Do What You Can (Unlearn Helplessness)

Practice of the Week
Do What You Can (Unlearn Helplessness)

Category: SLOGANS THAT HELP: Advertisers know that slogans work! So let's put them to a positive use. Adopting these slogans as your personal guides and reminders will help bring more peace and more joy into your life. Journaling about how you're trying to implement a given slogan will help integrate it into your life.
“Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are." (Nkosi Johnson)

The elephant is restrained not by the puny rope
but by learned helplessness
Researchers have shown that it is remarkably easy to produce "learned helplessness" in dogs, whose neural circuitry for motivation and emotion is quite similar to ours. Then it takes much, much more training to get the dogs to unlearn their helpless passivity (Seligman 1972).

People are much the same. We, too, can be easily trained in learned helplessness, which can be tough to undo. Think about some of the ways you've felt pushed around by external forces, and how that's affected you. Learned helplessness fosters depression, anxiety, pessimism, low self-worth, and less effort toward goals.

As a human being like any other, your biological vulnerability to learned helplessness makes it very important that you recognize where you do in fact have some power, and that you take the actions that are available to you — even if they must be only inside your own head.


Begin by considering a useful idea from Stephen Covey's book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Imagine a circle containing the things you have influence over, and another circle containing the things you're concerned about. Where those circles overlap is the sweet spot where you can actually make a difference in the things that matter to you.

To be sure, sometimes there are things we care about but can't change personally, like people going hungry. I'm not saying just ignore those things or be indifferent to them. We should focus on what we can do, such as bearing witness to the suffering of others and letting it move our hearts, staying informed, and looking for opportunities to make a material difference, such as helping at a homeless shelter.

But trying to control things that are out of your hands will plant seeds of helplessness, make you suffer, and undermine your capacity to exercise the influence you do have.

Ask yourself: How could I pull my time, money, energy, attention, or worry away from stones that will never give blood or houses built on sand — and instead, shift these resources to where they will actually make a difference?

Then take an inventory of the key strengths and other resources you do have. Your circle of influence is probably a lot bigger than you think it is!

Consider how you could draw on some of those resources to take beneficial actions in ways you haven't ever done, or have never sustained.

Challenge assumptions, like: "Oh, I just couldn't do that" Are you sure? Bring to mind someone you know who is very self-confident, and then ask yourself: "If I were that confident, what new things would I do?"

In particular, think about actions you could take inside your own mind. Compared to trying to change the world or your body, usually your mind is where you have the most influence, where the results are most enduring and consequential, and where you have the greatest opportunity for a sense of efficacy and a chance to undo feelings of helplessness. For example, how could you nudge your emotional reactions in a better direction over time, or develop more mindfulness or warm-heartedness? These are all within your reach.

When I don't know what to do about some difficulty, sometimes I think of a saying from a boy named Nkosi Johnson, who lived in South Africa. Like many children there, Nkosi was born with HIV, and he died when he was twelve. Before that happened, he became a nationally known advocate for people with AIDS. His "mantra," as he called it, always touches my heart: "Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are."

That's all anyone can ever do.

For Journaling

Reflect on the question: How could you nudge your emotional reactions in a better direction over time, or develop more mindfulness or warm-heartedness? In what ways would you like your emotional reactions to move in a better direction? How can you make that happen? Remember, forming a resolve is a good start -- but resolve fades. How can you train yourself to develop new habits of emotional reaction? Any ideas? What would you suggest for yourself?

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Lance Luria on learned helplessness vs. learned optimism:

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