Episode 63: When Mindset Work is Toxic

While the messaging that your success and your happiness is exclusively dependent on your mindset can be empowering for some people, it ignores the very real external obstacles that many people face in our society. We’re talking about our responsibilities as coaches doing mindset work with clients.

63: When Mindset Work is Toxic

Mindset is a topic that gets a lot of attention in the coaching world. First as a psychotherapist, then as a coach, and as an author, mindset has always been a cornerstone of my work with clients and in my life.

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Show Notes

Mindset is a topic that gets a lot of attention in the coaching world.

First as a psychotherapist, then as a coach, and as an author, mindset has always been a cornerstone of my work with clients and in my life. But to be honest, with all the years I’ve been doing mindset work, it’s an area where I may have gotten a little complacent.

With that in mind, I decided to take a hard long look at what mindset work really is and how we approach it as coaches. What I found is that while mindset work is unquestionable an integral part of coaching, the ways in which it is being distorted in the coaching profession and entrepreneurial industry at large may actually be causing harm to our clients,

That’s why today we’re exploring what happens when mindset work becomes toxic and the work we need to do as coaches so that we can support our clients in a way that centers and validates their experiences. Doing this is very much in line with our professional and personal development and strengthens our coaching profession. Let’s continue to do this work together!

Topics covered

  • The role mindset plays in my work
  • One of the most common approaches to mindset work
  • How my definition of mindset work has expanded
  • The problem with framing mindset as the main determining factor for success
  • Our responsibilities as coaches helping clients with mindset work
  • Why we need to invest in antiracism and diversity, equity, and inclusion work for ourselves
  • The CARE model framework for deeply listening to our clients

Resources mentioned

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Well, hello, my friend. Welcome to the Coach with Clarity Podcast. My name is Lee Chaix McDonough, and I want to thank you for joining me for this week's episode. I want to spend a little bit of time talking about a topic that gets a lot of attention in the coaching world, and that is mindset. Now, I have been working in the field of mindset for years. First as a psychotherapist, then as a coach. I have written a book that dives deep into mindset work: what it is, how to do it. So mindset has always been a cornerstone of the work that I've done with my clients, and in my own life. And I'll be honest with you, it is an area where I may have gotten a little complacent. I may have figured that, “You know what, I've been doing this mindset work for years, I've read all the books, I've done all the work, I've taken all the trainings, I got this”. But the truth is, I don't got this. In fact, I have been really taking a hard, long look at what mindset work really is, how we have been exploring it within the coaching profession. And quite honestly, the ways in which mindset work is being distorted, and may in fact be causing harm to potential, or current, clients. So that's what I want to explore with you a bit today, is what happens when mindset work becomes toxic. And how we may be unintentionally contributing to the harm of our clients. 

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Now, I realize some of you out there may already be thinking, “Whoa, Lee, where are you going with this? I mean, mindset work. This is important”. Some of you may even call yourselves Mindset Coaches. Let me just start at the top by saying: I don't think we need to get rid of mindset work. Far from it. I still maintain that mindset work is an integral part of coaching. I will always be exploring mindset work with my clients. And we need to do so from a place that is informed, from a place that critiques the areas in which mindset work may be failing our clients, or may in fact be causing harm to them. And we need to partner with our clients and do the work in such a way where we are honoring their experience, we are supporting them through their process, and we're doing so in a way that centers and validates their experience. So trust me, this is not going to be a full on bashing of mindset work, far from it. But it is going to take a critical eye at the ways in which mindset work is being applied in ways that are problematic. So let's go ahead and start by defining what it is we're talking about when we talk about mindset. In my book, “ACT on Your Business”, I spend several chapters exploring what mindset is and the ways we can incorporate mindset processes in our work. And I thought I would read a short excerpt from my book to talk a little bit about one of the most common ways we view mindset work. So this is from “ ACT on Your Business”, it's in the chapter called,  “The Three M's”, in the section called, “Mindset”.

“In 2006, Carol Dweck published her book, “mindset”, and revolutionized the way people view their abilities. In the book, Dr. Dweck proposes that a person's mindset, or how a person views their talents and abilities, has significant ramifications on their happiness and success. She suggests that people generally fall into one of two categories: those with Fixed Mindsets, and those with Growth Mindsets. And she suggests that by cultivating a Growth Mindset, we open ourselves up to new possibilities and incredible results. The key determining factor in what kind of mindset you have, lies in how you view your talents, abilities, and intelligence. If you believe these qualities are static, or unchanging, then you're more likely to have a Fixed Mindset. Whereas if you believe someone can develop or improve their talents, abilities and intelligence, then you're more likely to have a Growth Mindset. Your mindset shapes not only your beliefs about yourself, but also about the world around you. Dweck’s research suggests that when people adopt Fixed Mindsets, they are more likely to avoid challenges because of the risk of failure. In general, they tend to minimize or ignore feedback, and are apt to disregard new information or approaches to accomplishing a task. The saying, ‘if it ain't broke, don't fix it’, was probably created by someone with a Fixed Mindset. As a result, people with Fixed Mindsets tend to be sensitive to criticism and fearful of making mistakes. This can wreak havoc on their confidence, and create anxiety and a sense of unfulfillment. People with Growth Mindsets, on the other hand, are much more likely to welcome challenges and are less likely to view adverse outcomes as failures. Their focus is not on validation, but on mastery. They are able to separate their sense of identity from the task at hand. They know what they do does not define who they are. As a result, they are open to feedback and generally learn from their experiences, particularly the unsuccessful ones, adapting their approach for the next time. Now, in reality, no one's mindset is completely Fixed, or completely Growth oriented. In fact, I prefer to think of mindset as a spectrum. And at any given time, we fall somewhere on that spectrum. In some areas, perhaps we’re more Fixed, while in others we’re more Growth oriented. Our mindset may be influenced by situations, people, or circumstances. So it's possible to move around on that spectrum quite a bit. Thus, part of the challenge is to recognize when we're falling into a Fixed Mindset, so that we can mindfully shift our thinking more toward Growth.”

So that was a quick excerpt from,  “ACT on Your Business”. And a summary, a very brief summary, of Carol Dweck ‘s work around mindset, and also my take on it. Now, I wrote that back in- well, technically, I wrote it in 2018. It was published in 2019. And I think much of what I described there remains accurate. I will say that as I've continued my work as a coach, my definition of mindset has, I would say, expanded a bit. When I talk about mindset, I'm really interested in viewing it as how we relate to our internal experiences. So our thoughts, our feelings, our sensations, our memories, all of the experiences that we have privately (or internally), so that someone on the outside may not know we're experiencing them, unless we share that with them. So mindset, to me, is particularly how we relate and respond to our thoughts and our feelings. So maybe that expands a bit on how Carol Dweck looks at mindset. Which in her book, really focused on how we view our talents and abilities. To me, we also need to look at how we relate to our thoughts and feelings, perhaps about those talents and abilities. So all of that sounds perfectly rational, right? And it is, it is. But here is what I am noticing, certainly in the coaching profession, even in the therapy profession, and maybe in the larger entrepreneurial community. We have shifted into viewing mindset as the determining factor (and in some cases, the only factor) in how successful or happy a person can become. So what we're doing is we're saying that your success, and your happiness, is exclusively dependent upon your mindset. So if you can change the way you think, change the way you feel, or change the way you relate to those thoughts and emotions, then you will be able to achieve greater success, greater fulfillment, and greater happiness. And when we frame it in that way, then we are placing the outcomes solely and squarely on the individual.  We are making them 100% responsible for their success and their happiness. Now on one hand, I can see how this can be an incredibly empowering message. Because what it says is that you have control of your life, you have agency over your decisions. And so you can regain that control, and take charge of your life. That's an incredibly empowering message. And I honestly think that's probably where this stems from. But the shadow side, and what makes that so problematic, is that it ignores the real, external obstacles that many people face in our society. And because it ignores it, it minimizes or attempts to erase their effects. So when we look at systemic oppression, when we examine racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and then we bring that particular mindset outlook to it, that the individual is responsible for their own outcomes, well then we ignore those systemic impacts of oppression. And we're essentially telling people, “It doesn't matter what happens to you, what matters is how you think about it”, and that is what I have a problem with when it comes to mindset work in the coaching industry. And that is when mindset work becomes toxic. I see this a lot too in some of the more spiritual, or maybe New Age, circles as well, where we're talking about manifestation. We're talking about the Law of Attraction. That is what we think we create, and if we want something and it's not happening for us, then we're not bringing the right energy to it. And again, this takes mindset and shifts it so that we are blaming people for their outcomes and their results, and we're not taking all of the factors into account. Now, again, as I mentioned at the top, I think mindset work is an incredibly important component to the work we do. We need to be examining how we think about things, how we feel about things, how we interpret and respond to those thoughts and feelings. That needs to be a portion of the work. But that cannot be the only work we do. And as coaches, we also need to really help our clients examine what's happening in their environments that may be contributing to what is or isn't happening for them, and what may be contributing to any obstacles or blocks they're facing in trying to achieve their results. So here's an example. Let's say that you are a career coach, and you are working with a black woman, and she comes to you and says, “It is impossible for me to get promoted at my current firm. In fact, all of the promotions that have happened since I've been there have gone to white men. And so as a black woman, I'm not going to get promoted here”. So when we look at traditional approaches to coaching that focus on mindset, we are going to start by helping the client identify the limiting belief that may be working against her. And so in this case, we may be asking her to explore the underlying assumption that she can't succeed at her current firm because she's a black female, and promotions only go to white men. Many coaching approaches would have us focus on that as a limiting belief, a belief that the client holds that is keeping her from excelling. When we do that, we are placing full responsibility on the client for how she's interpreting that thought, and how she's allowing that thought to influence her actions. And I've seen coaches do this, very well intentioned coaches, who want to help their clients. They are going straight towards the mindset-oriented, limiting belief model. And then they're going to work with this particular client to help her shift her thinking, or change her belief around this. Because if you go into this believing that you're not going to get the promotion, well guess what, you're probably not going to get the promotion because what you put out there is what you receive. I have heard this so many times. And what we've done, is we have completely ignored and erased her valid and true lived experience. As a black woman, it is highly likely that she is being overlooked for promotions, and that those promotions are going to her white male counterparts. Because sadly, that is how our society works. That is systemic racism and oppression in action. But when we meet her with this concept of, “Well we need to change the way you think about this, we need to change the energy you're putting out there so that you can get what you want”, then we're minimizing her lived experience. And, I'm going to say it, we are contributing to that system of oppression. And we are not serving our client. So that is just one example. And it is an example that is sadly based on real stories that I've heard from clients, and from coaches, who have been on the receiving end of this, and who have also contributed to this not knowing a different way of approaching this work. Because this is what they've been taught to do. They have been taught to go straight for the thought, straight for the limiting belief, and then look at how if we change the thought, we can change the action. A lot of this has its roots in a very traditional cognitive behavioral model of working with clients. If we can help them examine the underlying thought that is contributing to the emotions and to the actions, well, if we change the thought, then we're going to change the outcome. There's the assumption that the thought leads to the action.

I find this to be a highly simplistic and simplified view of how things really happen in the real world. And if we take this kind of reductive approach to our coaching, then we are not going to be serving our clients powerfully. And in fact, we may be inadvertently contributing to their harm and their oppression. This is why I believe that as coaches, we need to be investing in our own anti-racist work. And in our own education around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Because when we do that work, we start to see our own blind spots. We recognize the areas where we may have been perpetuating problems unknowingly. And let me tell you, that is not an easy process. It's something I am still working on myself, I will always be working on it. As a white cisgendered female, I will always be uncovering blind spots and privileges that I don't even realize I have. And when I become aware of that, it's often a painful experience. There's some guilt and some shame that emerges around that, and there's some denial and some anger too. It is uncomfortable work, and it is necessary work, if we are going to ensure that we are coaches and providers who can safely and ethically support all of our clients, including those who come from marginalized populations. And this type of work is especially important for those of us who identify as mindset coaches, or who do a lot of mindset work with our clients. We have to understand the delicate balance between doing that type of thought work, and partnering with our clients to help them develop beliefs and schemas that are going to support them moving forward. Balancing that with,  “Yes, this is your true lived experience. This is real. You are not imagining it. You are not thinking it into being. There is oppression at work here, and you are experiencing the impact of that through no fault of your own”. That's the other dangerous piece of toxic mindset work. Is that on some level, if we make it all about your thought, your energy, then we are blaming the person for something that really is completely and totally outside of their control. We must always partner mindset work with an objective assessment of reality, of what is going on in a person's environment, of what is happening in their lived experience, so that we can help our clients identify what is in their sphere of control, and what is outside their control. So harkening back to Carol Dweck ‘s work about mindset, sometimes it's not about how we view our own talents, abilities, and intelligence. Sometimes it is about how others view our talents, abilities, and intelligence. And sometimes we are viewed differently based on our race, ethnicity, sex, gender, skin tone, level of intelligence, nationality, all of these things are true and valid. And so as coaches, we must make space for that. We cannot bypass it in the name of mindset work or positive energy. Because if we do, then we are contributing to the problem. And because you are a Coach with Clarity listener, I know that that goes against your values of integrity, ethics, service, justice, and love. So, where do we go from here as coaches? How can we create a world that is centered in meaning, justice, and joy, through the practice of coaching? For those of you who've been to my website, you know that those words are taken directly from my vision statement. Because that is what I want to see in this world. And I do believe that coaching is a vehicle to make that happen, where meaning justice and joy are at the center of our world. So how do we do that? How do we do that as coaches?

Well the first thing we can do, maybe the easiest thing we can do, is to listen and believe our clients. When our clients share experiences where they have been on the receiving end of injustice, we believe them. We don't question their thoughts about it, or their mindset. We don't suggest, in any way, that they brought this on themselves because of their energy or because of what they believe about themselves or the situation. We listen to them and we believe their experience. One of the processes I teach in the certified Clarity Coach program is called the Care Model. And in fact, I am planning on devoting an entire episode of the podcast to the Care Model this summer. So more information to come on that. But the Care Model provides us with a framework to deeply listen to our clients. And the first two components of that model are Confirm and Affirm. So that's the “C” and the “A” of the Care Model. So when we confirm what a client is saying, we're simply reflecting back what we've heard in order to make sure that we've understood them correctly. So, sometimes we can put that into our own words. Other times, we're just going to restate using their own language. But we want to make sure that we have correctly heard what our client has shared with us. And then we follow that up by affirming them. we normalize their thoughts, their feelings, their experience, whatever it is they've shared with us, we normalize it by placing it into context. This lets the client know that not only have we heard them, but we deeply understand where they're coming from. And we are signaling that what they've experienced, however painful, however unwanted it may be, is understandable. And we are not questioning the validity of their interpretation. So thinking back to that example I used earlier, of the black female who shared that it's unlikely she'll ever be promoted at her current firm, because all of the past promotions have gone to white men. When we use the Confirm and Affirm strategies, we are repeating back what we've heard, “So it sounds like at your firm, there is a long history of promotions going only to white men”. That's a simple restatement of what she has shared, so we're confirming that we've understood her message correctly. And then we Affirm her perspective. We might say something like, “It makes complete sense that you would be frustrated, and angry, and even feel helpless, being in an environment where you are not given the same opportunities as other people because of your race and gender”. That's how we Affirm her. So we follow up by placing her feelings and her experiences into context. And we do so in a way that completely validates her perspective and her experience. From there, we're going to move into partnering with her to help her decide where she wants to go next, and what she wants to work on in the coaching session. And some of that may involve some mindset work. But we need to make sure as coaches that that mindset work is not asking her to change her beliefs around her lived experience as a black woman. So listening to our clients, believing our clients, and using Confirm and Affirm as strategies to support our clients, are the very first step we can do to ensure that before we even launch into any sort of mindset coaching, we are honoring our clients lived experience, and taking that objective reality into account. There are also things as coaches that we need to be doing outside of the coaching sessions to ensure that we are providing ethical, quality coaching services to our clients. And we need to be doing our own work and education around these issues. If this is a relatively new topic that you're exploring, there are some fantastic resources out there, especially for coaches who want to bring a more inclusive approach to their coaching work. And since you're already listening to this podcast, I definitely want to recommend another podcast for you. It's called, “That's Not How That Works”. It's hosted by Trudi Lebron and Louiza, or “Weeze”, Doran. You can learn more about it at, nothowthatworks.com. And this is a fantastic podcast that is looking at the intersection of anti racist work and the coaching profession, and specifically the ways in which the coaching profession gets it wrong. It will challenge you, it will change you, and it is one of the best resources out there I know for coaches who really want to take a more equitable look at the coaching world. So go check out “That's Not How That Works”. I can also attest that Trudi Lebron’s programs are outstanding. I was a part of a mastermind program she ran back in 2020, she also runs the equity centered coaching collective. That is a fantastic resource for coaches who are doing this type of work, so you will definitely want to check that out as well. Another thing to consider as part of your work is hiring and working with a coach who specializes in anti-racist work. A few episodes ago, I had the sheer joy and honor to bring Alyssa Hall on to the podcast as a guest. She is a fantastic coach who specializes in helping other coaches and professionals bring an anti-racist approach to their work. Alyssa also has a program called, “The School of Anti-Racist Leadership”, and so she is a fantastic resource out there for people who want to do this level of work, who are willing to do this level of self inquiry. And I can't speak highly enough about Alyssa. But whether you work with Alyssa, or whether you find another coach who has training in anti-racism, or DEI, this can be a part of your growth and professional development as a coach. Within the ICF Code of Ethics, one of the things we commit to is continuing to develop our mastery as coaches. And certainly, doing this type of work is very much in line with our professional and personal development, and strengthening of the coaching profession. So essentially, what I'm recommending is that we start by listening to our clients and believing them. And then we invest the time, the energy, and the financial resources into our own education, into our own work, so that we can ensure that we are showing up for all of our clients. Especially those who are on the receiving end of systemic oppression. Because that is truly the foundation of strong mindset work, and powerful coaching. So with that, let's head into this week's Clarity in Action Moment. 

For this week's Clarity in Action moment, I'm going to invite you to reflect on what you've heard in today's episode. And let's pay special attention to anything that may have made us feel uncomfortable, made us feel angry, even ashamed. And instead of running away from those uncomfortable emotions, let's instead view them as arrows pointing towards something that maybe wants more attention, wants more exploration. How you choose to reflect on this is up to you. I know some people really enjoy journaling, I tend to be more of a verbal processor. So maybe this is something I will want to talk about with a trusted friend, or with my own coach, or maybe even just recording my own voice memo to kind of talk things through. So reflection is step one, but we want to make sure that that level of reflection translates into action. So I'm also going to challenge you to take action on this, and to think of one thing you can do this week in support of your continued expansion here. Perhaps it looks like downloading an episode of “That's Not How That Works”. Maybe it looks like booking an appointment with someone like Alyssa Hall, or Erica Courdae, another fantastic coach in the space of DEI. We've got an episode featuring Erica earlier in the podcast, so I'll make sure we have a link to that as well. But I am going to encourage you to take action. Do not let this podcast be the last step in your journey. Far from it. Let's continue to do this work together, and let's continue to have this conversation together. We can do so over on Instagram, I'm @CoachwithClarity. Or come find me in the Coach with Clarity Facebook community, just head to coachwithclarity.com/community to request to join and I will see you there. All right, my friends. That's it for this week. I want to thank you for joining me for this episode of the Coach with Clarity Podcast, and I will be back in your feed next week with a brand new episode. So, if you have not yet followed the Coach with Clarity podcast, be sure to do so wherever you download your shows. Until then, my name is Lee Chaix McDonough, reminding you to get out there and show the world what it means to be a Coach with Clarity.


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