Failure is inevitable and so are other negative life events. But how we deal with them will define our self-resilience and the way we approach future goals.

It’s awfully hard to stay strong when you’re constantly being exposed to stressful situations. We try and we like to believe that we’ll do anything in our power to change that situation. However, sometimes we feel like we’ve been holding on for too long and we just get tired. It seems like our efforts didn’t make any difference so maybe we should stop struggling so much with things that we can’t control.

Research on what is known as learned helplessness has shown that when people feel like they have no control over what happens to them, they simply give up and accept whatever comes their way.

What is learned helplessness?

First described in 1967 by psychologists J. Bruce Overmier and Martin E. P. Seligman, learned helplessness is a phenomenon that occurs when an individual repeatedly faces uncontrollable and stressful situations.

After experiencing a series of unfortunate events, people begin to think that they are helpless and they will no longer try to change anything. They “learn” that there’s nothing left to do, so they won’t exercise control even when it becomes available.

Learned helplessness lowers people’s self-esteem and makes them lose motivation and/or miss opportunities that may arise. The phenomenon has also been associated with depression, anxiety and phobias.

Why does it happen?

Learned helplessness can begin very early in life. For example, children raised in institutionalized settings or the ones with a history of abuse and neglect, often exhibit symptoms of helplessness.

When a child fails at a simple task over and over again and there’s no one near to encourage them to keep trying until they succeed, the child may learn that they cannot change their situation. Chances are that this behavior may persist into adulthood.

However, if the individual hasn’t experienced such treatment in early childhood, one factor that contributes to learned helplessness can be something that psychologists call “explanatory style“.

The explanatory style refers to the way an individual narrates an experience and it has an important role in determining whether someone can be impacted by learned helplessness. For example, people with a pessimistic explanatory style are more likely to develop it. They tend to view a lot of situations as unavoidable and often take personal responsibility for bad things that have happened to them.

Here are a few examples of situations that can also lead to learned helplessness:

  • Continuing to smoke despite several attempts to quit can make a person believe that they will never be able to quit.
  • When someone is unable to lose weight after trying different diets and exercises, they might think that it will never happen for them so they give up trying.
  • A woman experiencing domestic abuse may try to leave their abuser, but they find themselves back in the same situation, thinking that they can never escape, even when help and support are available.

A series of traumatic events can trigger learned helplessness. It is natural to feel like giving up when nothing seems to go in your favor. It’s also natural to feel frustrated or sad, but the extent of time in which you allow yourself to experience these emotions will make the difference between having a bad day and having a bad life.

How to overcome learned helplessness

Just as its name suggests, helplessness is a learned behavior, so the good news is that it can be unlearned. It will require a certain amount of time and effort, but both short-term and long-term helplessness can be reduced.

Since it is a form of conditioning, this behavior is learned via associations and responses in the environment. It’s all about reward and punishment. If we’re rewarded, we’re more likely to repeat a behavior and if we’re punished, we’ll probably try to avoid it in the future.

First of all, you should start by asking yourself some questions that will help you recognize and accept your behavior. When did you start feeling helpless? What is the common denominator that contributes to your mindset today?

Now let’s dive in and see what strategies are useful in overcoming learned helplessness:

1. Be careful with your self-talk

When did you last look in the mirror and actually gave yourself a good pep talk? Sadly, we’re often our own worse critics. We make a small mistake, we get embarrassed and we overthink it. Then we put ourselves down for something that we shouldn’t even consider for more than 5 minutes.

Everybody makes mistakes so go easy on yourself. You’re not “an idiot”, you’re human. You’re not “a failure”, you’ve just made an error and now you know better. Instead of calling yourself names, start asking yourself questions that will help open up the problem-solving areas of your brain and change the paradigm of self-talk — “What can I do next time to improve?”

2. Embrace a more optimistic explanatory style

As mentioned above, the way you explain the events that happen to you daily is tightly linked to learned helplessness. Besides, you’re going to feel even more stressed if you see the cause of an event as within yourself, like it is always your fault.

Sure, you can’t go from pessimistic to optimistic just like that. But in time, you can reframe the way you talk about your day. In order to do this, you should remind yourself that you’re not entirely responsible for everything that happens — other people and factors are also involved.

So instead of saying “I’ve had an awful day and it’s all my fault”, try going with something like “It wasn’t great, but at least I finished all my tasks” or “Tomorrow I’ll do better”. Saying positive things out loud will further help reframe your thinking.

3. If needed, change your environment

Even when you are ready to make a change regarding your behavior, it can be useless if your environment dictates you to do otherwise. .

For example, if you want to quit smoking and all your friends are smokers, maybe you should stop seeing them for a while. Just until you feel strong enough. If you want to lose weight and you still spend evenings at the “all you can eat” restaurant, you might want to choose another place for your hangouts.

Changing your environment can help you change your habits.

To sum up…

It’s hard to change a behavior that has become a part of you, but learned helplessness is a limiting belief that will keep you “company” forever if you are not determined to overcome it.

Practice at least one of the strategies listed above, turn it into a daily habit and slowly regain control over your life. We can’t have control over everything around us, but we do have a saying on certain things that happen to us.

If you feel like you can’t do this on your own, you can always ask for the help of a professional.

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