As you know by now, I love sharing great articles that I come across in journals, magazines, e-newsletter and so on with you. This one from Pat McDaniel of Wise Insights struck a chord with me. He introduced the concept of hidden saboteurs who undermine our efforts to get ahead and reach our goals and dreams.
In this article, he draws attention to an invisible saboteur that is easier to see in others than in ourselves.
“In 1967, researcher Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments to see if someone could be unknowingly persuaded to believe something their own eyes were telling them wasn’t so.
In the first experiment, two groups of test subjects were individually placed in their own personally confined area where they could not easily escape. They then experienced a series of uncomfortable conditions that made them want to escape the confinement.
- Test group A (control group) participants wasted little time in escaping their confinement once the discomfort got to be too much. As expected, none stayed until the end.
- Test group B participants were each placed in their own, more rigorous enclosure and could not escape despite their efforts. They just had to endure the discomfort, even as it got worse.
In the second experiment, group B members were each moved to another personally confined area similar to the first but with an important difference: there WAS a way to escape if they looked for it.
Researchers witnessed that when group B participants were again subject to the same discomfort experienced in the first experiment, they just sat there and didn’t even try to escape, even though it would not have been difficult in the new area.
What was going on?
This group had reached a point where they were conditioned to believe they were powerless to escape the misery, despite the evidence they could see that there was a way to escape (if they looked for it). They had gotten to the place of concluding, “why even try?” because they believed the outcome was fixed.
This research confirms the anecdotal stories of baby circus elephants who are tethered to a stake in the ground and are unable to pull it out (because they are small). Later, when they are fully grown, they don’t even try to pull up the stake (even though an adult elephant could easily do it) because they believe it is futile to try.
Researchers called this conditioning “learned helplessness.”
Learned helplessness can affect you and me in select areas where we have seen repeated failure (e.g. losing weight, getting a promotion, getting married, etc.).
Because we have been conditioned (learned) to believe we are powerless to change the situation, we either don’t even try or quickly give up.
If left unchallenged, this unseen force can ultimately influence multiple areas of life so that a single failure in one area draws the same conclusion (why even try again?) even if the reality is that another try would succeed.
Sooooo many are missing out on much greater success toward their goals and dreams because of this self-induced hopelessness.
What Can You Do?
There is a proven, 3-step process you can use to fight against learned helplessness (and many other self-limiting beliefs):
1. Awareness of the lies – you need to be tuned into the messages you tell yourself.
If your tendency in one or more areas of your life is not even to try (or quickly quit trying), you need to be on the lookout for your faulty conclusions. If you watch for these self-limiting thoughts, you will easily see them.
2. Challenge beliefs with the truth – you need to tell yourself the truth forcefully and persistently: You are not helpless. It is not hopeless. You can do much more than you think you can, especially if you persist.
From my experience, in the early stages, it is hard to convince yourself of the truth when the lie has seemed true for longer than the truth.
That is why you also need the next step (which many fail to use).
3. Lean on external input – seek input from the outside (those not affected by your distorted perception and see more reality than you can for yourself).
It is important to seek input from those who “believe in you… and have been there”. They can help you feel hope for a different outcome. You can even derive strength from their confidence in/for you.
One other type of external input is particularly helpful: a group working together to overcome a challenge (particularly one guided by someone who has seen success).
For example, weight watchers type groups see great success because (a) you don’t feel alone, but instead are in it together, and (b) because you see others making progress. Combined with their encouragement, you can believe progress is possible.
Learned helplessness can be unlearned with persistence and outside encouragement.