(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of my favorite childhood stories, which I used to read to my kids when they
were small, was The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper.
The story of
the little engine has been told and retold many times. The underlying theme,
however, is the same.
A stranded train is unable to find an engine
willing to take it over difficult terrain to its destination; only a little blue
engine is willing to try. While repeating the mantra “I think I can, I think I
can,” the engine overcomes a seemingly impossible task and assists the other
train cars up and over the mountain. Once this has been achieved, the small blue
engine goes on its way, singing “I knew I could, I knew I could, I knew I
could,” glowing with pride and well-earned confidence.
What I especially
like about the story is its powerful message for young children: When
your eye on a goal, it is not the difficulty of the task itself, but the
take of it and ourselves that really makes the difference in our ability
A central component of perseverance is a psychological
mechanism called self-efficacy, a cognitive construct defined by social
scientist Albert Bandura as a belief that one has the capabilities to
the courses of action required to manage situations and tasks. For
a young person learns how to drive, he or she takes driving lessons and
gradually builds up the skills and confidence necessary to drive an
Of course, the more success an individual has driving in all types of
situations, the more self-efficacy, and the more confidence one has to
an individual loses his or her confidence for whatever reason when
self-efficacy is lowered, and the resulting effect is not to persevere –
SO HOW exactly does one develop self-efficacy? A woman in
her late 20s came to my clinic. After many years of successful
designing websites for a private company, she wanted to start her own
The woman had already developed some necessary self-efficacy as a result
extensive and much appreciated work experience in her field. According
Bandura, mastery experience – that is, confidence about acquired skills –
most important factor determining a person’s self-efficacy. Simply put,
raises self-efficacy, failure lowers it.
In therapy, this woman was
helped to identify that she in fact did have the necessary skills and
to take what she had already done for someone else and do this on her
Nevertheless, she was not so confident in her skills to actually develop
business and all that this entailed. Therapy helped her identify friends
colleagues who had developed their own businesses. In fact, she spoke
best friend, a designer, who was now working independently, and although
taken a significant amount of time, the friend was succeeding. She was
encouraged to speak to her friend and get advice on what steps were
develop the business side of this goal. As a result, the cognitive
“if they can do it, I can do it as well” was enhanced.
that this attitude derives from what he calls vicarious modeling, using
successful “others” as positive role models to maintain self-confidence.
fact that the woman chose her best friend as a model made this behavior
As therapy proceeded, the woman told me that her best friend also
gave her a lot of encouragement and support and told her not to be
afraid to go
after her goal. I reinforced this message in our sessions as well.
this positive influence social persuasion, and notes its powerful impact
strengthening and maintaining self-efficacy. We can all remember people
lives who encouraged us to go after our dreams when we were
DURING MY treatment of this woman, she continuously complained of
bodily tension and heavy breathing, and often felt that she was about to
anxiety attack. There was no doubt that leaving her current job to
own business had left her quite scared. It was critical that I help her
her stress symptoms – heavy breathing, constant butterflies in her
muscular tension in her shoulders and neck – were physical expressions
concerns, rather than what she believed was something catastrophic. A
combination of brief cognitive therapy and relaxation exercises helped
client to get her stress symptoms under control and increase her
Like the little blue engine, this young woman was able to
pursue her dream and say to herself, “I know I can, I know I can.” When
mind, emotions and activities focus on a goal, and you practice and
self-efficacy, you can achieve the extraordinary.
The writer is a
marital, child and adult psychotherapist practicing in Jerusalem, Tel
Ra’anana.and can be contacted at email@example.com.