My adviser and I have had many conversations centered around the phenomenon of learned helplessness.
Though I’m certain many people either know someone or have been one to experience it, this article explains the history quite well: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/learned-helplessness
In my case, I am not unmotivated nor do I suffer from a lack of self-esteem. Quite the opposite, in my glorious opinion. I do, however, have buckets of traumatic experiences, most from childhood. You know. The formidable years. Many times, I react to stressful situations with an immediate desire to escape. To run. To remove myself from the scary picture. This is the way. Wildly enough, rarely is my go-to technique a valuable option, but it’s what I resort to in my mind.
Enter the concept of learned helplessness. As a child of two dysfunctional alcoholics, escapism makes all the sense! This is where I clarify my statements. I am not helpless. Never have been. I am no longer a child. Ship…sailed. But old habits die hard. And sometimes it can be difficult to balance the needs of an 8-10 yr old girl (who suffered much) with the very real ramifications of a woman in her low-mid-30s. That little girl still demands to be heard.
So what do you do when there’s an unbalance in what is required vs demanded? My own regimen includes exercise, medication, faith, and an amazing mental health professional, among other things. It’s really sad how society expects people not to discuss many of the options I just mentioned. Let’s break it down: we all have issues. No doubt about it. However, tons of people have crappy coping skills – or none at all, a personal history of – or familial history with – drug and alcohol abuse, and/or a gamut of other reasons it would take me months to run through here. The point is you’re not alone.
Bringing it back around to learned helplessness. The military presents opportunities for resiliency training which is a wonderful way of saying we’re going to give you the skills you need and an avenue to practice them. Resiliency breeds leaders because it promotes positivity and helps one deal with stressful situations. However, resiliency doesn’t mean never having stress. In fact, the complete opposite is true: resilient people become accustomed to being uncomfortable so they may understand what it feels like and “fight back.” As corny and new age as this may sound to some, I truly believe it’s this very reason why I find running fulfilling. Targeting the particular stress of running gives me a feeling of accomplishment. Note you don’t have to experience a physical stressor to benefit; resiliency can be acquired through mental or emotionally stressful events, like education or even working in a research field.
Being resilient doesn’t mean you’ll know how to react to every situation. In my opinion, it does mean you’ll fall a hundred times and get back up at least 90 of those times. The other 10? Ehhh. Becoming dependent on helplessness simply creates a barrier to positive thinking. We’re all going to have negative moments, but the learned helpless-ors (totally made that word up) get stuck in a pattern of negative thinking and refuse to or are unwilling to pick themselves back up though usually at no fault of their own. Remember this is a learned behavior. Are you starting to see your parents or siblings or a close friend in these words? Note to self.
Resiliency is also learned! There’s no right or wrong answer to overcoming learned helplessness. Many practical ways of combatting it are realizing it’s very real, understanding what it looks like for you, and focusing on the things you can control vice what you can’t control.
In my case, the escapism I mentioned earlier reorganizes itself into a very useful technique called distraction. When distracted, the mind and body can focus on something other than the stressor. Except this doesn’t work as well while running. Another hammer in the toolbox is finding someone you can talk with about what you’re going through. I truly believe a large factor in helplessness is the feeling of being isolated or unable to connect with others. The what ifs may become unmanageable. So speak up. Advocate on behalf of yourself. Talk to someone you trust. Just because you failed once doesn’t mean you’re destined for a lifetime of failure.
Failure means you tried. Failure equals growth. And, if you don’t believe me, ask anyone how long it took them to x, y, z (fill in the blank). Rarely does anything happen on the first try. Like whistling. I’m still trying.
I ask you –
Before reading this, did you know about learned helplessness?
What makes you resilient?
Tell me about a time you excelled at something the very first time! I actually hit the golf ball the very first time I ever played golf.