Over two decades ago, a remarkable man, a psychology professor called Martin Seligman, had a dialogue with his 5 year old daughter that would change his own life and the course of the science of psychology itself.

As they were weeding their garden and the father entered “serious adult mode” – he was there to do a job and one he wasn’t particularly keen on either – the little girl, as children do, found the whole endeavour fun and was playing around with the weeds and dirt, making a mess where her dad was hoping to make a seamless lawn. At one point, Seligman scolded her for not taking the task seriously. The girl stopped, looked him in the eye and said:

“Dad, when I turned five I promised myself to quit whining. And I did. If I could quit whining, you can quit being a grouch”.

As Seligman recounts in his books and courses, this piece of child wisdom became a breakthrough moment in his life, as it showed him that all his work up to then, studying psychological suffering and its consequences and mechanisms, was completely irrelevant if he could not use this knowledge to make his own life happier. His work on illness offered no answers on how to create wellbeing. How does one quit being a grouch, really? And what happens after that – does not being a grouch automatically make one happy?

This led him to creating a whole new branch of psychology – positive psychology – which, unlike the rest of the field, is not concerned with studying what is or can become wrong with humans, but ventured out into completely unchartered territory, answering the question – what is right with us and how can we make it even better? Positive psychology studies amazing topics – from the general topic of happiness (what it really is and how we can cultivate it consciously), to more specific ones – motivation, meaning, resilience, personal strengths and how to use them, optimism.

What all this research is aiming for is actually helping people become more aware of the resources of their own minds and use them to create more wellbeing in their lives, schools, companies and communities. However, even when we’re equipped with a whole arsenal of tools and research, for most of us, this journey to wellbeing is not easy at all. Again, Seligman holds the key to why that is so.

Before the epiphany brought about by his 5 year old girl, Seligman had 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 in the face of external hardship. He discovered that when a dog is caged and given electrical shocks it cannot stop, after a while it breaks down and, even when put in a pen it could jump from anytime and shocked again, it just lies down and doesn’t even try to escape anymore. He called this phenomenon “learned helplessness”. By contrast, dogs who had received the same initial electrical shocks but had had a small pedal in their cage they could use to stop the shock turned out to be immune to learned helplessness – they learned there was something they could do to stop the suffering, so, when given the chance to escape, the immediately jumped out of the pen and away from the unpleasant shock.

Seligman discovered that learned helplessness does not just affect animals – humans go by the same mechanism. Early childhood trauma or other trauma the individual could not stop or control in any way is a major risk factor for depression or post traumatic stress disorder. However, in humans the mechanism of learned helplessness turned out to work with a twist. Seligman discovered there were individuals who seemed immune to learned helplessness, even though they had been through horrific, uncontrollable trauma.

What made the difference between these and those who resigned, never trying to make a better life for themselves? The surprising answer was: BELIEFS!

What we believe about ourselves directly affects whether we are resilient in the face of adversity, how much self-esteem or perseverance we have and how willing we are to keep on working towards building a more fulfilling life, versus being resigned to our unhappiness and dwelling in it incessantly.

You don’t need to have suffered crippling trauma to have all sorts of limiting beliefs that lead to learned helplessness. A lot of people learn (or better said, are told) early on what they are good and not good at, what they 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.

Think of that teacher who criticised your art work publicly so you felt humiliated in front of the whole class and link that to your current beliefs about whether or not you are creative or artistically inclined. Or that moment when somebody laughed at you or put you down for speaking up in public and ask yourself if it has anything to do with your fear of public speaking. Or the embarrassment you might have felt if you happened to be the chubby kid who didn’t really play sports and nobody wanted on their team for fear of losing the match and see if that has anything to do with your body image or trust in your physical resources or capacity to get fit (by the way, this last one is personal “favourite” of mine, so I dedicated a separate article to how I overcame my own learned helplessness when it came to sports).

However, as science shows, it is not what happened to us that determines who we become, but what we believe about what happened to us. 

Seligman proved that it is not so much our history that predisposes us to learned helplessness, but our beliefs on whether we can control our fate or not. Psychologists call this “locus of control” – if we believe that we are free to choose our attitudes in front of any kind of circumstances, as dire as they may be, we have “internal locus of control”. If we believe that life happens outside of us, that external forces control our fate, we have “external locus of control”. You might already guess which people are more prone to learned helplessness.

As a coach, a big part of my work has to do with supporting people become aware of their limiting beliefs and slowly and patiently shifting their locus of control from outside to inside. Sometimes, by facing their own beliefs head on, people realise that they actually choose to hold themselves prisoners. Every limiting belief has it’s payoff – the lack of self-esteem and inability to make decisions may plague your life with insecurity and procrastination, but also is a sure way to avoid failure (by not trying to begin with), the lack of trust in others may affect your leadership or relationships, but it’s a great self-protective mechanism by which you try to avoid disappointment. If you convince yourself you cannot, you will never try – and this might be a powerful and dangerous comfort zone.

In working with your limiting beliefs and consequent learned helplessness, the first crucial step is to acknowledge how that belief is serving you/protecting you/helping you avoid pain, even if in itself it generates a different kind of pain. Then starts the journey to developing a new belief, one that preserves the benefits of the old one, but spares you the negatives. That journey is almost never straightforward, but it might take you to a magical place within yourself where you finally discover how much you are actually capable of. The road to wellbeing might well start from the “rock bottom” of learned helplessness. And the future might be brighter than we can imagine.

I hope this article inspires you to read more about these mechanisms of you own mind (I’ve included a lot of useful links on the key topics). Also, if you’re in Brisbane on 31st of January and 1st of February, my friend Kate Peardon and I will co-facilitate a Masterclass on four key topics that have to do with individual wellbeing – Overcoming Limiting Beliefs is one of them. We’d love to see you there to learn together and inspire each other!