What is a ‘deficit mindset’?

Deficit thinking refers to a way of thinking that focuses on an individual’s or group’s perceived shortcomings or deficiencies rather than their strengths or assets. It often involves labeling individuals or groups based on negative stereotypes or assumptions and can lead to a narrow and limiting view of their abilities and potential. Deficit thinking can be particularly damaging in educational or social contexts, where it can lead to unequal treatment and opportunities for certain individuals or groups based on perceived deficits rather than their actual abilities and potential.

“…deficit thinking is rooted in a blame the victim orientation that suggests that people are responsible for their predicament and fails to acknowledge that they live within coercive systems that cause harm with no accountability”.

Within psychology, the concept of a deficit mindset refers to a mode of thinking that is marked by negative self-talk, feelings of inadequacy, and a belief that one should have already met some external standard of behaviour rather than focusing on their strengths and capabilities.

I read an analogy somewhere that went something similar to this:

“IF the optimist sees the glass as half full, and the pessimist as half empty, then the person with a deficit mindset probably believes that they should have done a better job pouring the water in the glass. They might also believe that they should have changed the water filter earlier, that they should have been more committed to staying hydrated, and learned how to make their own glassware.”

The word “should” is a clear sign of a deficit mindset as it captures two core tendencies: measuring oneself against an unattainable set of expectations and believing that one has failed to meet those expectations.

Often it’s what brings people into my therapy room; it’s characterised by a sense of inadequacy and a feeling of not being enough. People with this harsh and negative mindset towards themselves tend to measure themselves against external standards and are constantly striving to meet them, but never feeling satisfied or fulfilled.

Anyone who has worked with me is probably nodding and smiling right now because you all know that ‘should’ is a banned word in my therapy room. Mostly all it does is serve as a tool that people use to beat themselves up with.

Are you ‘Should-ing’ yourself?

The first rule of the deficit mindset is that there is never any excuse for being in deficit. Therefore, people who recognise themselves in this description often add “get rid of deficit thinking” to their list of things they should have done, right after flossing twice a day and having an immaculate home and perfect interpersonal relationships. However, it is important to understand that the use of language such as “should” is not only counterproductive but also hinders the brain’s capacity for higher reasoning.

To overcome this rigid and unhelpful thinking, it can be helpful to start by paying attention to the language we use when talking to ourselves. As mentioned earlier, the word “should” is often a key indicator of this unhelpful mindset. To begin, try to be more aware of how often you use the word “should” when talking to yourself. This word is a sign of a deficit mindset because it implies that you’re not meeting an external standard that you think you ‘should’ be (see what I did there?). It’s important to remember that these standards are often unrealistic and are not a true reflection of who you are.

Let’s take an example of someone who wants to feel more confident in their everyday life. In fact, they truly believe they “should” feel more confident; the fact that they don’t is proof that there’s something wrong with them. They pick at their interactions with people, examining them for flaws and criticise what they’re doing. Eventually, overwhelmed with how awful they feel they end up sitting on my couch saying “I just don’t understand… I try so HARD!”

If you had a plant that suddenly went from growing happily to losing its leaves and looking sickly, would you blame the plant for being a weak, poor specimen? Or would you try and troubleshoot the problem? You’d examine the situation and try and figure out what was going wrong, what the plant needed and provide it.

This level of examination, data collection, hypothesis testing, and solution trialling is necessary for problem-solving. However, the use of the word “should” pre-installs an explanation for the problem, thus eliminating the need for higher reasoning. When one does not follow a rule (breaks the “should”), the reason is that they are bad at controlling themselves or their feelings.. Therefore, the only relevant responses are to apply the rule harder and become less bad.

Breaking away from the deficit mindset

One way to change your mindset is to rephrase “should” statements into something that you want to do. For example, instead of saying “I should exercise more,” try saying “I want to exercise more” or even “I COULD exercise more” This small shift can help you to focus on your desires and choices rather than on what you feel you should be doing. You want this thing.

Generally, when you want to make changes in your life it’s because it will benefit you in some way, so the next step is to identify the results you would get if you acted on this desire. This will help you to connect your desire for change with the specific reasons why you want it. It’s essential to be honest with yourself about why you want to make this change. Once you’ve identified these reasons, you’ll really be able to connect with why it’s important at the moment when a choice looms.

Finally, take the opposite angle and ask yourself why you do NOT want to do this thing. This can help you to understand the logical reasons why you might be resisting change. Instead of assuming that you already know what is going on, take the time to investigate the actual and specific reasons behind your inaction.

This shift is significant because it allows you to address the objection that you know is present, and to realise that even this non-compliant part of yourself has a logical reason for its actions. Every behaviour has a positive intention behind it, right? This part is not trying to throw you under the bus, but rather it is trying to act in your best interests in a way that you have not yet understood. Once you’ve identified these reasons, you can work on addressing them.

Recognising and overcoming a deficit mindset can be challenging, but it is possible. By paying attention to our use of “should” and reframing it as a desire, identifying the results we want to achieve, and investigating our objections to taking action, we can begin to shift our perspective and break out of the cycle of self-criticism and unfulfilled expectations. With practice and patience, we can cultivate a growth mindset that allows us to learn from our mistakes, embrace challenges, and see ourselves as capable of growth and improvement. Ultimately, this shift can lead to greater resilience, confidence, and fulfillment in all areas of our lives.