The night before my first solo driving trip in Melbourne I had nightmares. It’s not that I don’t like driving – in fact I am an experienced driver and have driven lots of different cars on all sides of the road, big and small, manual and automatic. I drive carefully and confidently and I think I am considerate on the roads. But I am spatially challenged, meaning that I have no sense of direction whatsoever and have therefore serious issues with finding my way. In addition, I cannot tell right from left without thinking hard about it. This challenge of my spatial intelligence is reflected in those parts of the IQ test where you are supposed to match up 3D images with one another to see which of four possible pieces fits with the sample image missing a part. Impossible! How can people figure that out?
Because I am adamant not to let such things restrict me I have had many detours and sweaty arrivals just because I did not take extra precautions or double check my choices on which way to turn while en route. But now that I am soon turning 40 I figure that I have to find a way to live with my spatial challenge and maybe give myself a brake. So I spent some of the evening consulting Google maps while my husband had a fun time proposing seven different routes because it didn’t matter. Well, it did for me, and I chose the most straightforward route that was a bit longer, but much simpler than the others. I memorised the street names and distances, although I also planned to have my laptop on the passenger seat.
Nonetheless, when the morning came I had a lot of excuses ready for why I shouldn’t go or why my husband should come with me. My hesitation could have to do with the fact that, while I was at it, I planned four meetings that day so I not only had to get to one destination, but three, and there was no time for messing up. The reason I didn’t seriously consider just dropping the whole project of driving a fat jeep in left traffic to parts of a huge city I had never been to before was my self-efficacy. I believed I could do it.
In fact, I knew I could do it, that I would figure it out. The term self-efficacy was coined by the psychologist Albert Bandura in his book on Social Learning Theory from 1977. Self-efficacy is a very widely used and cited concept and is related to the person’s belief about his or her ability to complete or master a certain task or meet a challenge effectively. It is for good reason that sports psychology uses self-efficacy as one of its core concepts: you can only visualize yourself with a gold medal in hand if you have high self-efficacy. I did my PhD on Type 2 Diabetes and one of our very interesting findings was the importance of self-efficacy for metabolic control in diabetes. I dare to say the same goes for every single chronic condition and in fact health behaviour in general. We also see the major role self-efficacy plays in parenting.
As simple as it seems, it is true: if you believe you can do something, the odds are that you will succeed. Well, unless you mix up boasting or an unrealistic self-image with self-efficacy. Having high self-efficacy means that you take responsibility for your actions and that the possibility of both success and failure lies within your reach. The good news is that self-efficacy is possible to affect, which indeed is what a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy does. If you don’t believe you can make a change in your life you need to start working on why you don’t believe you can make a change.
I did find my way to all my destinations, drove a total of 72 kilometers, and was not even late. It did help to plan and to ask my researcher colleague for directions at my first destination. It turned out that she knew exactly what it was like to be spatially challenged. So when the road I was driving on did this impossible thing dividing itself into two going in complete different directions I knew what to do because she had told me: stick to the right, let’s see, it’s this hand! I am not alone, in fact there are plenty of us spatially challenged, otherwise rather intelligent, people out there. You can do a simple test to tell: if you call on us to turn right too quickly and without pointing, we will either turn left or say which right?
It did feel a bit phony, but when things got tough that day I just said to myself: you can do it! The best news with self-efficacy is in fact that successes create a positive loop with better self-efficacy and more successes. Parents intuitively know this. So keep chanting “you can do it” to your child the next time it runs into a challenge and a small miracle is bound to happen in front of your eyes.