Do you embrace challenge—or avoid it? When you face an obstacle, do you persist—or give up? Do you view effort as worthless—or as the path for mastery? Do you feel threatened—or inspired—by the success of others?

Your answers to these questions are clues to whether you have a fixed or a growth mindset. I’ve long been intrigued by the work of psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck, who studies how our self-conceptions shape our behaviors. A lot of her research is in children, looking at things like what happens when we say “You did really well on the test—you must be smart!” vs. “You did really well on the test—you must have studied hard!” to a child.

“You must be smart” taps into a fixed mindset—that our character, intelligence, and abilities are fairly set, and aren’t things we can really change. When you have a fixed mindset, your feelings of success are based on how you measure up to another fixed standard, such as a score on a test or a direct comparison to someone else’s success.

“You must have studied hard” taps into a growth mindset—that our basic qualities are things we can cultivate and improve through our efforts, that challenges aren’t things to be feared, and that failure is a springboard for growing and stretching our abilities.

How mindset affects health and well-being

Dweck’s research has found that the view we adopt for ourselves significantly affects how we lead our lives.

If you believe that your abilities are set in stone (fixed mindset), you likely feel that you have to prove yourself to others over and over again to gain approval and avoid rejection. When you make a mistake or “fail” at something, you feel lacking, deficient, less than…a loser. The fact that someone might notice your (very human) flaws and imperfections is shameful.

If you believe that you can improve your abilities through effort and conscious, deliberate practice (growth mindset), you focus on learning and growing and getting better rather than trying to prove how great you are. You learn from “mistakes” and “failures” rather than letting them define you.

Let’s apply this to health:

  • If you have a fixed mindset, getting some less-than-ideal news at the doctor’s office (such as elevated cholesterol or blood sugar levels) can send you into a funk. You may stick your head in the sand, ignoring and denying the truth. You may avoid follow-up visits with the doctor because you don’t want to “fail” again. Anything less than approval is not an option. You may feel really down about this, and outwardly pretend nothing’s wrong while inwardly feeling that you’re screwed.
  • If you have a growth mindset, you might not be thrilled by this less-than-ideal news, but you consider what you can do to lower your cholesterol or your blood sugar and take action. If the next time you get blood work done, your numbers haven’t improved as much as you would like, you continue your efforts, making any necessary adjustments. You see this as a journey, not a pass-or-fail situation. This is something you need to deal with, but it doesn’t affect your overall outlook.
How mindset affects your relationship with food and body

Some years ago, I had a client who had an extremely chaotic relationship with food and exercise. She would eat austerely healthy one moment, then go all in on fried foods off the happy hour menu, while over-imbibing on alcohol. She gave up on regular exercise because it wasn’t helping her lose weight, but got defensive when I mentioned the potential benefits of including some enjoyable movement most days, saying, “Well, I walked 8 miles on Saturday.”

I wanted to help her develop a more stable, peaceful relationship with food and self-care, but she clearly felt she needed to prove herself to me at every single session. We got nowhere. It was as if she wanted me to “fix” her at the same time she was trying to prove that she was perfectly fine, thank you very much. I’m a very compassionate person, and I really wanted to help her (not “fix” her, because I don’t have magical powers), but she would never let me in.

This client had a fixed mindset, not a growth mindset. On the other hand, the majority of my clients have a growth mindset, or a “mixed” mindset—mostly growth, but fixed in some specific area—and this opens them up to challenging dogma about nutrition, weight and health, as well as try new-to-them things like Intuitive Eating and mindfulness and be OK with the initial awkwardness of learning a new skill or practice. And guess what? It’s these clients who end up in a peaceful place with food and body, nourishing themselves better while also finding more pleasure.

The benefits of believing in growth

Here’s the bottom line: When you have a fixed mindset, you have a hunger for approval, but when you have a growth mindset, you have a hunger for learning. Which mindset do you think is going to get you further in life AND help you be happier? Constantly seeking approval is soul-sucking, and I think you know that whether you are right now realizing that you have a fixed mindset, or whether you realize you know people who do (right now I’m thinking of a former boss who lived and died by the approval of others).

While I have a few area of my life where I can fall into a fixed mindset if I’m not careful, overall I’ve always had a growth mindset—I love to learn and find joy in becoming better and better all the time. Does this mean I feel like I can do ANYTHING I set my mind to? Well, no…I can think of any number of things I could probably never achieve because I don’t have much of a baseline aptitude in those areas.

For example, I’ve never played the piano, so at this point I highly doubt that even with total persistence and devotion, I would be able to become a great classical pianist. I’m also pretty darn confident that I will never compete in the Olympics. That’s OK, because that’s not what growth mindset is about. With a growth mindset, we believe that our own potential (or the potential of others) is unknown and unknowable. That makes life a journey, rather than a destination you’ve already arrived at and defended with a barbed wire fence.

Connections to self-esteem and self-compassion

When I think of fixed vs. growth mindset, I immediately think of self-esteem vs. self-compassion. Why? Because having high self-esteem depends on feeling superior to others. That’s problematic, because we can’t ALL be superior to everyone else! Self-compassion, on the other hand, depends on understanding that we are all human, we all struggle, and we all “fail” sometimes. That helps us pick up and keep moving forward when things get tough, and allows us to ask for help if we need it.

With self-esteem, how you feel about yourself depends largely on external factors that we can’t control. With self-compassion, how you feel about yourself depends largely on internal factors, including awareness, kindness, non-judgment and a recognition of common humanity. This is a topic I’ve written about previously, so if your curious, check out my blog post “The failure of self-esteem and the rise of self-compassion,” my Washington Post article “Be kinder to yourself. Research shows it can make you healthier,” and my Seattle Times article “Why it’s time to stop the negative self-talk surrounding diet and nutrition.”

So if you find that your mindset skews towards fixed, and you rely more on self-esteem than self-compassion, what next? What do you do to start a mindset shift? If I had a magic want, I would grand you all a glorious growth mindset and self-compassionate nature, but, alas, no magic wand. I suggest reading the articles/posts above, as well as watching this TEDx talk by Carol Dweck.


Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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