Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

“Yes I can!”: the psychology behind lasting personal growth

Approximately 80% of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned by the second week of February. But what makes these goals so difficult to achieve? One theory is that our resolutions are often too big to manage. Sticking to major changes like dieting and exercise can become overwhelming—causing us to give up after any initial set-backs.

“Performance accomplishments” can help mitigate these challenges: by breaking down resolutions into smaller goals, we can build the self-confidence needed to take on bigger and bigger challenges.

In the following excerpt from Boost!, sports psychologist Michael Bar-Eli discusses the psychology behind personal growth, and how he uses performance accomplishments in his own life.

How can we change our efficacy expectations from “no, I cannot” to “yes, I can”?

One important source is called “vicarious experiences.” Here, people obtain efficacy information by observing or imagining others engaging in a task that the observers themselves do not perform. Vicarious sources of efficacy information (that is, witnessing others successfully completing a task) are weaker than performance accomplishments of the observers themselves, but they are still of substantial importance in enhancing one’s self-efficacy.

A great example for this source comes from Major General Avihu Ben-Nun (born 1939), who was the eleventh commander of the Israeli Air Force from 1987 to 1992. In 1995 he too was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Unlike other celebrities with Parkinson’s who often try to hide their disease, Ben-Nun announced it publicly, thereby serving as an inspiration for many others fighting the disease. I often use Ben-Nun’s struggle against Parkinson’s as a model; I tell myself that if he can handle it, evidently for so many years, I can, too!

The strongest source, and the most dependable foundation of self-efficacy judgments, however, is “performance accomplishments,” also known as “enactive mastery experiences.” Performance accomplishments refer to clear successes and failures, which provide the most influential source of efficacy information and the most authentic evidence on which we can build robust beliefs about personal efficacy. If such experiences are generally successful, they will raise the level of self- efficacy; repeated failure will result in lower- efficacy expectations.

“Throughout your working life, you will be faced with increasingly difficult challenges. The concept of backward generalizations, however, can help you handle these obstacles as you think about them in an incremental way.”

For example, Parkinson’s disturbs my daily activities and functions for a number of hours every day. I set a goal, however, to increase the number of Parkinson’s- free hours per day (or at least keep this number stable) by regulating my body and mind through medication, rest, physical activ­ity, and joyful intellectual activities, such as writing this book. Success in achieving this goal increases my confidence, not only in my ability to gain more Parkinson’s- free hours, but also in my ability to successfully reduce the Parkinson’s influence on my life in general.

The performance accomplishments source demonstrates not only that reality (i.e., one’s performance) can foster one’s expectations, but also that expectations (i.e., self- efficacy) can foster reality. This situation results in a “performance- efficacy cycle” that may account for our ability to cope with increasingly difficult problems: you wipe out a small problem, successfully coping with it; then you wipe out a somewhat bigger one, and so on. Over time people undergoing such a process increase their confidence in their ability to cope with difficult situations or obstacles, precisely because they continuously prove themselves successful in managing smaller problems. But what if something really big— and negative— suddenly falls on you? What do you do? Where do you draw the confidence in your ability to cope with it? For example, how could I cope with Parkinson’s, a huge prob­lem indeed, without handling smaller problems previously? The answer lies within what I call “backward generalizations.”

In the biblical story of Exodus, Pharaoh (seemingly Ramses II) is described as a demonic opponent of the Jewish people. In 1990, the late Meir Ariel— an Israeli Bob Dylan— released a song in which he lists a series of troubles he undergoes, which increase in their order of difficulty. At the end of each stanza, he repeats: “We survived Pharaoh, we will get through this too!” Over the years, that line became a widespread expres­sion in Israel to describe such “backward generalizations.”

In my case, when coping with Parkinson’s or any other major issues in my life, I generalize backward, considering all of the other serious obstacles I have already overcome in the past. Who or what fills that role which enables me to say to myself: “Miki, you survived Pharaoh, you’ll survive this, too”?

Throughout your working life, you will be faced with increasingly dif­ficult challenges. The concept of backward generalizations, however, can help you handle these obstacles as you think about them in an incremental way. For example, when you find yourself rushing around the office like a madman trying to meet a last- minute deadline, it might be helpful to take a step back. Think about other deadlines you’ve met in the past, those that may have also seemed impossible at the time. Or consider larger issues you’ve faced and overcome— maybe you’ve had the unfortunate experi­ence of being laid off and forced into a new position or even new career. These types of major issues that you’ve successfully tackled will make a deadline seem like child’s play in comparison, a simple task that you know you can complete. If you’ve survived one hurdle, you can survive the next. Keeping the Pharaoh’s principle in mind will keep you on task and confi­dent in your performance.

Featured image credit: “rear-view-of-man-on-mountain-road-against-sky” by Pixabay. CC0 via Pexels.

Recent Comments

  1. Chris Erhi Omoru

    The article is plausibly inspiring and soothing especially with the concept of backward generalisation.

  2. PeterkaW

    Very good article. It is not easy to change the perspective from “I can’t” to “I can”, but it’s worth taking an example from other people who manage it every day.

Comments are closed.