Defence Mechanisms of The Fixed Mindset: Part 1

Good morning/afternoon! Today’s post is on the fixed mindset and some of the behaviours it triggers (defence mechanisms). These defence mechanisms often have negative consequences on a person. So today I aim to outline them, and guide you in identifying what triggers your fixed mindset. In the next post I’ll go into depth about strategies you can use to overcome them.

Introduction to Fixed Mindset

Before we go any further into this post, I am going to conduct a brief introduction to the fixed mindset. The idea of a fixed mindset comes from the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. According to Professor Dweck, the fixed mindset is a system of thinking that worships the idea of a “natural” (ie natural ability or God given traits) and to an extent displays an aversion towards the ideas of effort, and learning.

The fixed Mindset generally has a profound negative impact on someone’s ability and overall success. This is because in order to be successful people need to improve and grow, which is done through effort, and learning. Not natural ability.

Defence mechanisms come into this as people in the fixed mindset often feel they need to protect their natural ability. This is due to (as mentioned before) the fixed mindset persuading you into believing that you are born with a certain level of ability whether it be intelligence, athletic ability, artistic capacity etc. So when a person is in the Fixed mindset, they are in their own mind, determining their worth as a human being, based on their daily achievements and failures. Any criticism or setback is perceived as failure and takes away from their “ability”. As a consequence people feel as though they need to protect their “ability”. The way they do this is through the defence mechanisms that we’ll get into soon.

The final point I want to mention before I move on is that everyone has some fixed mindset, it just depends to what extent. For some people the fixed mindset dominates and it is present in every aspect of their life, for some people it may occur repeatedly in a certain circumstance, and for others it may only arise occasionally and spontaneously. The point is that it is natural for the fixed mindset and its consequences (aka defence mechanisms) to be there. We’re all human. So the best we can do is acknowledge that we are not perfect, acknowledge that the fixed mindset is there, and work on strategies to identify it, and overcome it when it arises.

The Different Defence Mechanisms

Effort

The first defence mechanism I’m going to point out is effort. Effort is a resource as mentioned before often detested by the fixed mindset. The reason that this is true is because in the fixed mindset as we spoke about before; people believe in ability. And if you have the ability why would you need effort?

However in the fixed mindset, effort is also used to protect your ability. In this mindset nothing is worse than saying “I gave it everything I had. I put in 100% effort and it still wasn’t good enough.” The reasoning for this being so hard to come to terms with is that for a lot of people it labels them. As ordinary, un-talented or a failure. The fixed mindset approach to solving this problem is to just not give effort. This way if “ability” wasn’t enough, then there is always the safeguard of saying “I could’ve been… if I had tried”.

To hopefully clarify this here’s a scenario:

You’re in PE and the teacher tells everyone that today’s activity is 100m sprints. You are to compete against your classmates and your time will be recorded. The activity is optional, however the taking part will help your participation grade. You are acutely aware of your lack of speed or running prowess. Instead of lining up with the rest of the class, you decide to tell your teacher you are going to sit this one out.

This scenario is displaying the fixed mindset in full bloom. It also happens to be a recount of one of my own experiences with the fixed mindset. At that time sitting out felt like a huge relief to me, I felt as though I had avoided humiliation, or worse… failure. In my mind it was better to not try (give effort) than try and fail. Although I didn’t realise it at the time this was a protection of my ego and of my fixed mindset. I was ensuring that I wouldn’t fail but simultaneously limiting my own learning and growth.

I think that it is also important to note that in this scenario my fixed mindset reaction wasn’t triggered by a need to feel or come across superior, but rather overwhelming self-doubt. Versions of this same story are around everywhere and it is important to remember that most fixed mindset reactions or defences are triggered by doubt, insecurity or a need for validation.

Blame

The second defence mechanism I am going to talk about is blame. As mentioned before, defence mechanisms are a way of upholding the idea of “ability” and protecting people’s self-esteem (especially when it is already low). As far as defence mechanisms go blame is one of the largest perpetrators.

Blame is something we come across a lot. In the workforce, in school, and in our own personal relationships. Blame happens a lot and everyone is guilty. But what triggers blame and why is it there? Blame is (as mentioned previously) a way of protecting someone’s image whether it be protecting the way they see themselves or the way they are seen by others. Here’s this theory in action:

“Is the scenario”

Is the message this person has sent to them self

(How it is interpreted)

“I didn’t pass the exam because I wasn’t taught the content properly” – it’s not my fault it’s the teachers (therefore I didn’t fail someone else failed to teach me)

“I wasn’t on time because …… held me up“ – it’s not my fault it’s …. for holding me up (therefore I’m not disorganised …. I was just a victim of circumstance)

“I only yelled at you because ….. frustrated me with their lack of productivity” – it’s not my fault I yelled at you ….. shouldn’t have been so inefficient (therefore I’m still a good person and ….. is just incompetent)

And the list goes on.

Most scenarios aren’t as extreme as those. I just selected those ones to help paint the picture. But a lot of the time it is as simple as “I didn’t go for that run I said I’d go on because it was windy.” It is scenarios such as this one and the ones above that show us defence mechanisms in action, and each one is based on the same idea; “I am still perfect it was just someone or something else’s fault”. And your fixed mindset says “Phew! Crisis averted my image is upheld.”

Lying

The third and final defence mechanism I am going to talk about is lying. Now this is the most internal of the 3 mechanisms I have discussed. This is because most of the time the lying is lying to yourself rather than lying to others.

As we’ve discovered previously these methods of protection are called upon usually to protect image, “ability” and self-esteem. When a person is in a situation that triggers the mind to produce a defensive response such as lying it is usually a result of one of those 3 things. Lying is no exception. Lying in this context is referring to manipulating the truth of a scenario to uphold either your image, “ability” or self-esteem.

Lying can be linked back to both effort and blame and it is the story we tell ourselves to justify our fixed mindset response.

For example:

“I didn’t stick to the diet because I had a family event to go to”

Let’s consider this; at first it looks like the truth, and it may even be the truth but lets have a look at the messages within it.

Message 1: Blame. When we first read this sentence it seems pretty normal. No lying here. But if you look a little deeper the message is “It isn’t my fault it is just an unavoidable circumstance.” Which can also be interpreted as “it is something else’s fault therefore my image is still intact.” Sound familiar?

Message 2: The second message here is lying to self. In the 2nd interpretation of this scenario I label this circumstance “unavoidable”. Is that true? When we say things such as: “I didn’t do ____ because…” we are subconsciously consoling ourselves. But what we need to take into account is the factual element of the situation. Yes, in this scenario the person may have been at a family event. But is that the reason they didn’t stick to the diet? They could have pre prepared a meal, or looked at the restaurant menu ahead of time. So was it really the event’s fault? Or was it a lack of effort, maybe they didn’t cultivate appropriate strategies, or maybe they didn’t have a precise enough plan to begin with. Whatever it is, it is much easier to manipulate the truth and tell yourself a story, then own your mistakes and face them head on.

The overall idea of lying is to convince someone of something, and in this context lying is about trying to convince yourself that you are the victim of someone or something else. A little bit like blame. But instead of blaming others you are creating a story in your head to explain to yourself why it is, that it is the fault of others.

What Triggers The Mechanisms?

First of all: what is a trigger?

In the context of this post a trigger is an emotion, scenario, person or thing that causes you to feel the need to protect your self-esteem. In the first scenario I mentioned (under effort) I talked about how self-doubt in sports was a real issue for me. Self-doubt was the trigger. When I was experiencing self-doubt I was more likely to pull away. To not give effort, to blame others or to lie to myself. Another trigger was settings where others could see me compete. Whether this was in my PE class or in a tournament. Having other people watch me triggered the defence mechanisms also.

Everyone has a trigger and most people will have multiple. The aim here is to identify yours so you can keep an eye out for it. What triggers your defensive mechanisms is different for everybody. But everyone has a trigger. Sometimes it’s an emotion, sometimes it’s a situation and sometimes it’s a person or thing. Whatever it is, it usually results in you trying to justify something to yourself either through a) effort b) blame c) lying.

Although defence mechanism triggers are varied here are a few common ones:

  • Insecurity
  • Need for validation
  • Self-doubt
  • Fear
  • Feeling inferior
  • High pressure situations
  • A situation where you go in with external expectation
  • Situations with large audiences
  • Disagreements
  • Senior people in organisations etc

These are just a couple common triggers. If any of these apply to you, right them down, and try to be aware of when these triggers arrive. So you can be on guard to catch yourself out whenever your defence mechanisms appear. If none of these apply to you that’s ok as well. Next I will show you how to become familiar with your own personal triggers.

Finding out what triggers your fixed mindset reactions requires an honest self-evaluation of a scenario in your own life, where your defence mechanisms were in full bloom.

ie. a meeting you once had, a track meet where you under performed etc

Think about this situation. Once you have your scenario feel free to write these questions down or answer them in your head.

1. How did you react? (What reaction did you use to defend your image?)

2. Where were you? (Place, what were you doing?)

3. What emotions did you feel? (Fear, embarrassment, doubt)

4. Why at this time? (Eg were you afraid because people were watching you?)

5. How do you feel? (Think about the present, right now looking back, how do you think you handled it?)

6. Why did you react that way? (Did you blame someone else because you were afraid of being judged? Did you not try for fear of failing?)

Now with this information in mind there is usually an overarching theme. You might have blamed someone else during an end of term exam because you were embarrassed and you felt like you had disappointed your family. Now reflecting you believe that you didn’t handle it the right way and could have asked for feedback or owned up to your errors, and in hindsight you realise you felt like you were being constantly judged by your family and just wanted to feel valued. Now that is a fake example, but from this example we can assume that the trigger is something to do with external validation and self confidence. That in this example the person obviously cares deeply about the approval or others and the main trigger is the fear of being judged. Or an environment where they will be judged (such as in an exam).

I hope that exercise was useful and that you found at least one trigger of your defence mechanisms. If so, try to use that knowledge to full advantage. When you are put in a situation where your trigger arises just note that, and wait for your defence mechanism and/or fixed mindset to show up. Now you are on guard and ready to front your fixed mindset reactions with a clear head, and make informed decisions.

Alright that’s it from me for today. I hope that this post was useful and informative! Originally I was going to have the strategies to overcome the fixed mindset reactions (aka defence mechanisms) in this post as well but the post ended up being lengthier than I anticipated. So instead, I will split this post in 2, and post a seperate part 2 article, dedicated to overcoming these reactions.

If you enjoyed this post please consider following this site for more content such as this. Interactions with the post would also be greatly appreciated. I hope you’re all well, and stay safe!

I am someone who purely researches and writes on topics such as this out of interest. I am not accredited. For more info on this topic please access the following links. 🙂

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