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How to navigate learned helplessness in your life

learned helplessness
Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

If you feel like you have little control over the outcomes in your life, you may be suffering from learned helplessness. It happens when you give up easily and become passive because you feel nothing you do will make a difference.

Because of things that happened in your past, you may stop believing things will ever change and lose hope for a brighter future.

As an example, unmet needs in childhood can lead to learned helplessness. If you cried out for help and no one came, you would learn that nothing you did had the power to change your situation.

Or if subjected to repeated adverse events, you were not in a position to escape or improve your lot in life. This, too, leads to learned helplessness that can stretch into adulthood.

If you struggle to ask for help or give up easily in the face of challenges, these could be signs of learned helplessness. If you find it hard to motivate yourself or you procrastinate on completing projects, that’s another sign.

Basing the future on the past

Unfortunately, we tend to base future expectations on what’s happened in the past. And if, as children, we felt we had little control over what happened to us, we became conditioned to feel hopeless and ineffective in life.

If, as children, we felt we had little control over what happened to us, we became conditioned to feel hopeless and ineffective in life. Click To Tweet

I certainly felt that way in my youth. As a victim of severe emotional abuse and neglect, I grew up with the belief that the world was a scary place and I had no one but myself to lean on.

And when you don’t believe you have the power to impact your own life, that’s a scary place to be.

A lack of support from my parents made it nearly impossible to motivate myself at school even though I had tested as “gifted”.

I have also encountered the feeling that things will always be the way they are now. As though I have no power to change the situation and sit at the whim of fate.

Ways to overcome learned helplessness

learned helplessness

1. Change the narrative.

Now that you know where learned helplessness comes from, you can begin to tell yourself a different story.

You’ve been conditioned from childhood to believe that nothing you do will change your outcomes. Now as an adult, you can challenge that belief and take advantage of the myriad options available to make your life better.

2. Stop self-blame

Instead of beating yourself up when things don’t go your way, find external reasons. For example, life’s inevitable failures don’t mean you’re a loser. It could be bad timing or the wrong audience.

The world’s most successful people brush off failures every day without making it mean anything about them. Remember most people don’t talk about their failures but we all have them.

The world's most successful people brush off failures every day without making it mean anything about them. Click To Tweet

3. End fatalism

Note to self! I’ve had the tendency to assume a bad situation will continue ad infinitum. Obviously, this started early because no matter how many times I’m proven wrong, the fatalism of learned helplessness persists even today.

I have to remind myself that circumstances can and do change. And usually all it takes is one small baby step to see that shift.

4. Keep yourself safe.

As you navigate and learn to overcome learned helplessness in your life, give yourself grace. If you start falling into old patterns, treat yourself like you would a beloved child in the same situation.

Chances are it’s the child in you that never received what she needed who’s running the show at those times. Give her the reassurance that you’re in charge now so she can sit back and relax.

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