Overcoming Learned Helplessness

alis inotToday I took part in a Swimathon, alongside four wonderful people, all giving our best in the water to raise money for a charitable cause. We swam next to 7 other teams in an open air Olympic pool. We encouraged each other and we had our friends on the side cheering us on. At the end of it we got our diplomas and medals. I hadn’t expected to feel so elated to hold that shiny piece of medal in my hands. I wondered why. Then it struck me. It was the first time in my life I had attended a sports competition of any kind and no less than two or three years ago I would have told you this day would never come.

Why? 

Because I suck at sports! At least, until recently, I was fully convinced I did. I have been mostly exempt from sports class all throughout my school years, for all sorts of reasons, but in the end it all boiled down to one thing: I was convinced my body was clumsy, that my jello feet were only  good for carrying my brain around and when it had come to giving His people sports qualities, God had forgotten me altogether.

When I was little I was the one nobody wanted to have on their team on the playground because I’d slow them down. And when I did try to keep up the pace in impromptu running competitions I’d always turn out last. My knees were perpetually bruised from tripping and falling. I didn’t even have to run to manage that one. I could’t roll, tumble or do any other gymnastics moves properly, so sports class at school was my nightmare because I’d be one of the few kids with poor grades in sports, messing up my grade point average. For most others that class was a welcome break from more “serious” stuff like math. For me it was an ordeal.

The only sport I ever enjoyed, even remotely, was swimming, but that I could only do during summer in our town’s open pool and it wasn’t part of our school sports curriculum during the school year, so it didn’t help me much.

All in all, when it came to sports, I was what Martin Seligman would call “a case study in learned helplessness“. Seligman, who is one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, spent the early part of his career studying what makes animals, and humans for that matter, act as if they have no control, as if they are helpless. He discovered that when a dog is caged for too long and finally the door of the cage is open, it will never try to get out. Same goes for an elephant, chained when young, until it learns there is no escape, and is later on held by a mere string tied on its foot and never even tests to see if that string can be broken.

In the same fashion we humans learn early on what we are good and not good at, what we can and cannot do. The feedback we got when we were younger makes us become too sure of our limits and too doubtful of our resources. The sad part is that we often fail to re-test those limits later on, after we’ve grown up. Our limiting beliefs become the “cage” and often they are so strong that we fail to see a door has opened and we might get out and be free anytime we wanted.

I discovered the “door” to my “cage” when in came to sports quite accidentally. Last year I felt I really needed to start working out, for my health if not for any other reason. But what should I do? I sucked at sports! I would never dream to take up running – I hated the very thought of it and of the bruised knees it might bring back into my life. So after much debate and with a lot of encouragement from a loved one, I decided we would go swimming together. Once I found myself in the pool I realised how much I actually enjoyed it and had the huge surprise to discover I was quite resilient for someone who hadn’t swam for years. I did 800 meters on my first training, then one kilometre, then 1.5 and ended up with a personal record of three kilometres in one go. I started going to the pool regularly and then, when another friend called to ask me if I’d like to swim for a charitable cause in a public event I felt it was my opportunity to do good for others and some good for myself – proving I could do it. Swim in public and not make a fool of myself.

I wasn’t really aware of this whole process of shaking off my learned helplessness when it came to sports until today, when I saw that diploma and that medal. I suddenly found myself thinking of all the other limiting beliefs in my life and in the lives of people I work with. It dawned on me that we cage ourselves in and live convinced that there is nothing we can do about it. We cage ourselves in poisonous relationships, dead-end jobs, bad decisions. We don’t allow ourselves the freedom to re-test our limits once-in-a-while. Perhaps we might discover that something which seemed impossible five years ago is now feasible. We might discover we have different resources now than we had when we were kids or when we last failed at something. That “something” might now be achievable and that past failure might prove to be a powerful lesson that will ensure our present success.

This post is an invitation. I invite you to explore your own limiting beliefs. I invite you to ask yourselves: What are the things in your life you consider yourselves incapable of achieving? When and how are you sabotaging yourselves and, in the process, becoming your worst enemy?

And once you’ve answered those questions you might like to give yourself a challenge. Take one of those things you consider yourself incapable of. Test it. Put yourselves to the test with honesty and a desire to succeed, not fear and a hidden hope to fail, just to prove your limiting belief right. Don’t cheat on yourself! Try it. If you fail try it again. You might just discover you are capable of so, so, so much more than you ever thought possible.

I’m already dreaming of my next Swimathon. What are you dreaming of?

2 Comments

  1. Elena /

    Foarte frumos articolul!!! Iti multumesc.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *