All the time she kept saying, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” Up, up, up. The little engine climbed and climbed. At last, she reached the top of the mountain. ~ The Little Engine That Could (American Folklore)

Self-efficacy is a term coined by Albert Bandura (one of my favorite psychologists) back in 1977. It is the “core belief that one has the power to produce desired effects” – in other words, the belief or confidence you have in yourself. Specifically:

  • Do you think you can control your thoughts, feelings and/or behaviors?
  • Do you feel you can influence your environment?
  • Do you believe you can handle difficult problems?
  • Do you have confidence in your abilities?
  • Can you stay motivated to reach your goals?
  • Can you remain calm and/or optimistic even in the face of stress?
  • Can you persevere through difficulties and overcome internal/external obstacles?

When self-efficacy is high, individuals have a sense of curiosity coupled with a commitment to get things done. People with self-efficacy succeed at tasks and goals with minimal guidance, and then proceed to set higher standards for themselves. These individuals understand they have the ability to self-regulate their thoughts, emotions and actions. With this mindset, these same individuals recover quickly from disappointments and/or setbacks and continue towards the goal(s) they have set for themselves. Individuals with moderate self-efficacy have more self-doubt and therefore often make halfhearted attempts to change, they may give up if they run into difficulties, especially without additional support and guidance.

For those with low self-efficacy, the world is a place run by chance and beyond their personal control (for more on this look at the Locus of Control post). Without an internal locus of control, Bandura maintained, individuals do not possess the ability to regulate their thoughts, emotions or behaviors. As a result, these individuals often struggle with ineffective or incompetent belief systems, causing them to become preoccupied with themselves and negatively emotionally aroused. Their faulty cognitive beliefs (“My efforts are in vain”, I’m dumb”, “I’ve failed before”, “I won’t succeed anyway”, etc.) and negative emotions minimize successes and heighten failures. For this reason, motivation to do well is low, and challenging tasks are often avoided.  If the individual does endeavor to make positive life changes, they quickly lose their confidence in their abilities once obstacles arise.

Bandura made an important discovery here. His research indicated a person’s self-efficacy was dependent on the context (or what he called domains). For instance, you may have a high degree of self-efficacy when it comes to academics, medium self-efficacy while at work but low-self-efficacy with regards to relationships (or sports, health, nutrition etc.). Your overall sense of self-efficacy began being formed in childhood, but it will continue to develop through your life. Rarely does someone have self-efficacy across all domains. If you feel your self-efficacy could use a boost in one or more areas try the following:

  • Task Mastery. Bandura’s research shows the most effective way to strengthen your sense of self-efficacy is to master a task, which means you must try. It’s difficult to begin, but some tips to enhance your chances of success include: being well-informed about the task at hand, setting small, realistic goals (early success leads to later success) and tracking even small changes.
  • Social Modeling. Watching another person (especially someone you feel is like you) work towards goals and succeed also helps; if you see a change in someone else, you can perceive it in yourself.
  • Social Persuasion. Having someone monitor your behavior(s) and give regular, positive feedback is very helpful. It is important to pick the right person – they must be someone you respect and who will be encouraging – negative feedback at this stage can be quite detrimental. This person can also help you manage obstacles, whether they are internal (poor self-talk, low motivation etc.) or external (finances, lack of time or money etc.). If your original goals were too lofty, together you can set new ones.
  • Managing psychological responses. Monitoring your emotional states is critical when attempting something new. It’s so important to choose to think in self-enhancing vs. self-debilitating ways – the former promotes the positive behavior you are seeking. The more positive your attitude the more likely you are to have staying power in the face of difficulties or disappointments.

Bottom line, your belief in yourself matters – a lot! Self-efficacy impacts your overall feeling of well-being; the more you believe in yourself the higher your self-esteem (i.e., how much you value and respect yourself) will be. Whether it is developing new competencies or making better choices, working to enhance your self-efficacy in an area where self-doubt prevails helps you develop coping mechanisms to deal with difficulties and challenges effectively. Do yourself a favor, make a bet on yourself and then follow through – you’re worth it and you can do it!