Whether you’re brand new to goal setting or are a seasoned veteran, one thing that everyone experiences at some point is a setback or an obstacle.
For many, these setbacks can be perceived as failure, and how we deal with failure can condition how we approach our future goals. Let’s say that you routinely encounter obstacles for the goals you set and your initial response is to quit.
As time goes on, quitting becomes easier and easier until it becomes your default response to a challenge. After a while, this feedback cycle can result in a catastrophic result: Learned Helplessness.
“That’s just the way I am…”
“There’s nothing I can do…”
“I’m just not good at….”
Have you ever said any of these things to yourself? Perhaps you’ve told yourself something similar? Be honest. If you’ve ever quit a goal and used the excuse that it was beyond your control, you could be developing learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is a sneaky, little piece of corrupted code that can enter our brains without us ever realizing it. Once there, it can completely reprogram our minds and shut us down completely.
Today, I want to help you understand what learned helplessness is, how you can spot it, and how you can overcome it so that you can take control of your life, your goals, and your mindset.
Are you with me? Let’s do this!
The Pike Syndrome Experiment
To begin to understand learned helplessness, let’s revisit the 1800’s. In 1873, German zoologist Dr. Karl Mobius conducted one of the earliest experiments around the idea of learned helplessness.
His experiment involved a single Pike. If you’re unfamiliar with Pike, they are aggressive animals and voracious eaters. At the beginning of the test, Mobius fed the Pike small baitfish and allowed the Pike to become accustomed to the easy-to-acquire food.
After some time, he placed a wall of glass between the Pike and its prey. At first, the pike repeatedly smashed into the glass in an aggressive pursuit of its prey. Many of its attempts had nearly knocked the Pike unconscious, causing it to float upside down for several minutes before recovering. Ouch!
After several painful attempts to eat the baitfish, the Pike ultimately gave up and ceased trying. It had come to associate its desire to feed on the bait with incredible pain, so it stopped trying. Even after Mobius removed the glass, the Pike never attempted to eat the baitfish again.
This phenomenon has come to be known as the Pike Syndrome, a.k.a. Learned Helplessness.
Since 1873, many experimenters have replicated the experiment and have even pushed its scope.
In some experiments, the test subjects have starved to death even though food was readily available. That’s cruel, and I would never condone animal cruelty, but the results are obvious: learned helplessness is very real.
What is Learned Helplessness?
As we’ve just seen, learned helplessness is the mindset that there is no point in trying something because there’s no way to win or succeed—it’s hopeless. The pike in the previous story had tried and failed to eat the baitfish so many times without success; it began to believe that there was no point in trying at all.
Success seemed impossible. The Pike had been trained to believe that no matter what, its actions would not affect the outcome.
Has this ever happened to you? Perhaps you’ve tried to get promoted at work, and you’ve been passed over time and time again. So, after a while, you stopped trying altogether, and you’ve told yourself, “There’s no point in trying, I’m just not cut out for that promotion.”
Maybe you’ve tried to lose weight or quit smoking, but have failed, so you stopped trying. “I’ve tried everything, and it’s just not going to happen!”
Maybe you hadn’t tried everything. Perhaps there was one critical piece missing—a key strategy, a core piece of information, or even a trustworthy accountability partner that was missing from the equation. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t your fault at all.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if your past failures have been your fault or not. What matters is the damage those failures have done to your mindset.
7 Tips for Identifying and Overcoming Learned Helplessness
The worst part about learned helplessness is that it’s difficult to spot, especially in yourself. Remember, learned helplessness gives you an out—it’s an easy excuse to stop trying. Your subconscious wouldn’t want you to notice these excuses.
So, if you’re trying to spot learned helplessness in yourself, it might be easy to say something like, “I don’t have learned helplessness, I’m just not motivated.”
You can insert practically any rationalization there if you want to, but if you’re reading this article, chances are that this topic is resonating with you. It could be that you suffer from the dreaded Pike Syndrome yourself and you don’t want to admit it. Or, it could be a close friend or relative that you’re picturing in your mind.
Either way, if you’re still reading this article, learned helplessness must be of interest to you. Perhaps it’s taken root in your life or in the life of someone you care about. Don’t resist it—learn how to spot it and how to overcome it. There’s no shame in seeking to improve your life.
1. Start by Looking for Negative Beliefs
This step can be tough, but taking a hard look at your belief system and digging up negative beliefs is the first step towards overcoming learned helplessness. Do you have recurring negative or self-limiting beliefs?
It helps to carefully observe and write down your negative or pessimistic thoughts. Have you ever heard the old saying, “The good guys always finish last”?
If so, that’s a form of learned helplessness. It states that to be successful, you have to be someone who takes shortcuts at the expense of others.
Maybe you tell yourself that you have bad genes, didn’t get a good enough education, aren’t pretty enough, or aren’t smart enough, all of which are negative beliefs.
Any time you notice these negative thoughts, write them down, and look for trends. This process is the best way to narrow in on your self-limiting beliefs.
2. Look Out for Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Have you ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy? For the longest time, I hadn’t.
According to Dictionary.com, “a self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to be true due to the behavior of the believer.” If you tell yourself that you’ll never have a good job due to your lack of education, you might very well stop looking for a good job.
In so doing, you fulfill your own prediction of never having a good job. Whoa! Talk about a mind trip!
Self-limiting beliefs and learned helplessness often lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. As you seek to identify your learned helplessness, watch out for thoughts and ideas that could lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.
3. Challenge Your Negative Self-Talk
Generally, learned helplessness and self-limiting beliefs present themselves in the form of negative self-talk. Although it can be, negative self-talk may not be spoken words—it may very well be quiet thoughts in your mind. If left unchecked, these thoughts can lead to depression and low-self esteem.
“I’m an idiot!”
“I’m a failure!”
“I’ll never be good enough!”
These are all forms of negative self-talk, and they’re contributing to your learned helplessness. To overcome these thoughts, you need to ask yourself: “Are these things really true?”
Are you really an idiot? I highly doubt it! Chances are, you’ve done countless things in your life that an idiot could not begin to do. You’re not an idiot!
Are you really a failure? Unlikely! You had to succeed at many things to get wherever you are right now. If you’re working at a company, you had to succeed in your interview. If you’re a mom or a dad, you succeeded in bringing life into this world. Your successes may seem small to you, but there’s no way you’re a failure.
When you take time to challenge your negative self-talk, you’ll find that these truths automatically discount and silence your negative beliefs.
To overcome negative self-talk and learned helplessness, you have to examine your thoughts and beliefs and challenge them.
4. Discover Your Self-Worth
If you’re struggling from learned helplessness, the chances are good that you also suffer from low self-esteem and self-worth. These mindsets lead to a feeling of weakness and lack of control, but there’s one thing in life that you have ultimate control over, and that’s yourself.
If you want to overcome low self-esteem, self-limiting beliefs, and learned helplessness, you need to rediscover your feeling of self-worth.
Take an hour or so out of your day to do some deep reflection and think about all of your positive traits and strengths. Write down every single thing you think of, even if it seems inconsequential.
This method may feel a lot like self-affirmations, and in a way, it is. The idea here is to pump yourself up—to learn to feel good about yourself again. Any time you start to feel your negative self-talk taking hold, grab this list of positive attributes, and read it until you feel good about yourself again.
There’s no shame in needing a pick-me-up and who best to give you a boost than yourself?
5. Set Goals and Take Action
Daily New Year’s is all about setting goals, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it at least once.
As we discovered here today, learned helplessness is all about feeling out of control. Setting goals is a great way to start taking control of your life. Just the act of setting a goal by itself is enough to make you feel more in control of your life, at least for a little while.
In addition to setting goals, you need to take massive action towards them. I’ve said this countless times on the blog and the podcast, but starting small and taking action are the two biggest keys to success in any endeavor, and that includes overcoming learned helplessness.
By taking action, you’re telling yourself that you refuse to accept your limiting beliefs. You’re telling yourself that you can do this! Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re right! You can do this!
If it helps, break your goals down into the smallest possible pieces and attempt to complete one action every day. Finishing one thing every day will allow you to build powerful momentum towards your more meaningful, long-term goals. And, the momentum will help prevent your self-limiting beliefs and negative self-talk from resurfacing to derail your success.
6. Overcome Setbacks and Build Self-Confidence
In spite of your momentum, you’re bound to stumble along the way. When this happens, you need to understand that it’s normal to encounter setbacks and obstacles. You’re not doomed for failure—that’s your learned helplessness talking.
Remember, you may not be in control of everything, but you are in control of yourself and how you react to situations. Don’t let a temporary setback derail your momentum and spiral you into a negative, self-talking frenzy. Instead, look for ways to overcome your setbacks and obstacles.
The more times you encounter a setback, bypass it, and keep moving forward, the more self-confidence you’re going to build. The more you persevere in spite of a challenge, the more confidence you gain. The more self-confidence you build, the more you will persevere.
Much like the warm thermal columns of air that carry eagles high in the sky, this process creates a beautiful, upward spiral in your life. Have you ever noticed how they can spiral upward without flapping their wings?
Overcome your obstacles, build self-confidence, and watch your life spiral upward.
7. Remember to Celebrate
No matter what your goals are, big or small, essential or seemingly insignificant, don’t forget to celebrate your wins.
Without celebration, goal setting is just another obligation in life. What’s it all worth if you can’t stop to enjoy the fruits of your labor? During your celebration, remind yourself that your worthy of your accomplishments and that you deserve what you have and more.
Take time to review your list of positive traits and add to it if you can. Take time to feel the happiness and the positive energy surrounding your success. Embrace the winning feeling and use this energy to propel yourself forward into your other goals.
You’ve worked hard and achieved a win. Take time to celebrate!
I hope you’ve found this article helpful. If you didn’t know about learned helplessness, I hope now you know what to look for, both in yourself and those around you.
If you did know about learned helplessness, I hope you found the advice in this article useful in overcoming your negative self-talk and self-limiting beliefs.
I honestly do hope I’ve helped; however, I’m not a trained psychologist. So, if you feel bad about yourself, have low self-esteem, or are possibly depressed and you don’t feel you can overcome it alone, please seek help.
There is no shame whatsoever in getting professional help from a therapist or psychologist.
I wish you the best of luck in your personal growth journey and would also like to offer myself as someone for you to talk to. Like I said, I’m not a licensed professional, but I’m always happy to talk about goals, accountability, mentorship, and more.
Until next time, take care.
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