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Is Fear of Math Holding You Back?

How to overcome math anxiety

Photo by Antoine Dautry on Unsplash

Successful writers always give the advice “write what you know.” Well, mathematics education is the one thing that I’ve done almost every day for the past 20 years. So helping you overcome your fear of math? That’s something I know.

If math is something that’s held you back in life, then we need to talk. I promise it doesn’t have to be like that.

If you want to know my bio to know why my advice on this topic is credible, you can click below. If you trust that I won’t steer you wrong, then let’s dive in.

Baby Steps

The first thing to understand is that you’re not uniquely bad at math. Everyone started “bad at math”, at least in the sense that we aren’t born already knowing how to take square roots. Humans aren’t blank slates, we do have some starting skills. We are hard-wired knowing how to laugh, to cry, to swim, and several other things. But none of us are born knowing math. That’s just not in the brain’s initial programming. We all had to learn it.

You probably don’t remember learning how to walk, but throughout your life, you’ve seen babies get up, fall back down, and get up again. Just like you once did. To learn not just math, but anything else, you need to access that same attitude towards learning — and don’t worry, you can, it’s still there! When babies fall while trying to walk, they don’t feel humiliated and embarrassed, they don’t doubt whether they’ll ever be able to walk. They don’t quit. They just gurgle and laugh, wave their arms a little, and get back up to stammer around some more without a care in the world about how it looks to anyone else.

Have you ever known of a baby that gave up on walking?

That same kind of enjoyment of the process is available to you if you remove yourself from the equation and just focus on the act. Simply drop the expectation that you “should” get it any faster or any slower than you do.

The system of grading and sorting us into “advanced” classes or “slow” classes might be helpful for the purposes of the educational system as a whole, but for individuals, it puts a very unhelpful idea in our heads that we’re either “smart” and so we don’t need to study hard, or that we’re “bad at math” and studying wouldn’t do us good anyway.

The truth is, effortful studying and practice is the one thing that’s guaranteed to help you improve on any skill, regardless of where your starting point is. Any thought or mindset which discourages practice is therefore counterproductive.

The Power of “Yet”

There is a world of difference between the statement “I’m not good at that” and “I’m not good at that yet”.

In her book Mindset, Stanford researcher Carol Dwek differentiated the terms Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset. There is a lot of great information out there about this idea now, so you may have already heard of it. But this is so vitally important that we have to review it anyway.

One of the most crucial things which determines your quality of life, not just your ability to learn math, but the quality of your entire life, is the question of whether you think people can get better, or whether we’re stuck with what we’ve got.

For those who believe that things like wealth, intelligence, attractiveness, leadership, or in our case math ability are fixed and cannot be changed, there is no reason to try to improve. The best you can do is go through life feeling like a fraud and try to avoid being exposed as not very good. People hanging on to this fixed mindset don’t take risks, quit quickly, don’t practice, and feel terrible if other people are succeeding around them.

But for those who believe improvement is possible over time, everything becomes a challenge, not a threat. Math problems in this view are just puzzles to play with, rather than measuring sticks to judge our worth.

If you feel math anxiety, then chances are good that you currently have a fixed mindset. As I describe this, your tendency might be to now feel bad about another extra thing, now you feel guilty and self-conscious about this fixed mindset thing as well as being bad at math. Stop it!

Don’t blame yourself. Don’t even feel unique, because the unhelpful thoughts and critical self-talk which regularly pops up into your mind is very common. Go ahead and write those thoughts out as they appear in your consciousness. Don’t argue with the thoughts, don’t accept the thoughts, just take notice of negative thoughts and log them for a few days while you’re doing math or when you’re just thinking about doing math.

What you may notice is that your brain could be devoting more energy to defining who you are and what the limits are of your capabilities than it is spending on actually solving the math problem! It is as if you’re wondering why everyone else is zooming past you when you’re giving it your best effort and putting the pedal to the metal, without noticing that your emergency brake is on.

You may have noticed that I haven’t even begun to talk about tactics and strategies for how to remember formulas or crunch equations more effectively. That’s because all of those things are of no importance to you if the mindset is faulty. We’ll get to that in other articles, but there’s no point in teaching you how to rev the engine harder until you learn how to release your brakes.

You might understand what I’m trying to tell you on an intellectual level, and you might agree with Dr. Dwek’s research if you were to examine it for yourself, but that still doesn’t mean you’ve emotionally switched from a fixed to growth mindset just because you accept it intellectually. In the short run, our deep-seated emotions are always much more powerful than our consciousness. But our consciousness has the ability to sculpt our emotional selves over a long period of time in much the same way that a river can carve a canyon.

There are three activities I’ll recommend to immediately begin changing on an emotional level.

Recondition Your Mindset

Listen daily to Shakira’s song “Try Everything” from the Zootopia soundtrack. No, I’m not kidding. Do it in the morning when you wake up and at night before you go to bed. I know that seems silly, but you have to speak to your inner child. One of the easiest ways to access that is through music. For many thousands of years, ancient societies used drums and chants and dancing around the fire to touch something primal within us. That rhythm is still within. The power of your music to shape your thoughts and beliefs is far more profound than you probably realize. I have rarely encountered a catchy piece of pop music that sets you up for a beautiful life in the way that this song does.

  1. Speaking of your inner child, you have to make math fun for that child. That means play some games. Instead of feeling guilty for wasting time on Candy Crush, Fortnite, or Farmville, you can download math and logic games on your phone and play guilt-free. Just search for “math games” and pick one that interests you, especially one which will help you improve on basic skills like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division if you aren’t yet confident in those. Everything in math is based on those operations, so you’ll always feel like a fish out of water until you’ve mastered the basics.
  2. As mentioned before, keep a journal or log of the thoughts that go through your mind about math. If you’re truly being honest, then at first, your self-talk will probably be pretty horrifying. The sort of mean things that you would never say to anyone else. That’s fine. Start there, and don’t judge, just observe and report. The goal is that over time, through self-awareness you’ll learn how to be nicer to yourself, and you’ll develop the habit of adding “yet” to your feelings and thoughts of inadequacy.


Tom Bilyeu and Brian Rose on Growth Mindset

Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset

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