Youarenotsosmart.com is one of my favorite blogs. The author, D. McRaney, usually writes about the psychological pitfalls and quirks common to all of us silly humans in an informative and engaging way. This entry on Learned Helplessness was one of my favorites – especially in terms of how we “trap” ourselves in bad habits and cycles of negativity.
The Misconception: If you are in a bad situation, you will do whatever you can do to escape it.
The Truth: If you feel like you aren’t in control of your destiny, you will give up and accept whatever situation you are in.
So what is the way out? McRaney gives us three, inter-related ideas. Here are the first two:
When you are able to succeed at easy tasks, hard tasks feel possible to accomplish. When you are unable to succeed at small tasks, everything seems harder…
Every day – your job, the government, your addiction, your depression, your money – you feel like you can’t control the forces affecting your fate. So, you stage microrevolts. You customize your ringtone, you paint your room, you collect stamps. You choose.
So when things feel overwhelmingly impossible, when you’re stuck in a rut, and everything looks pointless? Make a choice to take care of something very small. Emphasize the fact that you’ve made this choice. Relish in your success.
Applying this to myself: there are days when I oversleep or miss the mark on some goal I’ve made. I spiral into this “THE WHOLE DAY IS WASTED” funk and pout and whine and waste even more time. There are days when I eat 3 donuts at a work party and skip the gym in order to watch Pretty Little Liars. Later that night, I fret “MY DIET IS RUINED” and sulk and self-hate and feast on some more cookies. What is the point of that? I may have had an unproductive morning or was unable to finish that article, but I can instead think about how much I’ve done to move forward on that goal. I can be proud that I’ve been made healthy meal choices for the week and that I DO go to the gym regularly. The “mistakes” are just taken as small blips on the long run instead of derailing proof that I have no control over my own life and should accept my destiny as a lazy fat log.
This all leads to the most interesting choice of all? According to McRaney, it is choosing how you will react to your own failures.
Choices, even small ones, can hold back the crushing weight of helplessness, but you can’t stop there. You must fight back your behavior and learn to fail with pride. Failing often is the only way to ever get the things you want out of life.
McRaney words it in a strange way but essentially, you have a choice in how to analyze and interpret your own personal failures. It is the smallest, but most critical “choice” you can make that sets you on the plane of self-determination.