The Other Side of Fear: Fostering a Growth Mindset in a Wilderness Setting

Posted by John Tobias, MS, ACMHC, Therapist at Entrada on March 29, 2018

John TobiasWhy do some people succeed while some who are equally talented do not? What is it about wilderness that can produce such dramatic results? The foundation from which both answers arise is one of mindset. Mindset, in this case, refers to the mental, emotional and cognitive structures used to process one’s experience. Another way of understanding this idea is asking this question: “What kind of meaning is being created out of any given experience?” Yet another question to help clarify is: “Is learning occurring from a given experience?” The concept of mindset is germane to both answers.

Eminent researcher in the field of education, Dr. Carol Dweck, conceived of this idea of mindsets, especially as they pertain to one’s ability to learn. She identified two mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The fixed mindset is characterized by the belief that abilities are fixed at birth, and the focus of the fixed mindset is on outcomes and results, with a specific emphasis on not looking bad. The growth mindset, conversely, is characterized by the belief that abilities are malleable (they can be fostered or can be diminished) and the focus is on the process itself, not necessarily the results or outcome. These two mindsets then play quite differently, with vastly different outcomes, on the four elements underlying growth and learning. These essential elements are effort, challenge, mistakes, and feedback. And it’s because the wilderness is so rich in all four elements that it can be such a powerful medium for change.

Let’s look at one of the cornerstones of the wilderness therapy experience—the bow drill fire making process—through the Growth Mindset lens. The bow drill is one of the simplest yet effective ways that we have of cultivating the Growth Mindset. It requires effort, often prolonged, intense effort. Concomitantly, it’s challenging. It provides plenty of room to make mistakes. And it is a process replete with feedback, both implicit in the activity itself and explicit in the form of verbal feedback from peers and staff. All the elements of learning and growth are present. Equally as important as the content of the growth process is the context in which it occurs.

Creating an emotionally vulnerable (i.e., safe) context is paramount to the wilderness therapy experience. Growth and development occur most robustly in a vulnerable environment or context. Dr. Gabor Mate says it succinctly: “Nothing grows if it’s not vulnerable.” It’s when clients can be in touch with their emotional content that the Growth Mindset can most potently be instilled, and the wilderness therapy context provides the emotional safety necessary for clients to access their emotional content compassionately, explicitly and mindfully. It’s difficult to imagine a more fertile ground from which growth to occur. It’s within the safety of this context that clients can begin to change their relationship to struggle, and it’s this relationship that so clearly delineates the Growth from the Fixed Mindset. People with the Fixed Mindset avoid struggle at all costs because for them struggle is indicative of a character deficiency or defect. In contrast, those with a Growth Mindset view struggle as an interesting challenge and an opportunity to learn. Furthermore, those with the Growth Mindset welcome constructive feedback as an opportunity to improve, while those with the Fixed Mindset dismiss constructive feedback and take it as a personal attack. I had a young adult client say to me recently that he never knew how valuable constructive feedback could be, and a short time later he concluded that he didn’t know how valuable it could be because he’d never felt so emotionally safe in relation to a group of peers. This is the context in which the Growth Mindset can be fostered and, subsequently, in which deep learning can occur. In wilderness, our clients are presented with physically and emotionally challenging experiences on a consistent basis, and each experience is considered and evaluated with the four elements of growth in mind (if you remember, those are effort, challenge, room to make a mistake or struggle, and feedback). For one client the experience might be a hike. For another client, the growth experience might be a therapy assignment that I give them. Last week I asked a client to enact a series of role-plays with me in which I played the older brother and the client played himself. With a long, difficult interpersonal history, between the two of them, this was one the most evocative emotional experiences this young man had had thus far in the wilderness. Again, all four components of the growth process were present in this experience.

I know of no other context, therapeutic or otherwise, that so consistently and powerfully elicits the formation of new beliefs in clients about what is possible in the world (for themselves and others). When clients can appropriately challenge old, limiting beliefs consistently and within a context of emotional safety, Fixed Mindsets begin to change into Growth Mindsets, and a world of possibility begins to open up again (or for some clients, for the first time ever). With so many of my young adult clients, in the first few sessions, I’ll hear things like “I was stuck, I was spinning my wheels, I was paralyzed” when describing their lives at home or at school. The wilderness therapy experience with its varied multitude of appropriate challenges generates the capacity to begin to move powerfully in the world again. One my favorite parts of my job is watching this occur—feelings of hopelessness and helplessness begin to be supplanted by feelings of possibility and self-efficacy. This is the Growth Mindset in action.

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