False Helplessness

This is one of "22 virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness and unnecessary negative emotions).

Martin Seligman, author of the book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, has a different way of describing the possible mistakes we make in our explanations, although his list and my list completely overlap. Our lists, as well as the lists of cognitive therapists David Burns and Aaron Beck all cover the same ground but simply divide the ground differently.

Read Seligman’s book to get his full list, but the most important thought-mistake on his list is deciding the cause of a setback is unchangeable. Seligman calls it “permanence.”

I think you can easily see why the assumption is so devastating. It creates a feeling of helplessness and takes away any incentive you might have had to find a solution, solve the problem, or overcome the obstacle.

My wife, Klassy, and I started a policy — out of frustration at our lack of productive work getting done around here because we like so much to talk to each other — we decided to write from 10 AM until 1 PM. No eating. No email. No calls. Not even talking to each other. It worked great. We both saw tremendous production for about two weeks, but then I said I wanted a day off. Then we took another day off the following day. Then it was my birthday and we took another day off. Then it was two days before a vacation, so we prepared and figured we’d get back and start it up again. Then Klassy helped her sister move, and the next day she had a cold and slept in.

What do you do when you relapse — when a good plan fails? It depends on how you explain the failure and how willing you are to try again (and your willingness will be determined by how you explain the relapse).

We might have concluded, “We have no self-discipline.” That is a “permanent” explanation. It is false helplessness. And conclusions about unchangeability are so demoralizing, they tend to become self-fulfilling prophesies.

They are self-fulfilling because if you think something cannot be changed, you have very little motivation to try to change it, which makes it very unlikely it will change.

Scurvy is an historical example of this. When sailors first took to the sea in great numbers for long voyages, scurvy was very common. And it was a horrible way to die. Vitamin C is a vital component in connective tissue, and when you don’t get any, the things holding you together start coming apart! Yuck!

Scurvy was a major setback. Not only did it prevent many exploratory and profit-making goals from being achieved, but of course, it prevented many sailors from gaining their goal of making it home alive!

Nobody knew what caused it at the time. In fact, the causes of scurvy were thought to be “infinite and unsearchable.” (How’s that for false helplessness?) James Lind eventually narrowed down the causes (and thus the cure) by 1753, and in so doing discovered the first vitamin. There was only one cause (lack of vitamin C), and it was “searchable,” so the common explanation of the day was mistaken. Anybody who believed the "infinite and unsearchable" explanation did not find the remedy, and wouldn’t have even tried.

Closer to home, when you decide the cause of one of your setbacks is permanent, your conclusion will demoralize you. This can easily devolve into depression.

Depression is defined primarily by negative thinking. And depression isn’t on or off; it is a graduated scale from slightly down to completely incapacitated.

The size of the setback — the significance of it — determines how deep your depression will be. In other words the importance of the goal and the largeness of the setback will determine how big of a blow it will be.

But your explanations of the setback will determine how well you bounce back — how quickly, how completely, how easily you recover, pick yourself up, and move on.

For example, Jim and Sue lost their jobs from the same company on the same day, and they have two entirely different explanations for why they were laid off.

Jim thinks, “The economy is bad. That’s why they laid me off.”

Sue thinks, “They didn’t lay off everyone. They must have chosen me because they noticed my heart wasn’t in it.”

Same circumstances, different explanation. The consequences of their explanations are different too, and maybe in a different way than you think. Which do you think is a better explanation? Jim's explanation blames something outside himself. Sue's explanation makes it her "fault." But which helps more in recovering determination? Which will more quickly restore motivation? Which will help most in accomplishing the goal of getting another job?

Jim feels defeated by his explanation and has no motivation to try to find another job. His explanation of the cause of the setback is widespread and out of his control (it was the economy).

Sue’s explanation, however, may cause her to decide to get a job she really wants this time so she will really put her heart into it. Her explanation was more specific and more in her control.

Bouncing back quickly is not merely nice — it is consequential. When you are feeling demoralized and dispirited, problems are more likely to be overwhelming. Why? Because you are less capable when you feel bad. Metaphorically speaking, you are smaller (not able to accomplish as much, not as capable), so the problems are larger in relation to you.

Anybody is more easily overwhelmed when they are depressed. The same circumstances would not seem overwhelming to the same person undepressed.

Helplessness is when your deliberate actions do not have any effect on the outcome. If your deliberate outcomes might, in fact, alter the way things turn out, then an explanation that says it’s out of your control is wrong. You have fallen victim to false helplessness.

See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.

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