By Sarah James Pearse
Learned helplessness is defined in the dictionary as “a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed.” For example, a person might grow up in a demanding or controlling household but due to the fact of being a child, they have no control over their circumstances or environment. The child then internalizes this sense of powerlessness, so that even when circumstances change and there is an opportunity for escape or the child becomes an adult and can make their own choices, the person does not try because they believe on a deep, felt sense that they are unable to. A felt sense of helplessness becomes inextricably viewed as part of their identity or as an unchangeable fact of the external world.
This sense of personal powerlessness often leads to depression and a negative or limited view of the self. Children may also internalize limited views of themselves or their competence during the school-age years if they struggled with certain subjects, felt like they didn’t belong, or had a hard time fitting into the one-size-fits-all structure of the school system.
I will use my own story as an example. When I was younger, I had developed learned helplessness around my sense of competency or ability to master things. In response, I generally avoided most new or unfamiliar things. I believed that I would never be able to hold down a job or improve my social skills. I didn’t trust my hands or my reason to be able to figure out simple tasks, so I relied on others to put together my furniture or speak up for me. I skipped classes, walked out on jobs, and generally avoided talking on the phone. Even the idea of exercise seemed like something that I would never be able to master because the sensations of breathing hard, my temperature rising, and hearing my own heartbeat was overwhelming and uncomfortable; they were too similar to the sensations of anxiety. The overall anxiety of being “not good enough” drove these avoidance behaviors and my life was becoming increasingly restricted and narrow. I would tell myself, “Everyone has something they’re good at in life, except me.”
You could say that the opposite of learned helplessness is self-efficacy: one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task. Self-efficacy is integral to mental health because, without the hope of change or belief in one’s ability, a person will convince themselves that trying is not even worth the effort.
So, what are the steps to build self-efficacy?
1. Begin with an intentional inquiry or honest inventory of your day to day life. Ask yourself: How do I naturally spend my time? What am I drawn to? This doesn’t have to be what we would consider traditional hobbies; this can be anything. Push yourself to really look at your moment to moment experience. Even what we consider escapist activities can hold insight into our underlying interests or values. For instance, if you like playing video games, what is it about video games that specifically draws you? The cinematography? The storylines? The empowering feeling of shooting a gun? The dexterity it takes? The moral dilemmas that arise? The feeling of relaxation it gives you?
2. Then ask yourself: What do I get positive feedback about from others? What do I do well? This step is tricky because you might feel some natural resistance here. That’s the old storyline of learned helplessness being activated in you. It’s important to stay as neutral and objective as possible during this part. It doesn’t matter if you agree with or see these qualities within yourself, it only matters if others have. Notice if what you naturally spend your time on aligns with what others say you do well.
3. Next comes the exploration stage. Learned helplessness can negatively impact your ability to imagine, see possibilities, or explore visions for your future. Your world is restricted and narrow. To fight this central tendency of limited imagination, an important step here is to reach out to others and ask questions. Be curious. Ask for informational interviews within fields you find interesting, read articles online, take courses, talk to friends and family about what they do, explore people who inspire you on social media, really just explore what’s out there. You might be surprised what you stumble upon.
4. Define and clarify a goal. This can be either a long-term or short-term goal, however, if it’s long-term, make sure to break it down further into bit-size actionable steps. If you still don’t believe that you can ever achieve your goal, that’s ok, just suspend enough disbelief to see what happens when you take small steps forward.
5. Take action. What is one small step you can take today towards your goal? Remember that learned helplessness and avoidance behaviors take time to unlearn. We can get addicted to our own emotional cycles, even if they are negative or nonbeneficial for us because our bodies get addicted to the chemicals that are released. For example, people who are under chronic stress can get addicted to their own production of adrenaline and dopamine the stress creates even if in the long run it’s taking a dangerous toll on their body. In the same way, avoidance and the resulting relief it gives can be emotionally addictive and takes multiple counter experiences to begin to lessen its comforting pull on our psyche’s.
It also takes repetition to build the muscle of self-efficacy as we slowly set out to create these counter experiences. It helps to start small and to not heap self-judgment and shame on yourself every time you falter or take a step backward. Growth is not a straight-line process. There are going to be moments of transformational growth and then times of plateau’s, fearful starts and stops, and even doubtful steps backward. All of these are a normal part of growth, and we need the plateau's or moments of rest to integrate all of the new information we are taking in. As long as you continue to hold the goal in mind and work through any shame that arises, you will still be steadily making progress. It can be helpful to work with a therapist or other support person who can work through the shame/resistance with you.
6. Uncover your natural strengths. Developing self-efficacy requires a courageous willingness to explore and an openness to possibility. You don’t have to have the answers, you don’t even have to believe in the outcome, you at the very least just have to show up to new places, try on new habits, and experiment. You continue to explore until one day something fits. Through this process, you stumble upon parts of yourselves you never knew and uncover your natural strengths. This provides even more insight and clarity for the goals you are working towards.
7. Maintain momentum. Once you’ve accomplished at least one small goal or discovered something new about yourself, the confidence and/or curiosity this creates leads to natural energy to keep going and discovering more. You continue to build upon your small goals and achievements until self-efficacy becomes your main lens through which to view new opportunities. You will slowly shift your brain to view unfamiliar situations as challenges for self-growth rather than as insurmountable mountains.
My experience of building self-efficacy began when I was forced to make a decision about my future after college. I started with an honest inventory of my day to day life. I began looking for seeds or answers within my lived experience, rather than looking outside towards an external ideal. I thought about where most of my energy was spent on a day to day basis. Again, not where I wished it was spent (that’s ego), but where it actually was spent (the reality). My main motivations appeared to be hanging out with friends, being a listening or supportive ear, and having deep and meaningful conversations about the meaning of life. In fact, I was so focused on the relationships in my life that I would prioritize it above everything, including missing an important final exam when a friend needed to talk. Although my laissez-faire attitude about exams wasn’t helping my overall feelings of self-efficacy, I decided to zoom in on the value that was operating beneath the behavior: being with others in their sadness. Because I was so drawn to this naturally, could it be something that I did well?
I then scoured through my personal experiences to think of what people tend to give me positive feedback about. Memories of people thanking me for my “nonjudgmental presence” and “ability to listen” arose naturally and I was able to see how these connected with where my time and energy was given.
Hmm. This was at least a place to start. I had always been interested in psychology when I was younger but gave up the idea as a career when I thought that getting a Ph.D. was the only route one could take. Turns out, there were many alternative options. I just needed to reach out and ask questions, explore further.
After I spoke to a friend who was in a psychology program, he told me about the option of becoming a clinical social worker which only required a master’s degree. Later down the road, I enrolled in two entry-level grad classes at my local university before even beginning a program to see how I felt about the work. It was here that I learned about the one-on-one field of mental health counseling which felt like an even better fit than clinical social work. I would never have come across this option without first trying things out. We can only figure out so much through the limited view of our own mind.
After college, I started volunteering at as many places as I could to get some experience on my resume before applying to grad school. Just like everything else I had attempted in my life, the experiences were spotty. I started enthusiastically, but then my interest would wane, or my social discomfort would grow, and I would eventually bail. I knew in my heart this was the direction I wanted to go in, so why was I unable to commit? Why was my avoidance continually getting in my way? Was I doomed to be a failure after all?
In reality, as spoken about above, I was struggling with a years-long emotional addiction to avoidance and every time that I acted out this pattern, there was a secondary payoff of being able to confirm my mind’s story of not being good enough. As painful as it is, it is still rewarding to our ego to be right.
I was still disbelieving and filled with fear, but I knew of nowhere else to go but forward. I eventually landed an interim job as an administrative assistant at a construction company. It couldn’t have been further from my long-term goals, but it paid the bills as I bid my time to apply for grad school. This was the first job I had gotten which was run by a small, local company rather than a large corporation. This turned out to be significant and changed the trajectory of my life. Suddenly, in a small office of just three of us, it mattered whether I showed up or not; my role was actually integral to the day to day workings of the business. It was the first time I had felt true responsibility at a job and rather than burdening me, it invigorated me. For the first time, I felt myself wanting to do a good job.
Because the company was small, they didn’t have time to train me or explain much. I had grown up using computers so it was second nature for me to comb through the emails and documents to figure out what I needed to know about the company and what processes they utilized. My brain kicked into a natural organizing and research-driven mode. I’d always been a curious person and I was used to looking for answers on my own. My coworker, on the other hand, was a more external processor who needed to ask a lot of questions and process out loud to the team; she had less familiarity and ease with computers. There is nothing wrong with either style, as they both have their value in specific contexts, but because this was a startup with little resources and capacity for training, my quick learning and independent style quickly became noticed and prized. In the end, the company had to let the other employee go (who had had years more experience than me), whereas I got promoted to the position of project manager (with absolutely no experience). This experience was instrumental to my growth in self-efficacy because this was the first time I realized that all my past mistakes, inability to hold down jobs, and general helplessness was related more to a misalignment of my natural strengths and motivation than it was to something inherently flawed about me. I learned that in order for me to do well, I needed to feel a part of something, I needed to be given real responsibility, and I needed to be given the space to develop my own independence and style. With the right conditions, I was capable. I was competent. I was even successful.
I wouldn’t have had the chance to learn all of this about myself if I hadn’t put myself in the right situation and sometimes, we have no idea where or what that will be. I would never have guessed that a random summer job at a construction company would be the catalyst for challenging my belief system and uncovering my natural strengths.
Every day I showed up at that job, my confidence in myself and my abilities slowly started growing. I started to wonder, if I was wrong about this, what else have I been wrong about? What else can I actually do? What else should I try?
And then I took the next small step into the unknown, this time with a little more hope.
The above recommendations focus on individuals who struggle with depression and low self-esteem. Learned helplessness can also be an outcome of severe childhood emotional, sexual, or physical abuse, however, this requires a much more varied and complex approach to healing due to the trauma stuck in the body and nervous system. This article originally appeared on Medium.