Managing Learned Helplessness

Mood Hoover

If you’ve ever been so deep in a hole that you couldn’t see a way out, or being around someone whose plaintive victimhood drove you mad, you might have been dealing with Learned Helplessness. Does either of these comments resonate?

“I’m useless at this.  It doesn’t matter what I do, it’ll still be wrong.  I’ll just keep my head down and hope no one picks me out.”

 “She’s incapable of completing the simplest of tasks without constant supervision – I might as well do the job myself.  There’s no point expecting the slightest initiative.”

Essentially, they’re two sides of Learned Helplessness.  Without going into long psychological explanations, Learned Helplessness occurs when people persistently believe (based on perceptions of past experiences), that they can’t control the events and circumstances in their lives.  They further believe it’s all down to their own inadequacies.  Seeing no way out from their current situation, they simply put up with it.  (The light at the end of the tunnel is the headlamp of the oncoming train, and they are rooted to the spot.)  People around them, on the other hand, become frustrated, and may micro-manage or even bully them to get a response. Alternatively they may see them as uninvolved, un-caring, possibly lazy or somewhat stupid.

Typical symptoms:

  • I’m running for cover. I feel helplessI used to be able to do this, but I’m not good enough anymore.  Everything’s changed, and I can’t cope.  I’ve lost my mojo.
  • I’ve lost my job and will never get another: there’s nothing for me out there; I’m too old; have the wrong skillset; I don’t fit the profile; there’s no point even applying – they’ll only reject me – again…..
  • Please don’t let them ask me to speak, I wouldn’t know what to say, and I’ll only make a fool of myself. They’ll all think I’m stupid.

The Cost
We all have days when we feel a bit like that, but when it lasts for an extended period, we’re in trouble.  What does this belief cost you? Our lack of self-belief leeks out – internally to people around us, externally at work/groups.

Have you ever been in a room with someone who just sucks the lifeblood out of you?  You feel ten years older after ten minutes in their company.   They can be best described as mood hoovers.   Do you know someone like that?  Are you that person yourself?  When you start out feeling defeated, you’re unlikely to get a good result.   In fact, you Can’t get it. And if you work with others, that atmosphere starts to permeate the entire group.  We’re going to lose.  It happens to football teams.  It happens to work teams.

Learned helplessness is a combination of low self-esteem, combined with a feeling of powerlessness, resignation and acceptance of the status quo as immutable.

Learned Helplessness can be Un-learned

This is the good bit, you CAN do something to change.  Some of us suffer only in particular areas.  For others it is pervasive and debilitating.  If are around people with learned helplessness, you too can help.

HELPLESS                                                                                                   CONSTRUCTIVE
Internal blame: It’s MY fault                                                                           Recognise external factors: It’s not my fault
Universal: I’m always useless at everything                                              Specific: This particular aspect is the biggest problem
Situation is Permanent: It’ll never change                                                Situation is Fluid: There’s always scope for change

Recognising the situation is the starting point to dealing with it, regardless of its complexity.  Whether it’s you or someone else, always bear in mind two perspectives:

  1. Focus on a very Specific issue                                                           2. Become Action-Oriented

By doing this, you’re removing the blame aspect, re-framing and reducing the overwhelming size of the issue, and focusing on what CAN be done rather than feeling powerless. Break the actions down into very specific, small tasks, and then acknowledge completion (“Well done”).  It sounds so simple, and may take a few attempts to get it right, so persevere.

Obviously, there’s plenty of literature available on-line for you to go deeper into this issue.  The main challenge is that people suffering from Learned Helplessness don’t necessarily see the opportunities for change. Even if it doesn’t go quite to plan the first time – it’s only a small task, not the entire project – you can try it differently again.

As Mao Tse Tung so aptly put it, “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”.

Dervilla O’Brien

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