Chronic pain often gets in the way of life. Pain can cancel, interrupt, delay, interfere with, and diminish living.  The worst part is that it can make you afraid to try again tomorrow. It can challenge  your beliefs in your ability to do what you want to do in many, or all, areas of life: your work, family life, friendship, or personal goals. Psychologist Albert Bandura coined the term “low self-efficacy” to describe the belief that you don’t have the skills or ability to perform well in some area, preventing you from attaining your goals.

Effects of Low Self-Efficacy:

There have been hundreds of studies examining the effects of low self-efficacy.  Below are a few of the most important findings.

  1. If you don’t believe you will succeed at a task or activity, you probably won’t attempt the task or activity.
  2. If you do try, you will not try as hard or for as long as someone with higher self-efficacy.
  3. If you don’t attempt at all or only try a little for a short time, you will likely not succeed and you will reinforce the idea that you aren’t capable. It is a vicious circle.

Coping with Pain is More Difficult for People with Low Self-Efficacy

If you have low self-efficacy, chronic pain management is more difficult.  Coping with pain requires flexibility, confidence, courage, motivation, and a willingness to do things differently.  Low-self-efficacy is a barrier to chronic pain management. It makes it hard to live your life with pain if a voice in your head is telling you that you can’t do it.

Ways to Improve Self-Efficacy:

The key to improving self-efficacy is in doing things that will result in signs that you are capable, that you can accomplish things, that you can take control, even though you have pain. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  1. Try something new. Start small, with something that is a bit difficult, but manageable. For example, if you have low self-efficacy for cooking, try one very simple dish. You want to set yourself up for success. Each small success improves self-efficacy.
  2. Be specific in what you are trying to achieve. For example, if you have given up swimming, but want to get back to it, create a plan that will lead to success – so you will begin to see that you are capable. It is important to decide how long or far you will swim and set a specific schedule. The more specific you are, the better you will be able to track your progress and congratulate yourself on success.
  3. Do something that is neither too difficult nor too easy. Remember, if you set your goals too high, you may be setting yourself up to fail. If the challenge is too easy, it may be hard to feel proud.   Your self-efficacy will improve if you achieve things that are just a bit beyond what you thought you could do.
  4. Set goals or tasks that can be completed sooner rather than later. It is important to have long-term goals. But, you can start working on your self-efficacy today by setting goals that can be achieved in the next day or so. More immediate goals may be sub-goals for your longer-term goals. For example, if you want to have a large group over for a dinner party, but haven’t entertained in a long time, start by inviting one couple over for dessert.
  5. Improve your pain coping skills. Researchers have found that people who try to ignore their pain (rather than focusing on it), who talk to themselves in a positive, supportive way, and who avoid catastrophic thinking have higher self-efficacy.

About the Author. Dr. Linda Ruehlman is a social/health psychologist and researcher, co-founder of Goalistics, and director of the Chronic Pain Management Program, an interactive site that helps people with chronic pain to manage their pain and live richer, more effective lives as well as Think Clearly about Depression, a self-management program for depression.

DISCLAIMER: This blog is provided as an educational and informational resource only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional psychological or medical advice.