This is a silent hidden dream killer
My brain is ablaze with some psychological jargon from my educational background in Psychology and behavioral health. Hang in there with me for the next few paragraphs as I get you up to speed on a concept you may or may not be familiar with. I promise this’ll make a whole lot of sense and give you some perspective and juice for how to go about making the changes you want (especially the changes you want to make but aren’t actually doing anything about – yet). 😉
The American Psychological Association defines learned helplessness as “a phenomenon in which repeated exposure to uncomfortable stressors results in individuals failing to use any control options that may later become available.”
Ok. Here’s my less-textbook-y version:
- On an emotional level, learned helplessness boils down to the experience of becoming comfortable with managing discomfort.
- On a cognitive level, learned helplessness boils down to believing that you have no control.
- And, on a behavioral level, it looks like either no action, or, a whole lot of busyness centered around tasks that maintain current circumstances.
Understandably, if you believe you have no control and you’ve become quite skillful at managing discomfort (so much so that maybe it’s become a strength, something that gives you a strong sense of self-confidence and pride) it makes a whole lot of sense that things continue the way they are!
I mean, from that place, WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT of empowered new action when to do so would be intentionally deciding to trigger your own feelings of uncertainty and insecurity?!
Here’s why this matters:
It matters because it creates a closed loop. When something happens that creates discomfort for you… instead of feeling and thinking, “hmmm… how can I change these circumstances or shift something to eliminate this discomfort and make my life better?”… your brain is conditioned to assume that this discomfort is something that you are powerless over and therefore simply must manage and live with.
And this is something you’re often NOT EVEN THE SLIGHTEST BIT aware of.
Instead of determining HOW to make an empowered change, or how to eliminate the discomfort, the default mode is to manage and tolerate it, resigned to believing that there is no other option.
This is learned helplessness.
And left to its own devices, it’s an absolute dream killer.
Learned helplessness creates a blind spot that MUST be seen in order for you to thrive.
It’s tricky though, because this pattern can become deeply ingrained, (hidden in what looks like logic), and is therefore very difficult – though NOT impossible – to re-pattern, to break out of this loop.
Here’s a quick example of common things you see when people have learned helplessness.
If, for example, as a child, you learned that you don’t get to have a say in what happens, that you don’t get to change or influence the situation, that your discomfort doesn’t matter, isn’t accommodated, or cared about … you may have learned instead to toughen up. To get thicker skin. To adapt.
What commonly happens too is that the strength and ability to adapt that you build as a result, becomes an integral part of your identity.
“I am strong”
“I’m a survivor.”
“I can handle it.”
No doubt, you are ALLLL of these things! (I’m all of these things too.)
But, just check in here: Have you ever said any of those things I just mentioned?
If yes, I want to invite you in this moment to consider – even though it may not feel true — that it MIGHT be evidence of learned helplessness.
What we know is that when something really is a blind spot, it’s really really difficult to SEE that it’s there.
And here’s a friendly reminder: Just because you can handle discomfort, doesn’t mean you have to!
To help you amp up your awareness, do this simple next step: Make a list.
Jot down at least 3 things you wish were different about your life, big or small.
To be clear, you do NOT need to see how to change them. That’s not the assignment.
Simply write them down. Name them, for now, as a way of saying, “I see you.”
Perhaps world hunger or your lack of retirement savings tops your list, which is fine. But hear this: While nothing is off limits, do not overlook the little things. In fact, when beginning to repattern learned helplessness, the smaller the better.
Jot down a few now. Come back to it throughout your week as you notice more.