Learned helplessness is the condition when we’re so used to being able to do nothing that we, in effect, give up trying to do anything – even though the circumstances might have changed so that we could do something if we tried.
It can be learned by animals when given electric shock and by babies who, for example, get no feedback from their mother: They learn that nothing they do gets any response. (Presumably human babies can also learn it from receiving unavoidable electric shocks, but to my knowledge this particular scientific experiment has never been published!)
As you can imagine, it can have massive implications for us as adults – if we believe nothing much we do can influence how things will turn out we’re fare less likely to try and do anything to improve our situation. We’re therefore much, much less able to be able to cope when things go wrong.
The universe doesn’t hate you – honest
Things go wrong for everyone – the universe doesn’t have a grudge for anyone in particular. How we cope with the inevitable setbacks of everyday life is one of the things that differentiates between those people who are ultimately successful and those who aren’t.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that at the individual level some people aren’t unlucky and that others don’t get away almost without challenge by life – but in overall, big-picture terms our responses dictate a great deal of how life treats us.
It’s this approach which appears in such trite sayings as “If life throws you lemons, make lemonade”. They may be trite, but there’s an element of truth in them.
One of the big issues about learned helplessness is that we tend to regard the negative things in life as ‘permanent, pervasive and personal’. In other words, we tend to subconsciously believe that a bad situation will never change; that a bad situation in one part of our life is generalised to the rest of our lives; and that it’s something to do with us in some way that is our fault.
To challenge these assumptions, all you have to do is find a set of tools which encourage you (or force you) to look at things objectively, rather than dwelling on the negative. By getting a greater sense of perspective it puts the our setbacks in their place, cutting away at the effects of the Permanence, Pervasive and Personalisation agenda.
Two simple but massively useful questions to ask yourself when things get you down are these (there are others!):
If this was someone else’s problem, what would I do?
It’s always easier to solve other people’s problems than your own, isn’t it? After all, the chances that you can give someone else good advice is greater than the chance of you accepting good advice that someone gives you! Find ways of making the problem objective, so that it feels more like it belongs to someone else – getting distance from the setback is a very powerful tool.
Examples might include such things as writing the problem down in a letter to yourself (perhaps addressed to yourself at work if you’re at home or visa versa and perhaps using your middle name if you have one). Post it second class mail so that it takes a few days to arrive…
On a scale of one to ten, where ten is dying, how bad is it?
A seven? A five? And having established that it’s not the end of the world, don’t dwell on how bad it is – instead ask yourself the killer question “What’s the one thing I can do, now, to move from a five to a four?”. There’s always something – but as humans we tend to simply get over-whelmed by the big picture of how bad something is and dwell on the enormity of the issue, effectively saying to yourself “I can’t solve this, so I might as well not try”.
And you’re probably right – you can’t get from an eight to a one, probably, but there’s no reason to give up and stay at an eight. Seven is better than eight and there’s always something you can do.