Cultivating a “Growth Mindset” in Wilderness Therapy

When my best friend first tossed the idea my way, I had two competing thoughts, of equal size and strength, immediately pop into my brain. Thought #1: “She believes in you, and wants what’s best for you. She wants to have a fun experience together.” Thought #2: “She is a lunatic, and even after being friends for 35 years, she is clearly trying to kill me.”

What was the idea she dared me to consider? To run a 10k race together, under the guise of “It’s for a GOOD CAUSE! Don’t you want to see these elementary school kids have the chance to have a new school?!”

A Fixed Mindset?

I am not a runner. I am a mother of three. I’m a busy professional with almost no time for myself. I haven’t been to the gym in months (that’s not to say I haven’t PAID for the gym, I simply haven’t found the time, “just yet,” to commit to the terms of my membership). The little time I do have needs to be spent with family. I didn’t have the right shoes, nor proper (cute) running clothes. My playlists needed work. The race was taking place in February, hence the name “Hot Chocolate Race;” a.k.a: “You’re going to freeze nearly to death, and the only consolation is that they’ll have a cup of hot calories waiting for you at the end.” And…finally…my inner critic had to get her voice in, asking: “How much of the proceeds really get to those dang kids anyway?”

This is just a taste of the host of noisy thoughts that initially invaded my decision-making process. I’m now just coming to realize that these thoughts can all be filed under the category of a “Fixed Mindset.”

According to Carol Dweck, PhD, those with a “fixed mindset” believe that we get what we get; we are born with a set of skills, talents, and strengths- and that they’re all unchangeable. A fixed mindset convinces us that challenges are to be avoided; that overwhelm is inevitable. When using the fixed mindset, if you DO decide to jump over that hurdle ahead of you- you’ll be unlikely to ask for advice in the process, be closed to feedback just before you leap, and you’ll be quick to blame those around you when you fall flatly onto your face. As Maria Papova writes in her critique of Dr. Dweck’s work: “the study of mindsets creates an inquiry into the power of our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, and how changing even the simplest of them can have profound impact on nearly every aspect of our lives.”

Clearly- the “Hot Chocolate 10k Race” had triggered an old inner dialogue, a nasty old friend of mine. As I look at family photos, I now recognize that I come from a long, long line of “Fixed Mindsetter’s.” And the scowls and deep wrinkles in foreheads shown in the photos of my forefathers is the proof in the pudding. My kin are loving and kindhearted, but “fixed” they are, and they taught, heck, encouraged, me to be as well. As almost something to be proud of.

People with a “growth mindset” embrace challenges

My best friend, however, is from a lineage of folks operating with a “Growth Mindset.” These people believe that skill comes as a result of hard work, and that there’s always room to improve. As Dweck has shown in her research, people with a “growth mindset” embrace challenges, seek opportunities that push them ahead, have a sense of perseverance, and feel that effort is the only road toward mastery. Feedback is welcomed, used as ingredients to the recipe of improvement and positive change.

Woods walk.jpgAfter having the opportunity to provide therapy to hundreds of teens and their families enrolled in wilderness therapy, I can easily say that the majority of our students come into the woods with a “fixed mindset.” Regardless of the students’ ages, gender, family dynamic, and/or demographic, these kiddos tend to think and/or talk with a fixed mindset “voice.” They’re bogged down by “can’t” and, almost always, asking “What’s the point?” but rarely (initially) willing to listen to the answer. Our students are struggling with any number of heavy-hitting emotional, cognitive, family and/or social issues. Many have a list of treatment flops or “failures” behind them. Most believe that the woods are the very last thing, in the long line of past therapeutic efforts, that could possibly change anything about their lives, or at least question whether or not they’re sturdy enough to endure it.

It’s really up to each individual student

And I can say with equal confidence, that despite what our students are “coming in” with, more often than not, with time away, with the right support, with patient teaching, unavoidable successes being offered on a daily basis, all of which is happening under the sky of the peaceful yet challenging wilderness setting, these same kids become more flexible. They begin to believe in their power. They gain a sense of control, which leads to confidence, faith in something bigger than their pasts, and a deeper sense of belonging and purpose. They slowly start to entertain the notion of listening to, then integrating, then USING the feedback they’re receiving from their peers and staff teams. The deep woods, the true wilderness model, offers a natural rhyme and rhythm that begin taking hold in a way that can be hard to describe, And while this place, like all wild places, offer the challenges, meaning, wilderness/life/emotional lessons, the skills, etc.- it’s really up to each individual student to accept the offer. When they do accept where they are, who they’re with, what they’re up against, and the many resources around them, you can hear it in their voices, but you can also see it in their behaviors. Sometimes these movements are subtle, sometimes they’re more dramatic. It can be as simple as an avoidant student suddenly offering eye contact, closer physical proximity to the group, or making more of an effort with bowdrilling. You can witness it in a letter home, words offering truth, humility, tenderness and gratitude. A growth mindset is something that can be observed, encouraged, praised, and celebrated by the students group, therapist, field teams, and parents/family at home.

Until this acceptance piece comes, we continue to challenge those students who insist on fighting against it, clamping down on their fixed mindset- their self-limiting beliefs, doubts, insecurities, fears as tightly and for as long as they can. With these students you offer consistency, structure, unconditional support and care, you bring humor and insight, you work closely as a team to be sure you’re on the same page; you try to be creative, you bring the family work in as much or as little as is indicated, you acknowledge the tiny steps that may be the first signs of hope without scaring the student away with too much enthusiasm. You offer the“What if you tried it this way instead?” kinds of questions. It’s a delicate dance, but above all else, you continually offer a different perspective, without being shaming or being judgmental.

According to Dweck, there are four steps to work on moving from a “fixed” mindset to a “growth” mindset.

1. Learn to hear your fixed mindset “voice.”

This is something students in wilderness therapy start working on beginning the day they arrive to Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness. We challenge the students to reflect on why they’re finding themselves in the woods, and to really examine the wording and attitudes they have about their circumstances. The first assignments our students are working on are designed to help them explore their inner dialogue, and to slow down their thinking long enough to give it a more honest look. For students who are constantly “plugged in,” this tends to be difficult, but also naturally grounding. We’re basically asking them if their thoughts and opinions can always be trusted, or if it may be possible that they’re lost, confused, hurt, angry, addicted, traumatized, etc.?

2. Recognize you have a choice.

Contrary to what some may say about wilderness therapy, the world of life in the woods offers constant choices. If you choose to act on your thoughts of “This sucks…I’m going to get kicked out of here by not wearing my rain coat…,” then, in all reality (barring safety issues), that student is choosing to get wet. And that student will get wet. Nature doesn’t care whether or not you have a coat on. If you choose to participate in group therapy, you are likely going to get high five’s from your group mates, you will very likely be more known, and eventually, considered more trustworthy. If you opt to stay in your shelter, you’re signing up for constructive feedback from your group members who want to hike that morning. It’s all about choices. And the choices these kids are making are based on their thoughts. If they’re practicing a fixed mindset, it’s more likely they’ll have a longer, tougher stay in wilderness; “tougher” meaning more constructive feedback, more ‘call out’s’ by peers, more letters from home reminding the student what parents expect vs. letters from home rejoicing in the changes they’re reading about, or hearing from the group’s therapist). Every time a student is willing to “check in,” or share how he/she is feeling, and what he/sheis thinking about, is a choice. And the more that is shared, verbally, the more the student’s group mates, therapist, staff members, and parents can offer and encourage re: alternative points of view.

3. Talk back to the “Fixed” mindset “voice” with a “Growth” mindset.

There’s something undeniably graceful about watching a student evolve by way of a maturing self-awareness. As already stated, it takes real courage for teens to show a willingness to hear feedback from others. But, the real magic is when a student starts to recognize his/her OWN distortions, or the “fixed” mindset, and self-corrects. There are students I meet with on a weekly basis who grow from: “I’m never going to be able to bow drill” to “I finally have a fullbow drill set” to “Ok…fine…I’ll try it. I have to to get out of here” to “Christine! I busted a coal!!!” And let me be clear- bow drilling is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. There’s a reason the cave men started using new techniques.

4. Take the growth mindset action.

Taking the steps from thought to action requires a more open mind, humility, willingness to be taught, willingness to question your thoughts and perspectives, and courage to try something new. And this is the hallmark of wilderness therapy. Students coming to Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness think they’ve tried it all and won’t try another thing. Or they’re too afraid to try anything, and can’t tell the last time they’ve taken any actions other than to NOT act. Many are used to giving up, or not trying to begin with. Some will brag about their lack of accomplishments, or look back at earlier achievements as though they’re a thing of the past, never to return. Once we see our students starting to take a growth mindset action, we do all we can to help them repeat the healthier steps they took to get there: we encourage them to recognize their thoughts, acknowledge the steps they took to change their thinking, and all that was required to put those healthier, more positive thoughts into action.

Hot Chocolate.jpgSo in case you’re wondering…I put what I preach weekly to my students into practice, and I signed up for the Hot Chocolate 10k. Alongside my best friend, my 10-year old son and I stood in line, or, more like, hopped in line to stay “warm” in the 20 degree weather that morning, and stuck it out all the way through that blasted race. I challenged my self-deprecating beliefs, chased away the negative, nagging voice, tried to stop cursing at Mother Nature for her sense of humor in the form of black ice, and mustered up enthusiasm I didn’t know I could possess.

My son and I laughed at times, danced while we ran at certain points, and pushed each other all the way to the finish line. I heard that fixed mindset voice, recognized the choices I had every moment, talked back to the fixed mindset voice (using language not appropriate for a blog), and took action!

And I can safely say…I may not have done it if not for this beautiful work I get to be a part of at Blue Ridge. I can’t do this work without trying my best to put it into practice in my own life, and in the lives of my family.




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Blue Ridge operates with the same guiding principles it was founded on. Safety is, and has always been, the number one priority while offering the highest level of customer service and clinical expertise available in a wilderness therapy setting.