Learned Helplessness, Part II: Thinking Inside the Box

Yes, but...

Sometimes when you’re deep in learned helplessness, you try to keep up the appearance of being a competent, problem-solving person. You want people to know that because of huge structural forces beyond your control, you’re forced to sit on your hands and complain that you can’t take control of the steering wheel.

Other people, baffled as to why you keep sitting on your hands and complaining about your seeming inability to use them, will try to help you solve your problem. Because you want people to think that you’re interested in figuring out how to stand up and use your hands, you’ll listen politely. You’ll then reject every possible solution as impractical and impossible.

“Well, if you’re sitting on your hands, maybe try standing up?” someone will offer.
“Yes that’s a good idea, but gravity is strong and powerful,” you explain.
“Oh. Well, maybe if you shifted your weight back and forth and then pulled your hands out from under you, maybe that would work?” someone else says.
“Yes that seems like a good idea,” you say, “but I might lose my balance and then what would happen?”
“Well, maybe if we grasped your arms and pulled you forward, your hands would be freed!” a third person says excitedly, as if this idea might actually work.
“Yes, but you're not strong enough," you say, knowingly.
Your friends collectively shrug and walk away. You continue to sit on your hands and complain that you can’t use them, wishing that someone would help you.

If you’ve ever felt helpless, you may have been the sitting-on-hands-and-complaining-loudly person. You refuse to accept any solutions to your problem. You reject any solution as ridiculous and preposterous at best, and downright foolish and risky at worst. At this point, you’re not actually trying to solve problems, even though you pretend you are. You're in the grips of the "Yes, but..." syndrome.

"Yes, but..." statements give you the appearance of a problem-solving person, but actually cover up what you're really trying to do: complain without taking action. "Yes, but..." is a clear sign that you don't even want to entertain the possibility of change. You're invested in thinking inside the box and feeling slightly miserable. You might even like your martyrdom. Your suffering seems noble. Sometimes people get stuck there. If you're emotionally stuck in "Yes, but...," you might benefit from a good therapist.

If you're getting tired of complaining, you might try that old improv trick for keeping scenes moving and expanding possibilities: "Yes, and..." The idea is not to reject any idea, regardless of how crazy it might sound. If your "Yes, but..." statements keep you thinking inside the box, you might try rewording your "Yes, but..." statements into their "Yes, and..." alternatives. If you find that you're really stuck in "Yes, but...," you need to find some kids to ask for help. Kids have this amazing ability to invent all manner of creative solutions and don't yet have the adult reflex that shuts down the most interesting possibilities. Ask them for input. Write down their solutions. You might even try something as crazy as standing up, freeing your hands, and using them.

May I?

If your story is one of learned helplessness, you may also have a nagging feeling that you need other people’s approval or permission to make choices in your best interests. Chronic people pleasing often starts in childhood, the result of neglect. Sometimes kids try to "purchase" love and care from people by doing what other people want them to do. Approval starts to feel like love; if you want to feel loved, you've got to earn it through other people's stamp of approval. You get that stamp by never, ever saying no to other people.

 People pleasing is an understandable response to childhood neglect, but it doesn't serve us well as adults. Essentially, we're still repeating our childhood patterns to earn love and approval. If I had to guess, I'd wager that many people-pleasers are high-functioning and highly accomplished people who got to where they were by doing things that garnered approval and admiration from other people. Many people-pleasers might even be academics. (Guilty.)

People-pleasing is kind of built into academia, as a tiered system of approvals. Academics are trained to need official approval before we do anything. As graduate students, we need our professors’ approval to pass their classes. We need the approval of our dissertation committees to pass first our qualifying exams and then to defend our theses. We often even need the approval of students, who fill out student evaluations that we pretend are objective evidence of teaching quality. Later, we need the approval of Reviewer #2 (who will refuse to give it, crushing us utterly) to publish articles and manuscripts. We need lots and lots of approval from everyone ALL THE TIME.

(This is not to say that official certifications and certain approvals of professional competence are bad. Some official stamps of approval are very important and relevant in certain situations. I, for one, am glad that medical doctors and electricians have received training and certification.)

And here’s where things start getting messy. Suppose you want any of the following: more money, a better job, a non-academic job (go team!), a job with less prestige but more appreciation, a new place to live, an adventure (!), a career change, a new romance, a major move, or a hobby you've never tried before.

You may be waiting to do these things until you receive the approval of those around you. Here is a secret: if you are waiting for other people's permission or for their approval before you start doing what you really want to do or making different kinds of choices, you will probably be waiting a very long time.

When you decide that you're bored waiting for other people to give your grown-ass adult self permission to do things in the world, you may have to make choices that other people don’t like. When  you start making choices in your own best interest, rather than in that of other people, you can expect resistance. In fact, if you’re making choices that are truly congruent with who you are and what you want, you will probably receive disapproval. In some extreme cases, people in your life may try to outright forbid you to make choices in your own best interest or actively obstruct you.

When people don't like your choices, they'll probably let you know. This is where you need to have some boundaries. You can give people permission not to like your choices. In fact, you can even tell them that. "I know that you don't like that I've chosen to X, but I would appreciate your help and support." And then they still might disapprove and not help you, but that's about their boundaries, not yours. You can agree to disagree about your new life choices. You're increasingly your tolerance for emotional discomfort (guilt, mostly) and conflict.  (And then you find out much later in life when you're in therapy that people can love you and yet still disagree with your choices. It's a both/and, not an either/or.)

And here’s another secret: people don’t actually have to approve of you or your choices for you to be okay as a person.

If you're not waiting on other people's approval, you may be waiting for your own approval and playing the "Yes, but..." soundtrack in the background. You can give yourself your very own permission to make choices that resonate with you and feed your soul. Yes, it feels unfamiliar and weird, but you’re shifting from needing external validation to accepting your own internal validation as your primary emotional currency. 

You can also try this approach: stop asking people for permission before you take action. Yes, that's right! If you're all about asking permission and waiting for approval, you might just try taking action like an adult and then informing people about it after the fact. Say, for example, you want to quit your job, pull off a major career change, and work in an entirely new industry. People would JUST FREAK OUT AND DISAPPROVE if you told them that this was your plan. So maybe you take some action first and inform later.

Finally, I should note that unlearning helplessness is anything but easy. You have to realize you have choices, learn to say no, and recognize your own needs. And you're trying to be okay with the fact that not everyone is going to love what you're doing all the time. You're learning new ways of doing things, which feel excruciating at first. And other people will have something to say about it. You're on the right track when you're feeling more at peace with yourself and acting in your own best interest.