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Learned Helplessness 101

learned helplessnessToday we are discussing the topic of learned helplessness. If you want to make sure your efforts towards overcoming emotional eating are as purposeful and brief as they can be, this is the place to focus your efforts: Not on food; not drugs; not TV; not your weight or your hair or your clothes; not even on your relationships, actually. Each and every one of those things would be no sweat if you didn’t have an automatic default in your mind to learned helplessness and the anxiety it triggers whenever you feel the slightest bit stressed or uncertain about something.

Learned helplessness is the pattern of thinking that we establish as children in situations where we have needs that are not being met and, despite our best efforts, we are not being heard and nothing is changing. Thus we feel panicked, hopeless and desperate. We are overwhelmed with the seemingly insurmountable chasm between knowing what we need and being completely unable to get it.

What’s Normal?

Because of the natural development of our child brain (see the article “Let’s Talk About Your Brain”), we automatically interpret everything that is going on around us as being about us; relating to us; caused by and directly impacting us. One of my colleagues refers to this stage as a state of being infused with the “omni-powers.” We are omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all seeing/knowing), and omnipresent (everywhere/everything is about us).

How many times did you or your siblings or friends pretend to be superheroes?

I was Han Solo to my best friend Christine’s Luke Skywalker almost daily for 2 years. Superman was my brother’s fave. Many of my friends’ children and my son, too, can spend hours upon hours in capes and leotards, waving swords or wands and immersing themselves in their character of choice for the day. It’s fun. It’s escapism. It’s play. It’s healthy. It’s also enabled by our child mind which has a profound capacity for imagination and filling in the blanks (add a simple bed sheet and my kitchen table could, for my son and his friends, become a castle, complete with drawbridge and dragons).

This is all well and good if we are consistently supported and encouraged and reassured of our lovability and our place in our family and our world as we are developing, and our brain is transitioning from this child mind to our adult, more rational and big-picture thinking brain, where we can comfortably handle the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around us and that others are better than us at certain things, if not most things.

But what if the transition isn’t gradual?

What if we are forced, due to situations well beyond our control, to deal with circumstances that are truly beyond our comprehension (the absence of a parent, the experience of abuse or the death of someone close to us, for example)?

What if we are forced to take on far more responsibility than we can developmentally manage?

What if we are smothered and not allowed to explore the world when we feel ready to do so?

What if our caregivers’ fears and insecurities are projected on to us and, without even realizing it, they become our own?

What if the veil of the supreme power we have imagined ourselves as having over our lives and the people in it, is not gently revealed to be the stuff of child thinking and kid games, but rather, through some trauma of abandonment, rejection, criticism, ridicule, or physical or sexual threat or abuse, is abruptly torn away?

That’s a very frightening and rude awakening. For most of us it is just too much to truly understand. Thus we feel overwhelmed and frantically grasp for some way of perceiving the world and our place in it that has the potential to afford some sense of protection from the harsh reality of our limited power.

The truth is, we all need to “grow up.” I had to let go of my Han Solo self at some point or I think I’d be a pretty weird adult by most people’s standards. I don’t know where that fine line is, but there definitely is a fine line between it being okay, even cute, to wear capes and wave swords and someone calling the paddy wagon.

We all need to come to the realization that the world doesn’t revolve around us; that what others think and feel is not a reflection of us but rather of their own life experience and needs; that we truly only have power over our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and that any time spent trying to control or influence others is time poorly spent and is, in our society, referred to as co-dependency or, in more extreme cases, abuse. These are fundamental truths of humanity and adulthood, and in order to be healthy, balanced adults, we need to be able to see these truths clearly and embrace the many gifts they bring.

But we need to awaken to this truth gently or it’s just too hard to take. We feel exposed, raw, far too vulnerable, far too unsafe, and we need to immediately seize upon some way of covering ourselves up. Enter the coping strategy.

A coping strategy, as you might recall from previous articles, is any thought, feeling, or behaviour that allows us to remain in an uncomfortable situation without being aware of how uncomfortable we are. Consider the kitty cat that after accidentally falling off the back of the couch, immediately affects an air of confidence and acts as though nothing has happened. We can relate. If we are using food to cope, whether through binging, anorexia, bulimia, or dieting, we struggle with self-confidence. Guaranteed. And when we feel insecure and doubtful in ourselves, we work very hard to portray that kitty-like image of nonchalance all day, every day, no matter how hurt or humiliated we feel.

When we are forced before we are ready, or in ways that are diminishing or threatening to our self-image, to realize our true powerlessness over others and our dependence on them, it is a great shock; it is humbling and frightening, and just like the kitty cat, we feel immediately compelled to cover up and protect ourselves, often without truly understanding what just happened or why.

This experience (or, “these” experiences – often there is not one big trauma that we experience but a series of events that undermined our confidence and sense of worth) leads to the assumption that instead of being all-powerful and all-knowing, we are actually completely powerless and completely stupid.

The all-or-nothing thinking of:

“If I’m not all-powerful, then I’m powerless,”

“If I’m not the smartest being that ever lived, I’m stupid,” and

“If the world doesn’t revolve around me then I am nobody,”

naturally makes us feel hopeless, worthless and stuck. Our brain is not yet developed enough to see the extreme thinking in these statements. As far as our child mind is concerned, this is not extreme or exaggerated thinking, it’s the truth, no need to question it. In fact, in our mind, questioning the validity of these statements just serves to make us more aware of our powerlessness and ignorance.

This is learned helplessness. The automatic mental default to: “I can’t!” whenever things are new or unexpected, is what makes ordinary life events feel overwhelming and is what leads you to need to focus on food in the way that you do. That’s the culprit, that’s the problem that needs to be addressed.

If you doubt this at all or just want to prove it to yourself on a deeper level, commit to the following exercise for today:

Whenever you notice you’re feeling at all anxious or pressured or using food to cope (restricting or overeating), ask yourself:

What just happened (or what was I just thinking about my past or my future)?

And, in what way am I telling myself that I can’t handle it, that there’s no point in trying, or that it will be too hard or scary to deal with?

If you can answer the last question you’re in learned helplessness. Guaranteed.

Once you’ve experimented with this for even one day, you’ll be acutely aware that you suffer from learned helplessness and that it is always the trigger for your use of food to cope and for your focus on food and on your body in any way that is stressful.

If you’d like to overcome this pattern of thinking once and for all, quickly and simply, it’s time to get started in your work with us. Dive in and see how quickly you can step completely free of your frustrating relationship with food. A natural weight follows, naturall

Posted in: 2010, newsletter, Relationship with Self

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2 Comments

  1. Christy October 30, 2010

    I have definitely, bluntly thought that I cannot change the trigger and gone for food and the negativity that follows. Funny how obvious and literal it was. I wanted to change something about my situation at the time, but didn’t have the tools. The tools I was missing were compassion for myself, and the questions about my self esteem. I imagine that if I were in the exact situation again, and it felt like I had microseconds to either use my old eating problem to cope, or to use my new tools to cope, I would use the tools. I would take an extra bit of time to have compassion for myself, to comfort my inner child by acknowledging my feeling. Then I would take myself seriously by asking myself where that helplessness and negativity were coming from, what was I telling myself about my ability to cope? I’m not sure what would come next, but it might not be so bad.

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    • Michelle Morand October 30, 2010

      Hi Christy – thanks so much for your feedback here! Yes, in every instance, if we can just understand ourselves well enough to not automatically react in that old, protective way, we can create a little space between the stimulus and our old harmful response to it (emotional eating: restricting, binging, or purging) and that’s all we need – just a little space to see more clearly what just happened to trigger us and that there is actually some life-enhancing solution that isn’t too hard, overwhelming or doomed to fail. This is always the case and we can prove this to ourselves very quickly if we just stay present with ourselves rather than automatically numbing out at the first sign of distress. In 99.9% of the situations that trigger us to want to use food to cope all we really truly need in that moment (really!) is some reassurance from ourselves that we are going to be okay, that we can handle the situation or find someone to help us and that it will be fine. We don’t need to see the problem resolved, just need to know that we’re not doomed. So taking the time to acknoweldge what you’re feeling and why and to reassure yourself that you care and that you’ll do what you can to find the most life-enhancing, peace-inducing solution, is always the simplest and fastest way to shed any desire for the use of food to cope while simultaneously building self-esteem and a greater sense of trust in yourself to handle anything life brings your way! Love Michelle

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