. If you lack self-efficacy you are likely to underestimate your abilities, and if you have too much you will probably overestimate them.
Featured image by Unsplash/Gabrielle Henderson.