We are born into this world, completely vulnerable and codependent. Helpless without help, we cry out hoping that it will bring us food and safety. Most of the time, our cries were answered.
Unfortunately, many of our cries (and even our silence) were answered with abuse. To some of us that abuse was so random and unpredictable that we tried accept it. Just cope. No control. no hope.
This abuse sets the stage for the victim to have paralyzing fears later in life, preventing them from trying new things and developing deep relationships. They learned that abuse can happen at anytime. They learned that they have no control and no hope, so they live life in their own emotional bubble.
This phenomenon is called “learned helplessness”. It has been seen in other animals, specifically dogs.
An American psychologist named Martin Seligman conducted an experiment with three groups of dogs. Group 1 was simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Group 2 was given electric shocks at random times, and the dog could end the shocks by pressing a lever. Each dog in Group 3 was paired with a dog in Group 2. Each pair would get a shock of the same intensity and duration, but the lever for the dogs in Group 3 did not stop the shock. To the dogs in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was not aware that it’s paired dog in Group 2 was causing it to stop. For the dogs in Group 3, the shock was random and inescapable.
In Part 2 of the experiment the same three groups of dogs were put in a cage and shocked at random. All the dogs could escape the shocks on one side of the cage by jumping over a low partition to the other side. The dogs in Groups 1 and 2 quickly learned this task and escaped the shock. Most of the Group 3 dogs simply sat there passively and whined when they were shocked. (source)
This is “learned helplessness“.
This a state that many of us have experienced before and are still experiencing. However, in most cases, we are not being shocked or abused by an outside source, we are shocking and abusing ourselves.
For example, you just had an epiphany and know exactly what to do to help more people and make more money, so you start to take action. Hold on, don’t you know that you aren’t good at this? You won’t be able to help anyone. What will your mom, dad, and friends think if you fail?
These thoughts shock you little by little. As you focus on these negative thoughts and emotions, you increase the intensity and time of the shock. We all can tolerate a different amount of shock, but as we keep shocking ourselves, the energy and inspiration we had before turns into hopelessness.
This “learned helplessness” pattern will eventually spill over to every aspect of your life.
The truth is you are never hopeless or helpless. You can stop shocking yourself.
How can you stop shocking yourself? With rewards and punishment? No.
To find the answer, let’s follow up with the experiment we learned about earlier.
Most of the dogs in Group 3 were still stuck in a state of “learned helplessness”. The scientists wanted to find out how to break the pattern.
They tried rewarding them with food. That didn’t work.
They tried punishing and yelling at the dogs. That didn’t work.
Even when they stopped shocking the dogs, it didn’t work. The dogs in Group 3 still wouldn’t move.
The only way to break the dog’s pattern of learned helplessness was to physically pick the dogs up and guide their limbs through the motion of walking. This showed the dogs that it was safe to walk.
How does this apply to you?
No one will be there to pick you up and make your life happen for you. You must pick yourself up and move forward by using deep breathing & visualization. Deep breathing to turn off your stress response and visualization to simulate safety in the situation.
Next time you start shocking yourself with negativity, let go of all the air in you lungs. Make it the longest exhale of your life. At the end of your exhale, inhale deeply through your nose and repeat.
Watch your thoughts and emotions drift by as you feel your body calm down. Visualize yourself moving through the uncertainty of life with courage and grace. If something goes wrong, you’ll take a deep breath and make it right. If you fail, you will be able to unwrap the gift of growth.
Walk yourself through the journey of life without shocking yourself.
You are safe. You are good enough. Let’s make life happen, shall we?