RELATIONSHIPS: MINDSETS IN LOVE (OR NOT)
What was that about the course of true love never running smooth? Well, the course to true love isn’t so smooth, either. That path is often strewn with disappointments and heartbreaks. Some people let these experiences scar them and prevent them from forming satisfying relationships in the future. Others are able to heal and move on. What separates them? To find out, we recruited more than a hundred people and asked them to tell us about a terrible rejection.
When I first got to New York I was incredibly lonely. I didn’t know a soul and I totally felt like I didn’t belong here. After about a year of misery I met Jack. It’s almost an understatement to say that we clicked instantly, we felt like we had known each other forever. It wasn’t long before we were living together and doing everything together. I thought I would spend my whole life with him and he said he felt the same way. Two really happy years passed. Then one day I came home and found a note. He said he had to leave, don’t try to find him. He didn’t even sign it love. I never heard from him again. Sometimes when the phone rings I still think maybe it’s him.
We heard a variation of that story over and over again. People with both mindsets told stories like this. Almost everyone, at one time or another, had been in love and had been hurt. What differed—and differed dramatically—was how they dealt with it.
After they told their stories, we asked them follow-up questions: What did this mean to you? How did you handle it? What were you hoping for?
When people had the fixed mindset, they felt judged and labeled by the rejection. Permanently labeled. It was as though a verdict had been handed down and branded on their foreheads: UNLOVABLE! And they lashed out.
Because the fixed mindset gives them no recipe for healing their wound, all they could do was hope to wound the person who inflicted it. Lydia, the woman in the story above, told us that she had lasting, intense feelings of bitterness: “I would get back at him, hurt him any way I could if I got the chance. He deserves it.”
In fact, for people with the fixed mindset, their number one goal came through loud and clear. Revenge. As one man put it, “She took my worth with her when she left. Not a day goes by I don’t think about how to make her pay.” During the study, I asked one of my fixed-mindset friends about her divorce. I’ll never forget what she said. “If I had to choose between me being happy and him being miserable, I would definitely want him to be miserable.”
It had to be a person with the fixed mindset who coined the phrase “Revenge is sweet”—the idea that with revenge comes your redemption—because people with the growth mindset have little taste for it. The stories they told were every bit as wrenching, but their reactions couldn’t have been more different.
For them, it was about understanding, forgiving, and moving on. Although they were often deeply hurt by what happened, they wanted to learn from it: “That relationship and how it ended really taught me the importance of communicating. I used to think love conquers all, but now I know it needs a lot of help.” This same man went on to say, “I also learned something about who’s right for me. I guess every relationship teaches you more about who’s right for you.”
There is a French expression: “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” To understand all is to forgive all. Of course, this can be carried too far, but it’s a good place to start. For people with the growth mindset, the number one goal was forgiveness. As one woman said: “I’m no saint, but I knew for my own peace of mind that I had to forgive and forget. He hurt me but I had a whole life waiting for me and I’ll be damned if I was going to live it in the past. One day I just said, ‘Good luck to him and good luck to me.’”
Because of their growth mindset, they did not feel permanently branded. Because of it, they tried to learn something useful about themselves and relationships, something they could use toward having a better experience in the future. And they knew how to move on and embrace that future.
My cousin Cathy embodies the growth mindset. Several years ago, after twenty-three years of marriage, her husband left her. Then, to add insult to injury, she was in an accident and hurt her leg. There she sat, home alone one Saturday night, when she said to herself, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and feel sorry for myself!” (Perhaps this phrase should be the mantra of the growth mindset.) Out she went to a dance (leg and all) where she met her future husband.
The Contos family had pulled out all the stops. Nicole Contos, in her exquisite wedding dress, arrived at the church in a Rolls-Royce. The archbishop was inside waiting to perform the ceremony, and hundreds of friends and relatives from all over the world were in attendance. Everything was perfect until the best man went over to Nicole and told her the news. The groom would not be coming. Can you imagine the shock, the pain?
The family, thinking of the hundreds of guests, decided to go through with the reception and dinner. Then, rallying around Nicole, they asked her what she wanted to do. In an act of great courage, she changed into a little black dress, went to the party, and danced solo to “I Will Survive.” It was not the dance she had anticipated, but it was one that made her an icon of gutsiness in the national press the next day. Nicole was like the football player who ran the wrong way. Here was an event that could have defined and diminished her. Instead it was one that enlarged her.
It’s interesting. Nicole spoke repeatedly about the pain and trauma of being stood up at her wedding, but she never used the word humiliated. If she had judged herself, felt flawed and unworthy—humiliated—she would have run and hidden. Instead, her good clean pain made her able to surround herself with the love of her friends and relatives and begin the healing process.
What, by the way, had happened to the groom? As it turned out, he had gone on the honeymoon, flying off to Tahiti on his own. What happened to Nicole? A couple of years later, in the same wedding dress and the same church, she married a great guy. Was she scared? No, she says: “I knew he was going to be there.”
When you think about how rejection wounds and inflames people with the fixed mindset, it will come as no surprise that kids with the fixed mindset are the ones who react to taunting and bullying with thoughts of violent retaliation. I’ll return to this later.
RELATIONSHIPS ARE DIFFERENT
In his study of gifted people, Benjamin Bloom included concert pianists, sculptors, Olympic swimmers, tennis players, mathematicians, and research neurologists. But not people who were gifted in interpersonal relationships. He planned to. After all, there are so many professions in which interpersonal skills play a key role—teachers, psychologists, administrators, diplomats. But no matter how hard Bloom tried, he couldn’t find any agreed-upon way of measuring social ability.
Sometimes we’re not even sure it’s an ability. When we see people with outstanding interpersonal skills, we don’t really think of them as gifted. We think of them as cool people or charming people. When we see a great marriage relationship, we don’t say these people are brilliant relationship makers. We say they’re fine people. Or they have chemistry. Meaning what?
Meaning that as a society, we don’t understand relationship skills. Yet everything is at stake in people’s relationships. Maybe that’s why Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence struck such a responsive chord. It said: There are social-emotional skills and I can tell you what they are.
Mindsets add another dimension. They help us understand even more about why people often don’t learn the skills they need or use the skills they have. Why people throw themselves so hopefully into new relationships, only to undermine themselves. Why love often turns into a battlefield where the carnage is staggering. And, most important, they help us understand why some people are able to build lasting and satisfying relationships.
MINDSETS FALLING IN LOVE
So far, having a fixed mindset has meant believing your personal traits are fixed. But in relationships, two more things enter the picture—your partner and the relationship itself. Now you can have a fixed mindset about three things. You can believe that your qualities are fixed, your partner’s qualities are fixed, and the relationship’s qualities are fixed—that it’s inherently good or bad, meant-to-be or not meant-to-be. Now all of these things are up for judgment.
The growth mindset says all of these things can be developed. All—you, your partner, and the relationship—are capable of growth and change.
In the fixed mindset, the ideal is instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility. Like it was meant to be. Like riding off into the sunset. Like “they lived happily ever after.”
Many people want to feel their relationship is special and not just some chance occurrence. This seems okay. So what’s the problem with the fixed mindset? There are two.
1. If You Have to Work at It, It Wasn’t Meant to Be
One problem is that people with the fixed mindset expect everything good to happen automatically. It’s not that the partners will work to help each other solve their problems or gain skills. It’s that this will magically occur through their love, sort of the way it happened to Sleeping Beauty, whose coma was cured by her prince’s kiss, or to Cinderella, whose miserable life was suddenly transformed by her prince.
Charlene’s friends told her about Max, the new musician in town. He had come to play cello with the symphony orchestra. The next night, Charlene and her friends went to see the orchestra’s performance, and when they went backstage afterward, Max took Charlene’s hand and said, “Next time, let’s make it longer.” She was taken with his intense, romantic air, and he was taken with her charming manner and exotic looks. As they went out, the intensity grew. They seemed to understand each other deeply. They enjoyed the same things—food, analyzing people, travel. They both thought, Where have you been all my life?
Over time, though, Max became moody. Actually, that’s how he was. It just didn’t show at first. When he was in a bad mood, he wanted to be left alone. Charlene wanted to talk about what was bothering him, but that irritated him. “Just leave me alone,” he would insist, more and more forcefully. Charlene, however, would feel shut out.
Plus, his moods didn’t always happen at convenient times. Sometimes the couple was scheduled to go out. Sometimes they had planned a special dinner alone. Either he didn’t want to do it, or she would endure his sullen silence throughout the evening. If she tried to make light conversation, he would be disappointed in her: “I thought you understood me.”
Friends, seeing how much they cared about each other, urged them to work on this problem. But they both felt, with great sorrow, that if the relationship were the right one, they wouldn’t have to work so hard. If it were the right relationship, they would just be able to understand and honor each other’s needs. So they grew apart and eventually broke up.
In the growth mindset, there may still be that exciting initial combustion, but people in this mindset don’t expect magic. They believe that a good, lasting relationship comes from effort and from working through inevitable differences.
But those with the fixed mindset don’t buy that. Remember the fixed-mindset idea that if you have ability, you shouldn’t have to work hard? This is the same belief applied to relationships: If you’re compatible, everything should just come naturally.
Every single relationship expert disagrees with this.
Aaron Beck, noted marriage authority, says that one of the most destructive beliefs for a relationship is “If we need to work at it, there’s something seriously wrong with our relationship.”
Says John Gottman, a foremost relationship researcher: “Every marriage demands an effort to keep it on the right track; there is a constant tension . . . between the forces that hold you together and those that can tear you apart.”
As with personal achievement, this belief—that success should not need effort—robs people of the very thing they need to make their relationship thrive. It’s probably why so many relationships go stale—because people believe that being in love means never having to do anything taxing.
Part of the low-effort belief is the idea that couples should be able to read each other’s minds: We are like one. My partner should know what I think, feel, and need and I should know what my partner thinks, feels, and needs. But this is impossible. Mind reading instead of communicating inevitably backfires.
Elayne Savage, noted family psychologist, describes Tom and Lucy. After three months together, Tom informed Lucy that there was an imbalance in their relationship. Lucy, reading his mind, decided Tom meant that he was less into the relationship than she was. She felt discouraged. Should she break off the relationship before he did? However, after a therapy session, Lucy got up the courage to find out what he meant. Tom, it turned out, had been using a musical term to convey his wish to fine-tune the relationship and move it to the next level.
I almost fell into the same trap. My husband and I had met a few months before, and everything seemed to be going great. Then one evening, as we were sitting together, he said to me, “I need more space.” Everything went blank. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was I completely mistaken about the relationship? Finally, I summoned my courage. “What do you mean?” I asked. He said, “I need you to move over so I can have more room.” I’m glad I asked.
AGREEING ON EVERYTHING
It’s strange to believe in mind reading. But it makes sense when you realize that many people with a fixed mindset believe that a couple should share all of each other’s views.
If you do, then you don’t need communication; you can just assume your partner sees things the way you do.
Raymond Knee and his colleagues had couples come in and discuss their views of their relationship. Those with the fixed mindset felt threatened and hostile after talking about even minor discrepancies in how they and their partner saw their relationship. Even a minor discrepancy threatened their belief that they shared all of each other’s views.
It’s impossible for a couple to share all of each other’s assumptions and expectations. One may assume the wife will stop working and be supported; the other, that she will be an equal breadwinner. One may assume they will have a house in the suburbs, the other that they will have a bohemian love nest.
Michael and Robin had just finished college and were about to get married. He was the bohemian-love-nest type. He imagined that after they were married, they’d enjoy the young, hip Greenwich Village life together. So when he found the ideal apartment, he thought she’d be delighted. When she saw it, she went berserk. She’d been living in crummy little apartments all her life, and here it was all over again. Married people were supposed to live in nice houses with new cars parked outside. They both felt betrayed, and it didn’t get any better from there.
Couples may erroneously believe they agree on each person’s rights and duties. Fill in the blank:
“As a husband, I have a right to , and my wife has the duty to .”
“As a wife, I have a right to , and my husband has the duty to .”
Few things can make partners more furious than having their rights violated. And few things can make a partner more furious than having the other feel entitled to something you don’t think is coming to them.
John Gottman reports: “I’ve interviewed newlywed men who told me with pride, ‘I’m not going to wash the dishes, no way. That’s a woman’s job.’ Two years later the same guys ask me, ‘Why don’t my wife and I have sex anymore?’”
Now, a couple may agree on traditional roles. That’s up to them. But that’s different from assuming it as an entitlement.
When Janet (a financial analyst) and Phil (a real estate agent) met, he had just gotten a new apartment and was thinking he’d like to have a housewarming party, a dinner for a bunch of his friends. When Janet said, “Let’s do it,” he was thrilled. Her emphasis was on the “’s,” the us. Because she was the more experienced cook and party giver, however, she did most of the preparation, and she did it gladly. She was delighted to see how happy he was to be having this event. The problem started after the guests arrived. Phil just went to the party. He acted like a guest. Like she was supposed to continue doing all the work. She was enraged.
The mature thing to do would have been to take him aside to have a discussion. Instead, she decided to teach him a lesson. She, too, went to the party. Fortunately, entitlement and retaliation did not become a pattern in their relationship. Communication did. In the future, things were discussed, not assumed.
A no-effort relationship is a doomed relationship, not a great relationship. It takes work to communicate accurately and it takes work to expose and resolve conflicting hopes and beliefs. It doesn’t mean there is no “they lived happily ever after,” but it’s more like “they worked happily ever after.”
2. Problems Indicate Character Flaws
The second big difficulty with the fixed mindset is the belief that problems are a sign of deep-seated flaws. But just as there are no great achievements without setbacks, there are no great relationships without conflicts and problems along the way.
When people with a fixed mindset talk about their conflicts, they assign blame. Sometimes they blame themselves, but often they blame their partner. And they assign blame to a trait—a character flaw.
But it doesn’t end there. When people blame their partner’s personality for the problem, they feel anger and disgust toward them.
And it barrels on: Since the problem comes from fixed traits, it can’t be solved.
So once people with the fixed mindset see flaws in their partners, they become contemptuous of them and dissatisfied with the whole relationship. (People with the growth mindset, on the other hand, can see their partners’ imperfections and still think they have a fine relationship.)
Sometimes people with the fixed mindset blind themselves to problems in the partner or the relationship so they won’t have to go that route.
Everybody thought Yvonne was having a flirtation. She was getting mysterious phone calls. She was often late picking up the kids. Her “nights out with the girls” doubled. Her mind was often elsewhere. Her husband, Charlie, said she was just going through a phase. “All women go through times like this,” he insisted. “It doesn’t mean she’s got a guy.”
Charlie’s best friend urged him to look into it. But Charlie felt that if he confronted the reality—and it was negative—his world would come crashing down. In the fixed mindset, he’d have to confront the idea that either (1) the woman he loved was a bad person, (2) he was a bad person and drove her away, or (3) their relationship was bad and irreparable.
He couldn’t handle any of those. It didn’t occur to him that there were problems that could be solved, that she was sending him a message she desperately wanted him to hear: Don’t take me for granted. I need more attention.
A growth mindset doesn’t mean he would necessarily confront her, but he would confront it—the situation. He’d think about what was wrong. Maybe explore the issue with a counselor. Make an informed decision about what to do next. If there were problems to be solved, at least there’d be a chance.
EACH ONE A LOSER
Penelope’s friends sat at home complaining that there were no good men. Penelope went out and found them. Each time, she would find a great guy and fall head over heels. “He’s the one,” she’d tell her friends as she began reading the bridal magazines and practically writing the announcement for the local paper. They’d believe her because he was always a guy with a lot going for him.
But then something would happen. It was over for one of them when he got her a tacky birthday present. Another put ketchup on his food and sometimes wore white shoes. Another had bad electronic habits: His cell phone etiquette was poor and he watched too much TV. And this is only a partial list.
Assuming traits were fixed, Penelope would decide that she couldn’t live with these flaws. But most of these were not deep or serious character problems that couldn’t be addressed with a little communication.
My husband and I had been together almost a year and, as my birthday approached, I sent a clear message: “I’m not mercenary, but I like a good present.” He said, “Isn’t it the thought that counts?” I replied, “That’s what people say when they don’t want to put thought into it.
“Once a year,” I continued, “we each have our day. I love you and I plan to put time and effort into choosing a present for you. I would like you to do that for me, too.” He’s never let me down.
Penelope assumed that somewhere out there was someone who was already perfect. Relationship expert Daniel Wile says that choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems. There are no problem-free candidates. The trick is to acknowledge each other’s limitations, and build from there.
THE FLAWS FLY
Brenda and Jack were clients of Daniel Wile, and he tells this tale. Brenda came home from work and told Jack a long, detailed story with no apparent point. Jack was bored to tears but tried to hide it to be polite. Brenda, however, could sense his true feelings, so, hoping to be more amusing, she launched into another endless story, also about a project at work. Jack was ready to burst. They were both mentally hurling traits right and left. According to Wile, they were both thinking: Brenda is boring, Jack is selfish, and our relationship is no good.
In fact, both meant well. Brenda was afraid to say outright that she did some great work at the office that day. She didn’t want to be boastful. So instead she talked about the tiny details of her project. Jack didn’t want to be impolite, so instead of asking Brenda questions or expressing his puzzlement, he steeled himself and waited for her story to end.
Jack just needed to say, “You know, honey, when you get into so many details, I lose your point and get frustrated. Why don’t you tell me why you’re excited about this project? I’d really love to hear that.”
It was a problem of communication, not a problem of personality or character. Yet in the fixed mindset, the blame came fast and furious.
By the way, I love these stories. When I was a kid, Reader’s Digest used to have a feature in each issue called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Usually, the answer was yes. I ate up those stories, fascinated by all the ways a marriage could go wrong and even more fascinated by how it could be repaired.
The story of Ted and Karen, told by Aaron Beck, is a story of how two people with the fixed mindset went from all good traits to all bad ones in each other’s eyes.
When Ted and Karen met, they were opposites attracting. Karen radiated spontaneity and lightness. Ted, a serious guy with the weight of the world on his shoulders, felt that her carefree presence transformed his life. “Everything she says and does is charming,” he effused. In turn, Ted represented the rock-like “father figure” she had never had. He was just the kind of stable, reliable guy who could give her a sense of security.
But a few short years later, Ted saw Karen as an irresponsible airhead. “She never takes anything seriously . . . I can’t depend on her.” And Karen saw Ted as a judgmental tyrant, dissecting her every move.
In the end, this marriage was saved—only because the couple learned to respond to each other not with angry labels, but with helpful actions. One day, when Karen was swamped with work, Ted came home to a messy house. He was angry and wanted to scold her, but, drawing on what he’d learned from Beck, he instead said to himself, “What is the mature thing to do?” He answered his own question by starting to clean things up. He was offering Karen support rather than judgment.
CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?
Aaron Beck tells couples in counseling never to think these fixed-mindset thoughts: My partner is incapable of change. Nothing can improve our relationship. These ideas, he says, are almost always wrong.
Sometimes it’s hard not to think those thoughts—as in the case of Bill and Hillary Clinton. When he was president, Clinton lied to the nation and to his wife about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Hillary defended him: “My husband may have his faults, but he has never lied to me.”
The truth came out, as it has a way of doing, especially when helped by a special prosecutor. Hillary, betrayed and furious, now had to decide whether Bill was a permanently bad and untrustworthy husband or a man who needed a lot of help.
This is a good time to bring up an important point: The belief that partners have the potential for change should not be confused with the belief that the partner will change. The partner has to want to change, commit to change, and take concrete actions toward change.
The Clintons went into counseling, spending one full day a week for a year in the process. Through counseling, Bill came to understand how, as the child of alcoholic parents, he had learned to lead a dual life. On the one hand, he’d learned to shoulder excessive responsibility at an early age—for example, as a boy sternly forbidding his stepfather to strike his mother. On the other hand, he had another part of his life where he took little responsibility, where he made believe everything was okay no matter what was going on. That’s how he could appear on TV and earnestly vow that he was not involved with Lewinsky. He was in that no-responsibility and high-denial space.
People were urging Hillary to forgive him. One evening, Stevie Wonder called the White House to ask if he could come over. He had written a song for her on the power of forgiveness, and he played it to her that night.
Yet Hillary could not have forgiven a person she saw as a liar and a cheat. She could only forgive a man she thought was earnestly struggling with his problems and trying to grow.
THE PARTNER AS ENEMY
With the fixed mindset, one moment your partner is the light of your life, the next they’re your adversary. Why would people want to transform the loved one into an enemy?
When you fail at other tasks, it’s hard to keep blaming someone else. But when something goes wrong in a relationship, it’s easy to blame someone else. In fact, in the fixed mindset you have a limited set of choices. One is to blame your own permanent qualities. And one is to blame your partner’s. You can see how tempting it is to foist the blame onto the other guy.
As a legacy of my fixed mindset, I still have an irresistible urge to defend myself and assign blame when something in a relationship goes wrong. “It’s not my fault!” To deal with this bad habit, my husband and I invented a third party, an imaginary man named Maurice. Whenever I start in on who’s to blame, we invoke poor Maurice and pin it on him.
Remember how hard it is for people with the fixed mindset to forgive? Part of it is that they feel branded by a rejection or breakup. But another part is that if they forgive the partner, if they see him or her as a decent person, then they have to shoulder more of the blame themselves: If my partner’s a good guy, then I must be a bad guy. I must be the person who was at fault.
The same thing can happen with parents. If you have a troubled relationship with a parent, whose fault is it? If your parents didn’t love you enough, were they bad parents or were you unlovable? These are the ugly questions that haunt us within a fixed mindset. Is there a way out?
I had this very dilemma. My mother didn’t love me. Most of my life I’d coped with this by blaming her and feeling bitter. But I was no longer satisfied just protecting myself. I longed for a loving relationship with my mother. Yet the last thing I wanted to be was one of those kids who begged for approval from a withholding parent. Then I realized something. I controlled half of the relationship, my half. I could have my half of the relationship. At least I could be the loving daughter I wanted to be. In a sense, it didn’t matter what she did. I would still be ahead of where I was.
How did it turn out? I experienced a tremendous sense of growth letting go of my bitterness and stepping forward to have the relationship. The rest is not really relevant since I wasn’t seeking validation, but I’ll tell you anyway. Something unexpected happened. Three years later, my mother said to me: “If anyone had told me I didn’t love my children, I would have been insulted. But now I realize it was true. Whether it was because my parents didn’t love us or because I was too involved in myself or because I didn’t know what love was, I don’t know. But now I know what it is.”
From that time until her death twenty-five years later, we became closer and closer. As lively as each of us was, we came even more to life in each other’s presence. Once, a few years ago, after she’d had a stroke, the doctors warned me she couldn’t speak and might never speak again. I walked into her room, she looked at me and said, “Carol, I love your outfit.”
What allowed me to take that first step, to choose growth and risk rejection? In the fixed mindset, I had needed my blame and bitterness. It made me feel more righteous, powerful, and whole than thinking I was at fault. The growth mindset allowed me to give up the blame and move on. The growth mindset gave me a mother.
I remember when we were kids and did something dumb, like drop our ice-cream cone on our foot, we’d turn to our friend and say “Look what you made me do.” Blame may make you feel less foolish, but you still have a shoe full of ice cream—and a friend who’s on the defensive. In a relationship, the growth mindset lets you rise above blame, understand the problem, and try to fix it—together.
COMPETITION: WHO’S THE GREATEST?
In the fixed mindset, where you’ve got to keep proving your competence, it’s easy to get into a competition with your partner. Who’s the smarter, more talented, more likable one?
Susan had a boyfriend who worried that she would be the center of attention and he would be the tagalong. If she were someone, he would be no one. But Martin was far from no one. He was very successful, even revered, in his field. He was handsome and well liked, too. So at first Susan pooh-poohed the whole thing. Then they attended a conference together. They’d arrived separately and, in checking in, Susan had chatted with the friendly hotel staff in the lobby. That evening when the couple walked through the lobby, the whole staff greeted her warmly. Martin grunted. Next, they took a taxi to dinner. Toward the end of the ride, the driver started singing her praises: “You better hold on to her. Yes, sir, she’s a good one.” Martin winced. The whole weekend continued in this vein, and by the time they got home from the conference their relationship was very strained.
Martin wasn’t actively competitive. He didn’t try to outdo Susan, he just lamented her seemingly greater popularity. But some partners throw their hats right into the ring.
Cynthia, a scientist, was amazing at almost everything she did—so much so that she left her partners in the dust. That might have been all right if she didn’t always venture into their territory. She married an actor, and then started writing plays and acting in them—superbly. She said she was just trying to share his life and his interests, but her part-time hobby outshone his career. He felt he had to escape from the relationship to find himself again. Next, she married a musician who was a great cook, and in no time flat she was tickling the ivories and inventing unbelievable recipes. Once again, the depressed husband eventually fled. Cynthia left her partners no room for their own identity; she needed to equal or surpass them in every skill they arrived with.
There are many good ways to support our partners or show interest in their lives. This is not one of them.
DEVELOPING IN RELATIONSHIPS
When people embark on a relationship, they encounter a partner who is different from them, and they haven’t learned how to deal with the differences. In a good relationship, people develop these skills and, as they do, both partners grow and the relationship deepens. But for this to happen, people need to feel they’re on the same side.
Laura was lucky. She could be self-centered and defensive. She could yell and pout. But James never took it personally and always felt that she was there for him when he needed her. So when she lashed out, he calmed her down and made her talk things through with him. Over time, she learned to skip the yelling and pouting.
As an atmosphere of trust developed, they became vitally interested in each other’s development. James was forming a corporation, and Laura spent hours with him discussing his plans and some of the problems he was encountering. Laura had always dreamed of writing children’s books. James got her to spell out her ideas and write a first draft. He urged her to contact someone they knew who was an illustrator. In the context of this relationship, each partner was helping the other to do the things they wanted to do and become the person they wanted to be.
Not long ago, I was talking to a friend about the view some people hold of childrearing—that parents make little difference. In explaining that view, she likened it to a marriage relationship: “It’s like partners in a marriage. Each comes to the relationship fully formed, and you don’t expect to influence who the partner is.”
“Oh no,” I replied. “To me the whole point of marriage is to encourage your partner’s development and have them encourage yours.”
By that I didn’t mean a My Fair Lady kind of thing where you attempt an extreme makeover on partners, who then feel they aren’t good enough as they are. I mean helping partners, within the relationship, to reach their own goals and fulfill their own potential. This is the growth mindset in action.
Friendships, like partnerships, are places where we have a chance to enhance each other’s development, and to validate each other. Both are important. Friends can give each other the wisdom and courage to make growth-enhancing decisions, and friends can reassure each other of their fine qualities. Despite the dangers of praising traits, there are times when we need reassurance about ourselves: “Tell me I’m not a bad person for breaking up with my boyfriend.” “Tell me I’m not stupid even though I bombed on the exam.”
In fact, these occasions give us a chance to provide support and give a growth message: “You gave that relationship everything you had for three years and he made no effort to improve things. I think you’re right to move on.” Or “What happened on that exam? Do you understand the material? Did you study enough? Do you think you need a tutor? Let’s talk about it.”
But as in all relationships, people’s need to prove themselves can tilt the balance in the wrong direction. Sheri Levy did a study that was not about friendship, but makes an important and relevant point.
Levy measured adolescent boys’ self-esteem and then asked them how much they believed in negative stereotypes about girls. For example, how much did they believe that girls were worse in math or that girls were less rational than boys? She then measured their self-esteem again.
Boys who believed in the fixed mindset showed a boost in self-esteem when they endorsed the stereotypes. Thinking that girls were dumber and more scatterbrained made them feel better about themselves. (Boys with the growth mindset were less likely to agree with the stereotypes, but even when they did, it did not give them an ego boost.)
This mentality can intrude on friendships. The lower you are, the better I feel is the idea.
One day I was talking to a dear, wise friend. I was puzzled about why she put up with the behavior of some of her friends. Actually, I was puzzled about why she even had these friends. One often acted irresponsibly; another flirted shamelessly with her husband. Her answer was that everyone has virtues and foibles, and that, really, if you looked only for perfect people, your social circle would be impoverished. There was, however, one thing she would not put up with: People who made her feel bad about herself.
We all know these people. They can be brilliant, charming, and fun, but after being with them, you feel diminished. You may ask: “Am I just doing a number on myself?” But it is often them, trying to build themselves up by establishing their superiority and your inferiority. It could be by actively putting you down, or it could be by the careless way they treat you. Either way, you are a vehicle for (and a casualty of) confirming their worth.
I was at a friend’s fiftieth-birthday party and her sister gave a speech, supposedly in her honor. Her sister talked about my friend’s insatiable sexual appetite and how lucky it was she found a younger man to marry who could handle it. “All in good fun,” she took care of my friend’s looks, brains, and mothering skills. After this tribute, I suddenly recalled the saying “With friends like this, you don’t need enemies.”
It’s difficult to realize when friends don’t wish you well. One night I had the most vivid dream. Someone, someone I knew well, came into my house and one by one took all my prized possessions. In the dream I could see what was happening, but I couldn’t see who it was. At one point, I asked the intruder: “Couldn’t you please leave that one, it means a lot to me.” But the person just kept taking everything of value. The next morning I realized who it was and what it meant. For the past year a close friend had been calling upon me constantly to help him with his work. I obliged. He was under a great deal of stress, and I was at first happy to use whatever skills I had for his benefit. But it was endless, it was not reciprocal, and on top of that he punished me for it: “Don’t think you could ever do work this good. You can help me polish my work, but you could never be this creative.” He needed to reduce me so he wouldn’t feel one down. My dream told me it was time to draw the line.
I’m afraid that in the fixed mindset, I was also a culprit. I don’t think I put people down, but when you need validation, you use people for it. One time, when I was a graduate student, I was taking the train to New York and sat next to a very nice businessman. In my opinion, we chatted back and forth pleasantly through the hour-and-a-half journey, but at the end he said to me, “Thank you for telling me about yourself.” It really hit me. He was the dream validator—handsome, intelligent, successful. And that’s what I had used him for. I had shown no interest in him as a person, only in him as a mirror of my excellence. Luckily for me, what he mirrored back was a far more valuable lesson.
Conventional wisdom says that you know who your friends are in your times of need. And of course this view has merit. Who will stand by you day after day when you’re in trouble? However, sometimes an even tougher question is: Who can you turn to when good things happen? When you find a wonderful partner. When you get a great job offer or promotion. When your child does well. Who would be glad to hear it?
Your failures and misfortunes don’t threaten other people’s self-esteem. Ego-wise, it’s easy to be sympathetic to someone in need. It’s your assets and your successes that are problems for people who derive their self-esteem from being superior.
In some ways, shyness is the flip side of what we’ve been talking about. We’ve been examining people who use others to buoy themselves up. Shy people worry that others will bring them down. They often worry about being judged or embarrassed in social situations.
People’s shyness can hold them back from making friends and developing relationships. When they’re with new people, shy people report that they feel anxious, their hearts race, they blush, they avoid eye contact, and they may try to end the interaction as soon as possible. Underneath it all, shy people may be wonderful and interesting, but they often can’t show it with someone new. And they know it.
What can mindsets teach us about shyness? Jennifer Beer studied hundreds of people to find out. She measured people’s mindsets, she assessed their shyness, and then she brought them together two at a time to get acquainted. The whole thing was filmed, and, later on, trained raters watched the film and evaluated the interactions.
Beer found, first, that people with the fixed mindset were more likely to be shy. This makes sense. The fixed mindset makes you concerned about judgment, and this can make you more self-conscious and anxious. But there were plenty of shy people with both mindsets, and when she looked at them more closely, she found something even more interesting.
Shyness harmed the social interactions of people with the fixed mindset but did not harm the social relations of people with the growth mindset. The observers’ ratings showed that, although both fixed- and growth-minded shy people looked very nervous for the first five minutes of the interaction, after that the shy growth-minded people showed greater social skills, were more likable, and created a more enjoyable interaction. In fact, they began to look just like non-shy people.
This happened for good reasons. For one thing, the shy growth-minded people looked on social situations as challenges. Even though they felt anxious, they actively welcomed the chance to meet someone new. The shy fixed people, instead, wanted to avoid meeting someone who might be more socially skilled than they were. They said they were more worried about making mistakes. So the fixed- and growth-mindset people confronted the situation with different attitudes. One embraced the challenge and the other feared the risk.
Armed with these different attitudes, the shy growth-mindset people felt less shy and nervous as the interaction wore on, but the shy fixed-mindset people continued to be nervous and continued to do more socially awkward things, like avoiding eye contact or trying to avoid talking.
You can see how these different patterns would affect making friends. The shy growth-mindset people take control of their shyness. They go out and meet new people, and, after their nerves settle down, their relationships proceed normally. The shyness doesn’t tyrannize them.
But for fixed-mindset people, the shyness takes control. It keeps them out of social situations with new people, and when they’re in them, they can’t let down their guard and let go of their fears.
Scott Wetzler, a therapist and professor of psychiatry, paints a portrait of his client George, a picture of the shy fixed-mindset person. George was incredibly shy, especially with women. He was so eager to look cool, witty, and confident—and so worried that he’d look overeager and inept—that he froze and acted cold. When his attractive co-worker Jean started flirting with him, he became so flustered that he began avoiding her. Then one day she approached him in a nearby coffee shop and cutely suggested he ask her to join him. When he couldn’t think of a clever response to impress her, he replied, “It doesn’t matter to me if you sit down or not.”
George, what were you doing? He was trying to protect himself from rejection—by trying not to seem too interested. And he was trying to end this awkward situation. In a strange way, he succeeded. He certainly didn’t seem too interested, and the interaction soon ended, as Jean got out of there real fast. He was just like the people in Jennifer Beer’s study, controlled by his fear of social judgment and prevented from making contact.
Wetzler slowly helped George get over his exclusive focus on being judged. Jean, he came to see, was not out to judge and humiliate him, but was trying to get to know him. With the focus switched from being judged to developing a relationship, George was eventually able to reciprocate. Despite his anxiety, he approached Jean, apologized for his rude behavior, and asked her to lunch. She accepted. What’s more, she was not nearly as critical as he feared.
BULLIES AND VICTIMS: REVENGE REVISITED
We’re back to rejection, because it’s not just in love relationships that people experience terrible rejections. It happens every day in schools. Starting in grade school, some kids are victimized. They are ridiculed, tormented, and beaten up, not for anything they’ve done wrong. It could be for their more timid personality, how they look, what their background is, or how smart they are (sometimes they’re not smart enough; sometimes they’re too smart). It can be a daily occurrence that makes life a nightmare and ushers in years of depression and rage.
To make matters worse, schools often do nothing about it. This is because it’s often done out of sight of teachers or because it’s done by the school’s favorite students, such as the jocks. In this case, it may be the victims, not the bullies, who are considered to be the problem kids or the misfits.
As a society, we’ve paid little attention until recently. Then came the school shootings. At Columbine, the most notorious one, both boys had been mercilessly bullied for years. A fellow bullying victim describes what they endured in their high school.
In the hallways, the jocks would push kids into lockers and call them demeaning names while everyone laughed at the show. At lunch the jocks would knock their victims’ food trays onto the floor, trip them, or pelt them with food. While the victims were eating, they would be pushed down onto the table from behind. Then in the locker rooms before gym class, the bullies would beat the kids up because the teachers weren’t around.
Who Are the Bullies?
Bullying is about judging. It’s about establishing who is more worthy or important. The more powerful kids judge the less powerful kids. They judge them to be less valuable human beings, and they rub their faces in it on a daily basis. And it’s clear what the bullies get out of it. Like the boys in Sheri Levy’s study, they get a boost in self-esteem. It’s not that bullies are low in self-esteem, but judging and demeaning others can give them a self-esteem rush. Bullies also gain social status from their actions. Others may look up to them and judge them to be cool, powerful, or funny. Or may fear them. Either way, they’ve upped their standing.
There’s a big dose of fixed-mindset thinking in the bullies: Some people are superior and some are inferior. And the bullies are the judges. Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, was their perfect target. He had a chest deformity, he was short, he was a computer geek, and he was an outsider, not from Colorado. They judged him mercilessly.
Victims and Revenge
The fixed mindset may also play a role in how the victim reacts to bullying. When people feel deeply judged by a rejection, their impulse is to feel bad about themselves and to lash out in bitterness. They have been cruelly reduced and they wish to reduce in return. In our studies, we have seen perfectly normal people—children and adults—respond to rejection with violent fantasies of revenge.
Highly educated, well-functioning adults, after telling us about a serious rejection or betrayal, say and mean “I wanted him dead” or “I could easily have strangled her.”
When we hear about acts of school violence, we usually think it’s only bad kids from bad homes who could ever take matters into their own hands. But it’s startling how quickly average, everyday kids with a fixed mindset think about violent revenge.
We gave eighth-grade students in one of our favorite schools a scenario about bullying to read. We asked them to imagine it was happening to them.
It is a new school year and things seem to be going pretty well. Suddenly some popular kids start teasing you and calling you names. At first you brush it off—these things happen. But it continues. Every day they follow you, they taunt you, they make fun of what you’re wearing, they make fun of what you look like, they tell you you’re a loser—in front of everybody. Every day.
We then asked them to write about what they would think and what they would do or want to do.
First, the students with the fixed mindset took the incident more personally. They said, “I would think I was a nobody and that nobody likes me.” Or “I would think I was stupid and weird and a misfit.”
Then they wanted violent revenge, saying that they’d explode with rage at them, punch their faces in, or run them over. They strongly agreed with the statement: “My number one goal would be to get revenge.”
They had been judged and they wanted to judge back. That’s what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters, did. They judged back. For a few long, terrible hours, they decided who would live and who would die.
In our study, the students with the growth mindset were not as prone to see the bullying as a reflection of who they were. Instead, they saw it as a psychological problem of the bullies, a way for the bullies to gain status or charge their self-esteem: “I’d think that the reason he is bothering me is probably that he has problems at home or at school with his grades.” Or “They need to get a life—not just feel good if they make me feel bad.”
Their plan was often designed to educate the bullies: “I would really actually talk to them. I would ask them questions (why are they saying all of these things and why are they doing all of this to me).” Or “Confront the person and discuss the issue; I would feel like trying to help them see they are not funny.”
The students with the growth mindset also strongly agreed that: “I would want to forgive them eventually” and “My number one goal would be to help them become better people.”
Whether they’d succeed in personally reforming or educating determined bullies is doubtful. However, these are certainly more constructive first steps than running them over.
Brooks Brown, a classmate of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, was bullied from third grade on. He suffered tremendously, yet he didn’t look for revenge. He rejected the fixed mindset and the right of people to judge others, as in “I am a football player, and therefore I’m better than you.” Or “I am a basketball player . . . pathetic geeks like you are not on my level.”
More than that, he actively embraced a growth mindset. In his own words, “People do have the potential to change.” Even maybe Eric Harris, the more depressed, hostile leader of the shootings. Brown had had a very serious run-in with Eric Harris several years before, but in their senior year of high school, Brown offered a truce. “I told him that I had changed a lot since that year . . . and that I hoped he felt the same way about himself.” Brooks went on to say that if he found that Eric hadn’t changed, he could always pull back. “However, if he had grown up, then why not give him the chance to prove it.”
Brooks hasn’t given up. He still wants to change people. He wants to wake up the world to the problem of bullying, and he wants to reach victims and turn them off their violent fantasies. So he’s worked for the filmmaker Michael Moore on Bowling for Columbine and he’s set up an innovative website where bullied kids can communicate with each other and learn that the answer isn’t to kill. “It’s to use your mind and make things better.”
Brooks, like me, does not see the shooters as people who are a world apart from everyone else. His friend Dylan Klebold, he says, was once a regular kid from a fine home with loving, involved parents. In fact, he warns, “We can just sit back and call the shooters ‘sick monsters, completely different from us.’ . . . Or we can accept that there are more Erics and Dylans out there, who are slowly being driven . . . down the same path.”
Even if a victim doesn’t have a fixed mindset to begin with, prolonged bullying can instill it. Especially if others stand by and do nothing, or even join in. Victims say that when they’re taunted and demeaned and no one comes to their defense, they start to believe they deserve it. They start to judge themselves and to think that they are inferior.
Bullies judge. Victims take it in. Sometimes it remains inside and can lead to depression and suicide. Sometimes it explodes into violence.
What Can Be Done?
Individual children can’t usually stop the bullies, especially when the bullies attract a group of supporters. But the school can—by changing the school mindset.
School cultures often promote, or at least accept, the fixed mindset. They accept that some kids feel superior to others and feel entitled to pick on them. They also consider some kids to be misfits whom they can do little to help.
But some schools have created a dramatic reduction in bullying by fighting the atmosphere of judgment and creating one of collaboration and self-improvement. Stan Davis, a therapist, school counselor, and consultant, has developed an anti-bullying program that works. Building on the work of Dan Olweus, a researcher in Norway, Davis’s program helps bullies change, supports victims, and empowers bystanders to come to a victim’s aid. Within a few years, physical bullying in his school was down 93 percent and teasing was down 53 percent.
Darla, a third grader, was overweight, awkward, and a “crybaby.” She was such a prime target that half of the class bullied her, hitting her and calling her names on a daily basis—and winning one another’s approval for it. Several years later, because of Davis’s program, the bullying had stopped. Darla had learned better social skills and even had friends. Then Darla went to middle school and, after a year, came back to report what had happened. Her classmates from elementary school had seen her through. They’d helped her make friends and protected her from her new peers when they wanted to harass her.
Davis also gets the bullies changing. In fact, some of the kids who rushed to Darla’s support in middle school were the same ones who had bullied her earlier. What Davis does is this. First, while enforcing consistent discipline, he doesn’t judge the bully as a person. No criticism is directed at traits. Instead, he makes them feel liked and welcome at school every day.
Then he praises every step in the right direction. But again, he does not praise the person; he praises their effort. “I notice that you have been staying out of fights. That tells me you are working on getting along with people.” You can see that Davis is leading students directly to the growth mindset. He is helping them see their actions as part of an effort to improve. Even if the change was not intentional on the part of the bullies, they may now try to make it so.
Stan Davis has incorporated our work on praise, criticism, and mindsets into his program, and it has worked. This is a letter I got from him.
Dear Dr. Dweck:
Your research has radically changed the way I work with students. I am already seeing positive results from my own different use of language to give feedback to young people. Next year our whole school is embarking on an initiative to build student motivation based on [growth] feedback.
Haim Ginott, the renowned child psychologist, also shows how teachers can point bullies away from judgment and toward improvement and compassion. Here is a letter from a teacher to an eight-year-old bully in her class. Notice that she doesn’t imply he’s a bad person, and she shows respect by referring to his leadership, by using big words, and by asking for his advice.
Andy’s mother has told me that her son has been made very unhappy this year. Name-calling and ostracism have left him sad and lonely. I feel concerned about the situation. Your experience as a leader in your class makes you a likely person for me to turn to for advice. I value your ability to sympathize with those who suffer. Please write me your suggestions about how we can help Andy.
Sincerely, Your teacher.
In a New York Times article on bullying, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are referred to as “two misfit teenagers.” It’s true. They didn’t fit in. But you never hear the bullies referred to as misfits. Because they weren’t. They fit right in. In fact, they defined and ruled the school culture.
The notion that some people are entitled to brutalize others is not a healthy one. Stan Davis points out that as a society, we rejected the idea that people were entitled to brutalize blacks and harass women. Why do we accept the idea that people are entitled to brutalize our children?
By doing so, we also insult the bullies. We tell them we don’t think they’re capable of more, and we miss the chance to help them become more.
Grow Your Mindset
• After a rejection, do you feel judged, bitter, and vengeful? Or do you feel hurt, but hopeful of forgiving, learning, and moving on? Think of the worst rejection you ever had. Get in touch with all the feelings, and see if you can view it from a growth mindset. What did you learn from it? Did it teach you something about what you want and don’t want in your life? Did it teach you some positive things that were useful in later relationships? Can you forgive that person and wish them well? Can you let go of the bitterness?
• Picture your ideal love relationship. Does it involve perfect compatibility—no disagreements, no compromises, no hard work? Please think again. In every relationship, issues arise. Try to see them from a growth mindset: Problems can be a vehicle for developing greater understanding and intimacy. Allow your partner to air his or her differences, listen carefully, and discuss them in a patient and caring manner. You may be surprised at the closeness this creates.
• Are you a blamer like me? It’s not good for a relationship to pin everything on your partner. Create your own Maurice and blame him instead. Better yet, work toward curing yourself of the need to blame. Move beyond thinking about fault and blame all the time. Think of me trying to do that too.
• Are you shy? Then you really need the growth mindset. Even if it doesn’t cure your shyness, it will help keep it from messing up your social interactions. Next time you’re venturing into a social situation, think about these things: how social skills are things you can improve and how social interactions are for learning and enjoyment, not judgment. Keep practicing this.