‘I think I can’

When your mind, emotions and activities focus on a goal, and you practice and strengthen self-efficacy, you can achieve the extraordinary.

Little engine (photo credit: Courtesy)
Little engine
(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 you have your eye on a goal, it is not the difficulty of the task itself, but the view we take of it and ourselves that really makes the difference in our ability to persevere.
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 execute the courses of action required to manage situations and tasks. For example, when 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 automobile. 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 drive. If an individual loses his or her confidence for whatever reason when driving, self-efficacy is lowered, and the resulting effect is not to persevere – to avoid driving.
SO HOW exactly does one develop self-efficacy? A woman in her late 20s came to my clinic. After many years of successful employment designing websites for a private company, she wanted to start her own business. The woman had already developed some necessary self-efficacy as a result of her extensive and much appreciated work experience in her field. According to Bandura, mastery experience – that is, confidence about acquired skills – is the most important factor determining a person’s self-efficacy. Simply put, success raises self-efficacy, failure lowers it.
In therapy, this woman was helped to identify that she in fact did have the necessary skills and experience to take what she had already done for someone else and do this on her own. Nevertheless, she was not so confident in her skills to actually develop a business and all that this entailed. Therapy helped her identify friends and colleagues who had developed their own businesses. In fact, she spoke about her best friend, a designer, who was now working independently, and although it had 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 necessary to develop the business side of this goal. As a result, the cognitive attitude that “if they can do it, I can do it as well” was enhanced.
Bandura comments that this attitude derives from what he calls vicarious modeling, using successful “others” as positive role models to maintain self-confidence. The fact that the woman chose her best friend as a model made this behavior very potent.
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. Bandura calls this positive influence social persuasion, and notes its powerful impact on strengthening and maintaining self-efficacy. We can all remember people in our lives who encouraged us to go after our dreams when we were afraid.
DURING MY treatment of this woman, she continuously complained of bodily tension and heavy breathing, and often felt that she was about to have an anxiety attack. There was no doubt that leaving her current job to develop her own business had left her quite scared. It was critical that I help her see that her stress symptoms – heavy breathing, constant butterflies in her stomach, and muscular tension in her shoulders and neck – were physical expressions of normal concerns, rather than what she believed was something catastrophic. A combination of brief cognitive therapy and relaxation exercises helped this client to get her stress symptoms under control and increase her self-efficacy.
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 your mind, emotions and activities focus on a goal, and you practice and strengthen self-efficacy, you can achieve the extraordinary.

The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist practicing in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ra’anana.and can be contacted at [email protected]