How To Overcome Learned Helplessness
It all started with torturing dogs…
Now, before you turn me into the police as a violent sociopath, you should know that I’m not talking about me. Personally, I love dogs and I am appalled by the study I’m about to share.
Sometime in the late 60s and early 70s, a psychologist began a series of cruel animal experiments. His name was Martin Seligman.
Seligman wasn’t a bad person – at least, I don’t think so. Like most scientists, he just wanted to know what happened when X.
To cut a long and horrifying story short, he put dogs into a box where they received painful electric shocks. In one experimental group, the dogs were given a way out. For the other group, there was no way for them to escape the pain.
What Seligman found was when he put both experimental groups in a position to escape, something strange happened.
Contrary to the idea that the dogs would try to escape the pain, the ones who had not been able to escape before didn’t even attempt to now. Even though the escape was obvious, they didn’t even try it.
When elephants are young, they are tied to a stake in the ground far too heavy for their underdeveloped bodies to pull loose. They try, but they soon learn that they cannot. Strangely though, when the elephant grows older and stronger, it never tries to escape even though the stake in the ground would pull loose quite easily when pitted against the elephant’s bulk.
It has learned that there is no escape, just like the dogs did. It does not know how to overcome learned helplessness.
What Is Learned Helplessness?
Learned helplessness is mainly a feeling of not being in control.
Over time, like the dogs and the elephants, you become conditioned to expect pain, distress and suffering.
At first, you try to fight it but, over time, you learn that you can’t escape from it, so you stop trying.
This can come in the form of personal learned helplessness (i.e. I can’t help me) or universal learned helplessness (i.e. no one can help me). Both of these negative beliefs can be enough to flatten someone.
In fact, they did just that to me not too long ago.
My Experience With Learned Helplessness
When I arrived in London to attend university almost five years ago, I had debilitating social anxiety. Like most students, I hid it under litres of alcohol – not that it really helped my anxiety.
You see, before I left for university, my long-term girlfriend had dumped me in quite a spectacular fashion. In doing so, she also seemed to turn all of my friends back home against me.
I had come to London to start a new life, but I was constantly haunted by the feeling that everyone hated me and didn’t want to be around me. Slowly, I isolated myself, only emerging when work or university classes demanded it.
What I didn’t realise was that I was teaching myself that I was helpless. I was conditioning my mind to believe that no one would ever like me and that I would be alone forever.
I was giving off an anti-social, defensive vibe and this didn’t work too well for trying to make new friends.
For a long time, this served to reinforce my learned helplessness until, completely by accident, I made a couple of friends.
How I Learned To Overcome Learned Helplessness
I would love to tell you about how I learned to overcome learned helplessness with a sudden flash of inspiration. How a light shone down on me on my metaphorical road to Damascus.
Unfortunately, most insights don’t happen like that outside of fiction.
I made friends accidentally. I never went out of my way to be friendly or even to make friends, but I suddenly had two.
Though I could not tell you how it happened, we just all seemed to connect. One day I was alone, destined to be that way forever. The next day, I had two people in my life that I cared about and who cared for me. Who knows how that happened – that’s not the point.
The point is that I started to challenge my beliefs about being unlikeable – even though it was an unconscious challenge. Eventually, that challenge became more conscious and I found myself connecting with others around me more and more.
Some of these friendships were toxic failures and some I have maintained until this day. I’m not alone any more and all it took was the challenging of an irrational belief.
After all, that’s what learned helplessness really is – a completely irrational belief that there is no escape from the pain, anxiety, depression or suffering.
But, if I can overcome learned helplessness, then so can you. In the next section, I’ll share two simple ways that you can use to beat learned helplessness.
How To Overcome Learned Helplessness
Like I said before, I stumbled upon the exit from the miserable life that learned helplessness trapped me in completely by accident.
I never meant to make friends and I never meant to challenge my deeply held belief that I was unloveable and no one would ever like me. But, it happened and now I know how it happened.
The following concepts are simple to use and, if you keep using them, then nothing can stop you from overcoming learned helplessness.
1) The ABC Model
I’ve written in the past on how to use the ABC model to overcome irrational beliefs. It’s a very simple process and it’s pretty easy to remember too.
The model is:
A – Activating Event
This is something that happens. It can be an event or a random, horrible thought that pops into your head at the worst possible time.
For example, you are stood up on a date by someone you really liked.
B – Beliefs
Your beliefs about something are what gives it an emotional charge. Following our example above, you could believe that they never really had any interest in you, that you are fundamentally unloveable and you will be alone forever until the day you die.
C – Consequences
These can be behavioural or emotional e.g. anxiety, crying, anger, shame.
D – Dispute
So, how do you overcome the irrational, debilitating belief?
Summon your inner lawyer and cross-examine the belief. Gather evidence against it and present the case to yourself.
Maybe he or she had something unexpected come up or perhaps they got nervous or maybe they got the date and time wrong.
If you can take a moment to entertain some doubt about your belief, you’ll be amazed at the dozens of possibilities more likely than you being truly unloveable.
E – (New) Effect or Emotion
Now that you’ve taken the time to challenge your irrational belief, this makes room for positive emotions and positive behavioural action.
Change your beliefs about something and you change the thing itself. This may take some practice but, over time, using this model will become second nature to you.
Let your inner lawyer do his or her thing. Don’t let yourself be sentenced to anxiety and depression when you can fight back.
2) Embrace Failure
I mentioned in my story about the many failed, toxic friendships I formed along the way to overcoming learned helplessness.
If I could give one piece of advice for anyone struggling to do anything in life, it would be to embrace failure.
Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset, has stated that being exposed to failure forces you to learn how to take personal responsibility for your results in life.
It’s not about being a martyr or courting failure. Rather, it’s about learning to become resilient in the face of failure and knowing that it means nothing.
It’s OK to fail and you should try and do it as much as possible.
The more you fail, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more successful you will become in life.
I have failed hundreds, maybe even thousands of times in the last year alone in almost every area of my life. But, I have succeeded because of each failure.
Give yourself a break and embrace failure.
It may just make you more successful than ever before.
You don’t have to remain trapped in learned helplessness forever.
Whatever is going on, whether you are suffering from anxiety, depression, stress or worse, you still have great power within you. No matter what happens, no one can ever take away your ability to choose how you respond to challenges within your own mind.
“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietsczhe
Fight back and take control of your life. Dispute your irrational beliefs. Embrace failure and learn.
Over time, you will learn how to overcome learned helplessness.
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Comment below your thoughts on how to overcome learned helplessness.