Veterans, Do We Accept Limitations or Acknowledge Limitations?

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Patrick Reynolds fights racing water while holding on to a tow strap attached to an Afghan army vehicle stuck in the Lurah River in Afghanistan’s Shinkai district, Oct. 12, 2011

“It is the same with people as it is with riding a bike. Only when moving can one comfortably maintain one’s balance.” – Albert Einstein

Imagine getting to a point in your life when you say, “Well…this is it. Life can’t get any better (or worse) than it is right now. I guess I better just tie a knot below me and above me and hang on with all I’ve got.” I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s pretty stagnant. Comfortable, maybe? Complacent, there’s that word that veterans hate so much. Fatalistic, capitulating, settling…stuck. Never moving forward, never growing, never experiencing what it’s like just a little bit higher up on the rope. Maybe, sure, there is something going on that limits or impedes growth or movement. It is up to each of us, however, to either accept that limitation, or acknowledge it.

I have seen veterans who believe we should just accept our limitations when it comes to mental health. I’ve heard people who support them say the same thing. I’ve had people ask me: if a veteran has PTSD, are they stuck that way? Is a veteran with severe PTSD forever doomed to a life of isolation, startle response, avoiding crowds, angry outbursts that are explained and accounted for because, “well, of course they act that way…they have PTSD?”

The answer is yes, if the veteran and those around them believe that they should accept their limitations and not attempt to push beyond them.  At the same time, the answer is a resounding and emphatic no, if the veteran believes that they should acknowledge their limitations, and thrive in spite of them, not stagnate because of them.

Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset

We limit ourselves by accepting that which limits us. Carol Dweck, currently a professor at Stanford Univeristy, has conducted extensive research regarding mindset and viewpoint, and has developed the concept of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. Dweck’s work focuses primarily on how people see their ingrained traits, such as intelligence and personality. If someone sees these traits as fixed, unchanging, then they will not attempt to change them, will not attempt to grow. This is simply accepting that we have a finite amount of whatever is in us…brains, talent, guts, compassion…and we should just ramble around the world making the best of what we’ve been dealt. These are our cards, can’t change them.

Compare that to Dweck’s concept of someone with a growth mindset. We begin with what we have, but we also have the ability to cultivate those attributes into something more. Talent can be developed. Compassion can be learned, guts can be discovered, we have the ability to increase what we have and develop what we don’t. By acknowledging where we’re at, but not accepting it as the final destination, we have the ability to change and grow.

Accepting Limitations versus Acknowledging Limitations

So how does this relate to veteran mental health and PTSD? The fixed mindset is one that simply accepts that there will be no change. In a recent conversation, a connection described a veteran she met as someone who was “pretty clear no one should expect anything from him.” That veteran had gone as far as he could, it’s not going to change, he (and those around him) have accepted his PTSD as a limiting condition and have made it one.

Compare that to the same connection, who saw another veteran with a growth mindset who struggled with PTSD and anxiety, but “he’s at a big event, leading a team. Anxiety visible but he’s out there.” This, then, is a veteran who is acknowledging how his condition impacts him, but chooses not to accept that it limits him. He grows and thrives in spite of his limitations, not becomes stuck because of them.

Accepting Limitations Keeps Us from Change

Change is hard. It’s uncomfortable, certainly much less comfortable than staying how we are. If we are not constantly striving to improve ourselves, then we are not growing. Why stay stuck in a place where we are unhappy, miserable, and make life challenging for those around us? There has to be a good reason for it, and usually it’s because we’re in a fixed mindset. What we have is what we have. We can’t change it, we can’t grow from it, we can’t learn from it.

On the other hand, change is good. The concept of Posttraumatic Growth is a result of a growth mindset, compared to a fixed mindset. When we get knocked to the mat, we can stay there. Or we can get up and get back in the fight. If a veteran who is struggling with anxiety or depression does not think they can change, then they will remain in a painful, unpleasant experience for a very long time. Maybe forever.

Acknowledging Limitations Means Change is Possible

I have seen it before, I see it nearly every day. The veteran who struggled with ten years of addiction, but is now has eighteen months of sobriety. The veteran who could not bear to think of the trauma that they endured, much less talk about it, who is finally opening up to a trusted source after years of pain. A veteran who had such a traumatic brain injury that the are quite literally a different person from before the event, but is building a new life for themselves with what they have, rather than mourning the life they no longer have. The veteran who says, “I’m tired of this, tired of it impacting my family, I’m just not going to let it get to me anymore.”

This is more than just making lemons out of lemonade, more than just the “suck it up and drive on.” Instead, this is taking a hard look at the realties of life and what’s going on in our mind…and then choosing to build a life worth living, rather than choosing a simple existence.

And that is going to lead to the enjoyable post-military life that we all desire and deserve.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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Duane France
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Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.