“Ultimately what I end up writing about is helplessness and the flipside of that, empowerment.” –Joss Whedon

We know prior learning actually shapes our future behavior, and for valid reasons! As children, we touch a pan that was just removed from the stove. It is hot, and it hurts us. Therefore, we learn things that come right off the stove are hot and will hurt. The next time we see a pan come off the stove, we know not to touch it. In this scenario, most of us do not feel compelled to retest our theory that something coming off the stove is too hot to touch. This ability to use our prior learning to shape our behavior is what keeps each of us alive.

However, there are times our previously learned behaviors or assumptions negatively impact our future behavior and potential. The research that Martin E.P. Seligman completed around Learned Helplessness in the 60s taught us that animals (later tested and proven with humans), after enduring aversive stimuli in which it is unable to escape, fails to learn avoidance behaviors in new situations (even when the new behavior would be effective). Essentially, experiencing the same thing over and over again, without feeling the power to create different results, leads to learned helplessness.

Our past experiences, therefore, can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. We begin to wholeheartedly believe we already know the outcome, so the effort, time, and energy invested becomes futile… or so we assume. The magic in what Seligman and team discovered in the 60s (learned helplessness) wasn’t recognized, proven, or validated till years later: there were outliers to their study. About a third of their subjects never became helpless. They discovered these outliers – the ones that don’t give up – “have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable.” They were optimistic and hopeful – they saw the potential of a different future and their ability to create it.

Learned helplessness essentially impairs our ability to see that we have any control and therefore we falsely claim the power and control resides outside of ourselves. Unlearning helplessness means taking back the control and power. It begins with awareness, requires hope, and depends on action.

We need awareness of where we have learned to be helpless. Has a coworker or a boss shut down every idea you have brought up and you now agree… there is no way you will have a good idea? Have you been turned down by what feels like everyone you have asked out and now you believe you don’t even stand a chance? Where do you feel discouraged or powerless? Feeling discouraged perpetuates learned helplessness.

While Bryan Johnson chatted with Tim Ferris on “The Tim Ferris Show” Podcast, he recommends recognizing where you have learned to be helplessness by “challenging all assumptions.” (begin at 1:18:00) We all have assumptions, and raising our awareness around them – actually recognizing them – is hard. Is there an opportunity to challenge your <current> truths around an assumption?

Through Victor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrestles with the reason some Holocaust victims “gave up on life” and realizes many had lost all hope for a future. In the Forward, Harold S. Kushner reminds us that “[prisoners] died less from lack of food or medicine than from lack of hope.” We see this reflected during the Korean War as well. Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton share that POWs during the Korean War experienced hopelessness. The prisoners actually began calling it “give up-itis,” being defined later as “a lack of resistance, a passivity.” Without hope, many of the prisoners “simply died, even though there was no medical justification for their deaths.”

If lack of hope can can literally kills, having hope (even in small quantities) can certainly help us to fully live. What Seligman’s outliers, Frankl, and the POWs who survived all had in common was their belief in a better future and their ability to create it. They believed in themselves and humanity, they looked forward and decided to move ahead, and they saw the possibilities and demonstrated relentless optimism.

It takes courage and strength to change your thinking – especially when you have a track record that seems to prove your behavior is not working. Einstein said it best, “doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results is not progress, it is insanity.” Challenging assumptions and unlearning helplessness is an alternative to repeating the same behavior. It requires recognizing that the desired solution or result is a possibility and behaving in a way that brings that hopefulness to life.

Where are you experiencing helplessness in your life? How can you raise your awareness, empower yourself, and make the needed change to unlearn that helplessness?



Danielle Aaronson

Danielle Aaronson

Danielle’s mission is to inspire leaders to make intentional choices that move them to positive action. She speaks at conferences, management summits, and leadership programs as well as facilitates efforts with executives and senior leaders at organizations seeking to influence their culture. Her mantra, “be the change you wish to see in the world” has allowed her to strive every day to be the best she can be and help others recognize the potential they have to make a positive difference. @deaaronson

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