Natural Eating 101 Week 4: The True Culprit: Learned Helplessness

learned helplessnessIt’s funny how much correspondence I will get about a general discussion topic but how little I will get from an email article that has anything whatsoever to do with topics like goal setting or learned helplessness. You know what I mean. It’s great to read and get ideas and to feel like someone else knows where you’re at and that there is hope for you to heal and be completely free of food and body image stress; the coping strategies of emotional eating, restriction (anorexia), or binging (binge eating disorder), or purging (bulimia) and the underlying co-dependent training and all-or-nothing thinking that trigger you to feel the need to do those things. That’s what we all want: a life that is free from self-harm and self-loathing and chronic anxiety and insecurity. And that’s what you can get from The CEDRIC Method and from working through these articles. But…it is often the case that the true underlying culprit, your training in learned helplessness, is actually left unchecked and therefore, is able to maintain control of your recovery. Learned helplessness is a mindset that we learn, typically as children, that sounds something like this:
  • Why bother?
  • I can’t do it.
  • I’m going to fail.
  • There’s no point.
  • It’s going to be too hard.
  • I won’t do it right.
  • It’s going to take too long and won’t amount to anything anyway so …why bother.
Sound at all familiar? This is the thought process that leads to anxiety disorders, depression, alcoholism, chronic negative self-talk (the Drill Sgt. within), procrastination, food and substance abuse, lack of self-care, overspending, not setting boundaries, not asking for what we need, avoiding, isolating, cutting, stealing and any other harmful coping strategy that humans engage in. You see, if you had experiences when you were young where you felt sad or scared or angry, and you tried to express that pain and fear (and we all did), what you really needed was validation and support. You needed to be shown (as we all do) to value your emotions and to trust that what you felt and needed was valid and important. You needed to be shown (as we all do), through the modelling of the key people in your life as well as through their response to your needs, that there was a solution to your problem that was simple (most of the time it’s outrageously simple) and that you had the brain power and strength within you, with your parent’s support (or other primary caregiver), to take action effectively to solve your problems. This learning that we all absolutely need in order to develop positive self-regard and a strong sense of confidence in our abilities and our right to take up space in the world, is what one of my mentors, Barbara Coloroso, calls, in her book “Kid’s Are Worth It,” teaching a child how to think, not what to think. Before we go any further, let’s do a little self-assessment CEDRIC style:
  • Do you eat when you’re not hungry?
  • Do you eat more than you’re hungry for once you start eating for hunger?
  • Do you prevent yourself from eating sometimes in the mistaken belief that the longer you go without food, the faster you’ll lose weight and then your problem, whatever it might be, will be solved?
  • Do you not allow yourself to have certain foods, even when you’re hungry and would like to have them, because they are bad, capital B.A.D.?
  • Do you believe that your weight is the measure of your worth?
  • Do you buy into thoughts like: Damn, I wasn’t supposed to eat that today, oh, well, I guess the day is shot, may as well have it all and start tomorrow?
Sound familiar? This is the use of food to cope. This is triggered, without exception, by the automatic default into learned helplessness that you were taught by key people in your life. In other words, you were not taught how to think, you were taught what to think, meaning you never learned to think clearly and rationally in key areas of your life, particularly, your relationships with others and your own self-concept. Instead, whenever you start to feel unsettled or anxious because of a genuinely stressful situation, or because of the recollection of a stressful past event or the worry of a potentially stressful future event, you immediately assume you’re not capable or worthy of a successful, peaceful, respectful, resolution. This means that instead of looking for solutions, asking for help, brainstorming, or just taking action yourself, you get stuck. It doesn’t even cross your mind to try and solve the issue because you’ve told yourself not to bother; that it will be too hard for you. And before you know it, you’re feeling more anxious than before (who wouldn’t if they just told themselves that they have a problem they can’t solve because they aren’t capable or worth of solving it), and you’re in desperate need of some action to numb you and soothe you to distract you from this problem you are suddenly sure there is no solution for and that you’ll just have to live with. The definition of a coping strategy is: Any thought, feeling, or behaviour, that allows us to be in an uncomfortable situation without being aware of how uncomfortable we are. Your relationship with food is the way it is for one reason: Learned Helplessness. And if you don’t learn how to catch that old, harmful, irrational, way of thinking and replace it with a rational, life-enhancing problem solving mindset, you will continue to feel overwhelmed by the smallest event, automatically assuming the worst and needing to numb out from that stress with your coping strategies. That’s the situation. That’s how come you do what you do. As for the specifics of how you, personally, came to have that mindset, that’s something my team and I can help you to identify, or perhaps, you’re already very clear on that and just need some constructive support to stop thinking that way. Either way, we’re here for you and, even if your head just said: “Nah, that won’t work for me,” or “that’s too hard,” or “that’s going to take me too long…I’ll be dead before I figure it out…”, now you can just say: “That’s learned helplessness! That’s irrational thinking, and it’s the major cause of my stress and of my harmful relationship with food. I don’t have to keep thinking that way because it’s just something I was taught and therefore, it isn’t an innate part of me, and that means I can unlearn it and begin to trust myself to handle life in ways that demonstrate respect for myself and others.” For this week, before we move on and get into more of a discussion around Natural Eating, I implore you to practice looking for your learned helplessness thinking and offer yourself the above phrase when you find it. How do you look for it? Are you feeling anxious? Are you feeling depressed?| Are you wanting to binge, restrict or purge? Are you wanting to get drunk? Are you wanting to isolate yourself? Then you’ve found it! When you notice any of those things, which are just coping strategies, just ask yourself what you were just thinking; what did you just tell yourself? I’ll bet you it was one of those learned helplessness statements. Give yourself the gift of seeing clearly that this is really the culprit, not you, not food, and not even the other person or external situation. It’s this way of thinking that makes everything a thousand times scarier and harder than it needs to be, and this way of thinking can be exposed and unlearned very quickly once you’re able to see it and are willing to get rid of it. The CEDRIC Method and all of our counselling and resources exists to make the transition from the irrational, learned helplessness thinking, to the rational, big picture, possibilities mindset, simple and straight forward. In fact it’s a step-by-step process that works every time. So, check in in this way this week and you’ll begin to see why you’ve felt so small and so stuck for so long. You’ll also begin to see that the things you’re telling yourself are unsolvable are almost always quite solvable and quite simply, too. Life becomes much more fun then. You can truly start living, and you deserve to live life to the fullest. Love The CEDRIC Centre - Michelle Morand

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