When I flipped through the book and saw there was a chapter on “learned helplessness,” I was pretty hooked. If I’ve been feeling anything lately, helplessness is a very accurate term. When I left my job in Wisconsin, I didn’t know what other job I wanted. I didn’t know how to start my search or how to find out what I wanted. And my last job-searching experience was a nightmare I didn’t want to recreate.
Reading Learned Optimism; How to Change your Mind and Your Life, I quickly–and fervently–decided that (for once!) the advertising was not false: this is information that really could change your life. …But the book isn’t easy to read. So I figured I could share the short story and you could still get the gist.
Pessimistic people tend to think of their negative situations as permanent, general to many situations, and their fault. For example, a pessimistic man doesn’t get the job after an interview. He immediately assumes he’ll always be unemployed, that he won’t succeed in any area of life, and that he must be bad at interviewing–or, even worse, bad at interacting in social situations. Thinking he’ll never be able to do better, he creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that nothing he does can make his situation better. He “learns helplessness” and feels hopeless.
On the other hand, optimistic people tend to see negative situations as temporary, specific to the situation, and not entirely their fault. An optimistic man who doesn’t get the job after an interview assumes there will be many more opportunities, that this interview was a one-off that doesn’t affect his next, and that his interviewer was distracted during the interview or didn’t ask the right questions anyway. The optimistic, then, is not slowed by this “failure” nor daunted by the future, which he sees as an adventure. (5 minute summary video here)
The reason this is so significant is that pessimistic individuals have the opportunity to become more and more optimistic through intentionally re-directing their thoughts. Instead of using negative reasons to explain why an event happened, they can learn how to practice positive explanations.
I don’t generally think of myself as a pessimist, but by this description, I recognized I sometimes fall into this category. At our extended family Christmas, I wasn’t particularly excited to share my current work situation with a wide array of relatives. In fact, the thought of having to do so made me anxious enough that, halfway through the “party,” I went outside for a walk to give myself some space.
When I came back, my exceedingly sweet grandma informed me that she didn’t feel comfortable with me going on a walk by myself and that she missed me. I felt awful. Immediately, I found myself thinking, “I can’t believe I disappointed Grandma! I’m such a disappointment. I don’t know how to handle any social situations. I obviously don’t care at all about my family. This happens every year! The rest of the Christmases in my life are doomed!”
Yeah, it’s WAY over the top, and I recognize that…when I stop to consider it. But I’ve hardly ever stopped to consider my immediate, mental reactions to (explanations of) situations in my life. So I’ve rarely taken the opportunity to dispute these insane beliefs. I let them rule and create a strong belief of helplessness.
This time, however, having read about optimism and pessimism gave me the freedom to recognize my perspective and dispute these insane thoughts. It gave me the opportunity to battle back, “Yes, I’m bummed to have disappointed Grandma, but at least I came to the Christmas party–which I know meant a lot to her. Also, it’s true that I’m not feeling top-notch social today, but ask anyone who knows me well; I love connecting with people and I know how to communicate well! I regularly host social events and have a blast with them! Going on a walk may have seemed a little distant, but I didn’t do it with bad intent; instead spending some time by myself gave me some more time to clear my head so I could better interact with my family when I came back.”
It wasn’t magic. I didn’t feel 100% optimistic. But, I can honestly say, I did feel far less ashamed and certainly less helpless regarding the future. It gave me a little more hope and undercut the debilitating thoughts of complete failure.
God created us with a purpose. He created us with the ability to recognize our thought processes and even to dispute the wildly inaccurate ones. Recognizing our pessimistic attitudes and avoiding learned helplessness is a way we can enable ourselves to better fight the trails of this earth and to gasp His hope.
What are your thoughts?