From Belief to Behavior: Breaking Free from a Limiting Mindset

w/ Stanford University Professor Dr. Carol Dweck
Learning and the Brain Conference, San Francisco

Way back in the 1890s, William James was one of the first psychologists to recognize that goal directed-behaviors (aka decisions) were always preceded by a cognitive representation, a mental process. James documented for the first time that actions followed thoughts–that what we think or believe determines how we behave.

Though his findings may seem rather obvious to us right now, what James discovered was integral to understanding the practical power each of us has over how we interpret data, how we respond in interpersonal relationships, and how we interact with the larger culture. Our mindsets, our beliefs, our paradigms, drive our behaviors.

So, what is a mindset and where does it come from?

As the Journal of Integrated Social Sciences notes, mindsets are cognitive biases that are built on access to information, past experiences, and personal relevance, that is, how much value we ascribe to a certain experience.

A mindset is a way of thinking about objects or actions that influences our decision patterns, whether that’s something simple like what we want to eat or something more complex like whether we choose to wear a COVID mask or whether we decide to participate in public rallies or protests.   

The most famous modern researcher in the field of mindset is Stanford University professor Dr. Carol Dweck (see my total flex photo above with Dr. Dweck at a neuroscience conference). 🙂 She coined the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” years ago to help people see beyond the limitations of some of our belief-to-behavior patterns.  

Dweck found that people with fixed mindsets believe that their achievements are based on innate abilities, and because of this, they are often reluctant to take on challenges. People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, believe that they can learn, change, and develop needed skills, and so they are more likely to bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks. They recognize that hard work can help them accomplish their goals, so they are less likely to get stuck or to resist challenges.

These mindsets can come from childhood: If we were constantly praised for being smart or talented, for example, we can tend to remain stuck in a mindset that relies on a “fixed” set of traits. If we are not expected or allowed to succeed, we can develop a mindset that keeps us stuck. In fact, parents who encourage children’s efforts, acknowledging their persistence and hard work, will support their development of a growth mindset—better equipping them to learn, to persevere, and to get back up on the horse when they come tumbling to the ground.  

Our mindset can affect our decisions in business, in relationships, in parenting, and in the larger social sphere. It’s vital that we regularly contemplate our own mindsets, our paradigms, and align them with kingdom principles. We were created to be dynamic, not static, to grow and develop, not remain stuck in faulty patterns that can bear a negative impact on personal and professional relationships across the lifespan.

Mindset: The Mental Scaffold

I love the example of mindset in Matthew 15. Jesus and the disciples have just arrived in the district of Tyre and Sidon, when this woman comes up to them, crying out for mercy. The Bible calls her a Canaanite, a term that dates back to a heritage of Noah but basically means, in this context, that she is a non-Jewish, pagan woman—an unbeliever. BUT despite her pagan upbringing, she’s heard of Jesus and she pleads with him to heal her daughter from demonic oppression. 

The disciples want to send her away, but, ignoring their request, Jesus says this:

“I was sent only to the lost sheep” of Israel–in other words, woman, your healing is outside my jurisdiction. But listen. He’s not insulting her; he’s testing her. Watch what happens.  

She kneels before him, and he pushes back again. He says, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread (what belongs to the Jews) and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch! Even though he gives the word “dog” an affectionate twist, kynarion, meaning little doggie, still, cute or not, dogs were scavengers in the 1st Century, and his response could have seemed very derogatory.

But this woman is no snowflake. She doesn’t get offended. She doesn’t run off and complain on social media that Jesus hurt her feelings. She has a resilient mindset. She has a growth mindset. She is not giving up.  

The woman pushes back. She says, “Even the dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the table.” In other words, despite my socioeconomic status, I know you can bless me with something, even a little overflow from the King’s table. And Jesus says, in essence, “Yes! That’s faith right there! Your request is granted.” And the Bible says her daughter was healed at that moment.

This woman had a mindset of faith. “Faith,” as Hebrews 11:1 so poetically defines it, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” She had determined her worth, and she had prioritized her daughter’s healing. And somehow, even though she had grown up in a pagan culture, she believed wholeheartedly that Jesus was the answer.

Faith is a mental scaffold, a lens that sharpens the picture of possibility and gives us the courage to take action. What we believe determines how we behave.

I grew up in a home that was devoid of relationship, a place where scarcity was the mindset, the banner over my life: scarcity of love, of hope, of trust, of food, of freedom. I didn’t have the faith, the mental scaffolding, to hope or dream. I was stuck in a mindset of scarcity, so I clung to what I knew, to what was familiar, and I stayed wounded, broken.

Growing up in that kind of environment, it was easy to focus on the lack rather than the provision, to set my eyes on the waves rather than on the master of the waves. But God sent mentors and role models to help me break free of the mindset of scarcity, to help me learn to become a victim instead of a victor. They taught me about God’s exchange policy, how he trades his beauty for our ashes, his hope for our despair, his purpose for our pain

Those identity struggles can run deep. Their roots can wind around our hearts and our relationships in insidious, subversive, nearly-imperceptible ways. Even after I became a follower of Christ in college, I still struggled with this less-than sense of self, this victim mindset. I knew God could bless, but unlike the Cananaanite woman, I didn’t know he wanted to. I believe this is a significant foundation of the crisis going on in our country right now, this lack of identity as sons and daughters of God and this lack of awareness that he wants to bless his children, that he is good all the time.

Hebrews 11:6 says this, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists AND that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” In other words, it’s not enough to believe in his existence. That’s an incomplete mindset. We also need to believe in his goodness.

In fact, James 2:19 says, “You believe there is one God, good.” Congratulations. But that’s not enough. Who else believes there’s one God? Even the demons believe that. And they tremble.

The healthy mindset here, faith, is believing in God AND in his goodness. It’s believing that we can do what God’s called us to do. It’s believing that we are more than conquerors, that we have the ability in him to rise above the labels and lies of the culture to become what he has called us to be.

Romans 12:2 tells us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” The word transform, metamorphaoo in the Greek, is the image of total change, like a caterpillar to a butterfly. And the Apostle Paul is saying this to a group of grown men, so don’t let anyone tell you that you are too young or too old to change. We can be transformed, renewed, in our mindsets throughout the lifespan. That’s some good news right there.

Limiting Mindsets

An early American psychologist, Carl Rogers, tells a story from his childhood that I think serves as a powerful metaphor for mindset. Maybe you can relate to his observation. He went down into his cold, Midwest basement in the middle of winter, and he found a forgotten sack of potatoes. What do potatoes do when they are left alone in your pantry or basement? They sprout. Despite the cold basement environment, the potatoes were growing anemic little offshoots that pushed upward toward the only source of light available, a tiny basement window. Shriveled and colorless, the offshoots were, as Rogers put it, “life’s desperate attempts to become itself,” to reach its potential. Like those potatoes, maybe you grew up in a cold, dark environment, whether intentionally or unintentionally, maybe you lacked the basic ingredients needed for healthy emotional and spiritual development. The words spoken over you may have caused pain, fear, hopelessness.

And if that’s the case, then when you look closely at the outer shell of your life, you might see a number of anemic offshoots, attempts you’ve made throughout your life at becoming something. Remember the definition of mindset? A mindset is a construct of beliefs that influences our decisions. What we believe determines how we behave. Sometimes, personal growth means pruning off the anemic offshoots to make room for transformation. It means cutting back the words, thoughts, and actions in our lives that aren’t bearing good fruit. That’s the transformed mind, the renewed mindset of Romans 12:2. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Like many of you, I too grew up in a basement environment, lacking the essential nourishment I needed as a child and a teenager. Because of childhood traumas, I grew up with an emptiness inside of me, a profound sense of rejection and worthlessness. When my husband and I first met in college, we were both very broken people. God planted us in a church that taught us discipleship and placed us in strategic relationships where we could develop some of the tools we needed to renew our minds, to rebuild our mindsets so that we would learn to be united on kingdom objectives.

That’s a great word for us today too. There are a lot of sociopolitical labels being thrown around right now, labels that are designed to divide, to oppress, to alienate, to polarize. But division and vengeance and strife and bitterness are not kingdom objectives, and sometimes we have to get out of the emotional fray in order to see the evidence-based objective, the end goal that has its roots in kingdom objectives. That’s the big picture. We know a tree by its fruit. So, we want to be careful not to develop a mindset that will cause us to echo the narrative of a fallen and broken world. As one of my pastors says, “Don’t put your amen to that.” Make sure you’re planting the right seeds if you want to reap a harvest of peace, hope, joy, love, and unity.

Let’s look at the foundation of mindset, housed in the incredible power of the most amazing CPU ever developed, the human brain.

The human brain, where our mindsets are formed, fashioned, and fueled, is associational, social, and autonomic. Let’s break down that first part of the triad. What does it mean that our brain is associational, and how does that help us assess and address our mindsets?

The Associational Brain

At birth, the human brain is the least developed organ of the body. It has a hierarchy of systems (hemispheres, regions, etc.), but in order to reach full development, the brain must be socialized (Siegel, 2003). The million-dollar question, of course, is who or what is doing the socializing?  

The adult brain is made up of over 10 billion cells called neurons, whose connective fibers wind two million miles in length (Siegel, 2003). Each of the neurons is connected to the others at a synapse, where neurotransmitters, chemicals, are released, creating a mental process. These neurons are capable of neural firing patterns upwards of ten to the millionth power (Siegel 2003, page 4). That’s a lot of zeros. Can you envision the incredible potential resident within you at the very neural level?

Let’s take an example from the body to better understand the brain. When we don’t use a muscle, what happens to it? It atrophies. Interestingly enough, the brain actually experiences a similar process. Throughout life, neurons that are unused experience a literal cellular decay, where, as UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel says, a “lack of use leads to impaired synaptic growth and to a dying away process—called pruning—in which connections are lost and neurons themselves may die.” In other words, what we feed grows. What we starve dies.

How does the brain learn? This is an important concept for helping us understand the power of our mindsets. The brain is known as an “associational organ,” which means that experiences are embedded, housed, in neural connections in the brain (this becomes memory), and the brain literally “matches present firing patterns with those of the past” (Siegel 2003, page 21). As the saying goes, neurons that fire together, wire together. This is actually the foundation behind commercial advertising. If a company can elicit a positive emotion from you as it displays its product on the screen, there will be a pleasurable connection formed between you and the product. At the neural level, our expectation of what is to come influences the reality of what is to come because of our interpretation, our lens. “The brain is an anticipation machine—linking the present with what it expects in the future based on experiences in the past” (Siegel 2003, page 22). What we believe about ourselves, others, and our world predisposes us not only to an interpretation of reality, but also to an adaptation of reality. That’s a mindset.

Proverbs 11:27 says, “He who seeks good finds goodwill, but evil comes to him who searches for it.” In that verse, did our thoughts, our expectations, change the outer world? Not at first glance. First, it changed our internal world, our paradigm, our interpretation of reality. Think about the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not yet seen.” There is a mental posturing, an expectation, a belief, a hope, that creates evidence.

What we think about, concepts we associate together at the neural level, create our basic system of beliefs, which influences our behavior. Now, with recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience, we know far more about the capacity of the human brain than we’ve ever known before. The classic developmental arguments that boxed us in and said we couldn’t change, grow, or “learn new tricks” beyond a certain age have been disproved. We now understand that humans have the opportunity to experience growth and development throughout the lifespan, that our neural fibers are literally pruned and transformed according to the choices we make throughout our lives. That means if we have a faulty mindset about something, we can change it. We don’t have to remain stuck.

The brain is an organ of association: As UCLA professors Drs. Solomon and Siegel state, “(A)ll memory is associated, and … learning occurs through new associations. For example, in order to recognize an object in our world, the perceptions of the present have to link into the memory network of past experiences for the object to be identified.” So, our past associations influence, even shape, our present realities. Our current mindset will continue to shape the lens of our reality until someone or something comes along to challenge it. 

The Impact of Trauma on Mindset

When we are confronted with a new object, our brains must link it to similar objects and memories that already exist in the brain in order to understand it, to unpack it. That’s why we call the brain a hypothesis machine; it categories and makes estimations based on what it believes to be true. Sometimes the hypothesis is right—if the foundational knowledge base is accurate. However, sometimes the hypothesis is not correct. If our understanding of the experience, the person, the event is filtering through a faulty lens, then our interpretation can be seriously misaligned, especially if our previous memories of similar objects or experiences have been traumatic. As Solomon and Siegel state, “Unhealed, earlier (traumatic experiences) implicitly set the groundwork for all future perceptions.”    

Several researchers have shown that unresolved trauma is stored in isolation, where “the information cannot link up with more appropriate information and learning cannot take place.” It’s like the information gets stopped up because all new experiences link up with memory networks containing similar or reminiscent past events, and then the memory of the incident adversely influences our current perceptions, reactions, and behaviors. In this model, Solomon and Seigel have shown, even though a new situation may arise, or a new person may enter the scene, if the brain is static and unchanging (rather than dynamic and growing and changing for the better), then the new brain state automatically matches up to the state experienced during the initial event. Again, neurons that fire together wire together. Our brains literally forge new neural networks based on our mental associations. What we believe internally influences us externally. Our paradigms have power.

Being transformed through the renewing of our minds is not only a spiritual; it’s also a physiological experience. We are transformed by thoughts, which become words, which create ongoing behavioral choices. First the natural and then the spiritual.

Mindset matters. And we have to choose our mindset intentionally.

Examples of Mental Conflict: Cognitive Dissonance

In fact, we can’t live under the mental leadership, the mindset, of serving two opposing ideals like this at the same time: Matthew 6:24 says we can’t serve two masters, God and money; we will be devoted to one and despise the other.

Maybe you’ve heard the term cognitive dissonance, two different thoughts or ideals wrestling in our brains for dominance. Let me give you a personal example of what cognitive dissonance feels like.

A group of Christian creation astronomers called the 4th Day Alliance mapped out the population of the planet, cross-referenced it with the square footage of the earth, and found this: Texas is 262,000 square miles, and the earth’s population is about 7.8 billion people. That means we can take every single living person–man, woman, and child–on the earth and fit them all in their own individual 1000 square-foot homes inside the state of Texas leaving the rest of the earth completely vacant. The UT even has a little graph on their website dividing people out by continent populations and placing them in the state of Texas. Let me spell it out if the moral is unclear. Certain cities may be overpopulated, but the earth as a whole has plenty of room left for growth and development. Don’t panic.

Now if you regularly read the news, watch television, or otherwise ingest any of the modern propaganda on population growth, you can typically feel the cognitive dissonance in your brain right now. Your brain may be saying, “Wait a minute! That can’t be right! We’ve been told there aren’t enough resources for everyone. We’ve even been told not to have too many children because we would overburden the earth.” That feeling you’re experiencing right now is cognitive dissonance.

Why is that world population in Texas study so hard to believe, even though it’s mathematically quantifiable? Because our whole lives, most of us have absorbed a message that there’s not enough space, water, food—that the God of the universe somehow didn’t plan ahead for our existence.

In the same way, many of us may be dealing with multiple mindsets of fake news about our own selves, a type of socialized cognitive dissonance about our identities, or our attitudes, or our experiences. Really, as products of a fallen world, we have all been sold so many lies about our purpose and destiny that I think it’s safe to say we all have some level of brokenness, some misdirected mindsets about ourselves and others.

The world system always drives us back to a mindset of us and them, of division over unity, keeping us distracted from battling together against the enemy of our souls. That’s because unity is powerful. When believers walk in unity, the impact on the realm of darkness is tangible, measurable.

Philippians 2: 2-4 says we are to be “one in spirit and purpose, doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility considering others better than yourselves.” As Christians, we are called to believe the best of one another. We are called to consider others better than ourselves, as Philippians puts it. To do this, we need a renewed mindset, a new way of processing, identifying, acting toward one another. What we believe determines how we behave.

Maybe you’ve grown up with the same scarcity mentality I had. Maybe you were trained up in a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset. Or maybe you were groomed in an us vs. them mindset that is pitting you against other believers, other brothers and sisters in the faith. The good news is that neither we don’t have to stay stuck in limiting belief systems. We serve the God who sees things that are not as though they were. We serve the God who says that same power that raised him from the grave dwells in us. Let’s not get stuck in a mindset that limits his ability. Let’s not get trapped in a mindset that embraces a form of godliness but denies, limits, suppresses, his power.

Like the lesson of the Canaanite woman, we need to develop our mindsets around our true identity in Christ. If we are ever to pursue lasting peace and hope in our country, it will begin with our understanding of individual worth and value in the eyes of our Creator.

As Romans 12:2 reminds us (re-minds us, literally!), we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We can rewire our brains by learning to see God for who he really is, our provider, our refuge, our strength. We can transform our intrapersonal mindset by recognizing our identity as children of the King. And we can use those same principles to assess and address mindsets that may be negatively affecting our familial, organizational, or interpersonal relationships. If we want to free ourselves from limiting and misdirected mindsets, then we need to be intentional about the actions that span the neural space between our beliefs and our behavior.