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Stuck In Stress Or Advancing In Adversity?

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

It's hard, if not impossible to learn effectively when stressed. The networks of neurones in our brains have to choose. Do I learn or do I stay safe? How we deal constructively with stressful situations has been of longstanding interest in psychology. While many articles tackle reducing it, which is worthwhile, dealing with it well is a skill worth fostering. "Life is suffering," the Buddhists say, so learning to live well means progressing in the face of difficulties and most importantly learning from the hard times.

There are many psychological theories that I could draw on to consider the impact of stress on goal progress. In this article, I'm interested in two. I'm not going to go into them in too much detail but considering them both in alignment may bring some interesting reflections to mind and help you see how to master stress and keep moving forward with your endeavours. Both theories, individually, are popular and well-researched. Their consideration together is theoretical and has much less evidential backup. Therefore, their consideration in this article is food for open-minded thought as opposed to "rules for life".

We are going to look at Attachment Theory and Goal Orientation Theory. In sport, performance and achievement psychology, anything to do with goals is familiar territory, but Attachment Theory is a theory that deals primarily with intimate relationships that form in the earliest years of our life. On the surface, these two theories are very different, yet they both attempt to make sense of how some people respond well to stressful encounters and others respond poorly, defensively and limit their goal progress. Let's take a closer look at these two theories.

Goal Orientations Theory looks at what motivates people to achieve in life, be it at school, in the workplace or in the sports arena. A theory developed in the 1980s by a scholar from New Zealand named John Nichols, Goal Orientations Theory helps people who are interested how people progress in their performance endeavours understand the reasons for different behavioural responses under stress. Specifically it can help us understand why a person strives to overcome performance challenges, another gives up quickly or even avoids trying in the first place.

It explains how differences in motivation and behaviour are related to the views people take of their goals. Most commonly discussed in the research is the difference between self-validation goals and learning goals. Self-validation goals are goals that when met prove one's ability and defend a person against judgments of incompetence or inadequacy. In my view, self-validation goals are precarious goals. They feel great when you reach them, but if you're striving to improve in any sort of performance arena you'll often prove yourself to be incompetent and inadequate along the way. Of importance also is whether an individual believes that their abilities are fixed or changeable concerning a goal.

The second theory we are interested in is Attachment Theory. Attachment Theory was first proposed by psychologist John Bowlby and refined by Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s. One of its main proposals was that in stressful situations infant behaviour primarily results in infants seeking proximity to a primary caregiver and that the responses of that caregiver are fundamental to the development of working models or maps which guide a person's thoughts, feelings, and expectations of relationships throughout their life. In a healthy situation, the infant develops the belief that help will be accessible, available and responsive when needed. In unhealthy situations, infants tend to develop beliefs that may indicate that they are unworthy of help and rely on defensive (self-validating) ways to deal with distress.

How could the two theories combine to inform goal progress or lack thereof?

While these two theories are very different their similarities could lie in their concerns for adaptive goals of seeking to learn and maladaptive goals of seeking to validate self-worth. For example, when faced with a stressor a person's attachment system can be easily activated. This means that their internal patterns of feeling supported, cared for and safe to explore the stressor are awake and generating thoughts and feelings about the situation. If the person has secure views, such as feeling safe to explore the situation, that they are supported and that in the process of dealing with the situation, a significant person, (could be a coach, a line manager, or a friend but most importantly their self based on their internal views), will respond in a helpful way, they are able to tackle the stressor with constructive strategies and tend to overcome their difficulties. If the person has insecure views, such as feeling unsafe to explore the situations and that a significant person (including their adult self) will not respond in a supportive, responsive way they will tend to respond to the situation defensively which may involve giving up or not trying in the first place. In this situation opportunities for learning are lost because they are either overlooked or too risky.

What can we do about it?

Maybe by drawing on goal orientation theory coupled with attachment theory, we can ask ourselves some useful reflective questions when faced with dilemmas about the adversities that we face.

What is my internal pattern likely to produce in the way of thoughts that isn't helping me to resolve this situation?

Why am I so focused on what other people think of me in this situation?

Can I focus on a goal that will bring about progress for me in this situation?

If I realised that my self-worth wasn't on the line, what would I want to do in the face of this situation?

What is the useful learning that can take place in resolving this situation?

Am I focusing on the things that will help me move forward, or stay stuck?

I think that the impact of stress on progress is an important consideration when we think about performance, and our ability to reach goals. With stress being so pervasive in most people's lives, how much progress is lost and potential forfeited because of the internal models of thinking that are generated in its wake?

Focus on re-calibrating your internal models to respond to adversity with support and responsiveness and your thoughts will then serve you well.

In this week's article, I drew on this theoretical piece by Rusk and Rothbaum. It's not a new piece but I came across it in my work on relational, complex trauma and its impact on a person's ability to perform at their potential. Here is the full reference -

Rusk, N., & Rothbaum, F. (2010). From stress to learning: Attachment theory meets goal orientation theory. Review of General Psychology, 14(1), 31-43.


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