learned optimism learned helplessness seligman positive psychology

Did You Learn Helplessness or Optimism – Victimhood or Empowerment?

learned optimism learned helplessness seligman positive psychology

Did You Learn Helplessness or Optimism – Victimhood or Empowerment?

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to reveal the difference between learning to believe in helplessness and learning to be optimistic – having control of your life.

First a quick update:

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Are You A Victim of The Three Thieves of Happiness?
Here are 3 bad habits that rob you of happiness – and they all start with the letter C – and we all do them. Watch my video 

Now, let’s talk about the difference between learning to believe in helplessness and learning to be optimistic – having control of your life.

If you are in a bad situation, do you do everything you can to escape it, or do you believe that you are not in control of your destiny and therefore you do nothing about it?

If you believe you have no power over your life, then you are suffering from ‘learned helplessness’!

The opposite to ‘learned helplessness’ is ‘learned optimism’ – the belief that your behavior matters and that you can control your outcome!

Before I explain why I use the term ‘learned’, it is critical to understand that feelings of helplessness lead to depression, increased stress levels, and lower intelligence and problem-solving abilities.

In 1965, psychologist Martin Seligman did a series of experiments with dogs. In one experiment, Seligman conditioned dogs by restraining them in a harness and giving them a light shock every time he rang the bell. He then placed these dogs in another box which was divided into two by a fence.

Seligman believed that if he rang the bell, the dogs, expecting to get an electric shock, would automatically jump the fence to try to escape, but they didn’t. He even tried a variation of the experiment by shocking them after the bell rang, and yet the dogs just lay there.

Next, Seligman put some other dogs in the box – dogs that had not been conditioned by the light shock. And whenever he tried to give them a light shock, they would jump the fence to escape.

In other words, the dogs that had already been conditioned to expect a light shock whenever the bell was rung just gave up and did not try to escape. They had learned helplessness. They had learned to give up because they believed they had no control over their situation and outcome!

‘Learned helplessness’ is the belief that you have no power, no control and no ability to construct your life.

Have you learned optimism, or have you learned helplessness in your life?

In his book, Learned Optimism, Seligman reveals the differences between an optimist and a pessimist by simply assessing your “Explanatory Style”:

What do you tell yourself on a constant basis? How do you explain to yourself the things that happen in your life – good or bad? Do you believe that you have control of your life? Do you believe that your behavior matters?

Explanatory style – The Optimist VS The Pessimist
When an adversity occurs, the pessimist responds by believing that it is:

Permanent (Stable) – “It will never change”
Pervasive (Global) – “Bad things always happen”
Personal (Internal) – “I am stupid”

Thus, the pessimist believes he has no control whatsoever over the outcome.

The belief that you have choices, that you have dominion, that you are autonomous (not independent of others), you control your competency, and you are self-determining are the differences between optimism and pessimism.

In contrast to the pessimist, the optimist explains adversity this way:

Permanent (Stable) – “It won’t be like this forever”
Pervasive (Global) – “Sometimes bad things happen”
Personal (Internal) – “Some things are beyond my control…I can learn and avoid it next time”

The difference between the optimist and the pessimist is not simply in the way that they perceive a bad event (bad things do and will occur), but rather to what they each attribute it: is it my fault; can I control the outcome; will it always be like this?

Seligman argues in his book that a pessimist sees the world as it really is and that many of his fears are founded, and I add that a rational optimist makes a realistic assessment of the situation and takes the appropriate action to control what he can and adjust his perspective. 

The optimist is healthier, lives longer, achieves more and has greater success while the pessimist gives up easily, hates life, is prone to depression, and suffers frequently from illness (a negative mindset and perspective lowers your immune system.)

“People who believe themselves stupid rather than uneducated don’t take action to improve their mind.” – Martin Seligman

Now let’s come back to those dog experiments by Martin Seligman. Notice the way that the dogs were conditioned to believe in helplessness: they were conditioned with ‘learned helplessness.’

The same applies to you and me.

How were you conditioned?

Were you taught or told things that you believed to be permanent about yourself, such as someone telling you that you’re stupid, weak, powerless or useless? What was modeled for you by your parents or caregiver – empowerment or victimhood?

Further, if you experienced abuse or long periods of negative emotions, then it is easy to become conditioned to believe that you are helpless and powerless.

Your ‘learned helplessness’ could actually be a sense of futility and a subconscious belief that everything leads to failure. Of course, this is not the truth. It’s just a conclusion and interpretation you made based on those experiences where you felt that you had no control.

It is also critical to understand that things in life do not work in a linear fashion. For example, if you’ve been alone for a long time you may conclude that you will always be alone and therefore you make no attempt to socialize and you isolate and withdraw. This, in turn, reinforces ‘learned helplessness.’ The point here is that you can learn optimism by beginning to challenge and change your perspective and by recognizing that your beliefs, including those that you believed to be permanent character traits, are all malleable. You can learn optimism! You have the power to choose!

If you need help to transform subconscious beliefs of helplessness, powerlessness or victimhood – book a one-on-one session with me.

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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