Burnout Recovery

Ep116 Overcoming Learned Helplessnes

March 14, 2024 Dex Randall Season 2 Episode 116
Burnout Recovery
Ep116 Overcoming Learned Helplessnes
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Are your feeling burned out and stuck because of learned helplessness? It can happen to anyone!

In a burnout context, Learned Helplessness can simply be an old pattern of thinking amenable to gentle self-supporting change. e.g. for me, around academic success.

Overcoming it will help you regain control of your life. Becoming curious about where and why you feel helpless can help you see through its false ideas and find ways to support yourself, become stronger, and feel better overall.

N.B. If your experience is trauma-related, please instead seek medical/therapeutic help.

Show Notes
Q1: What learned helplessness do you have?
Q2: When did you first learn this helplessness?
Q3: How or why did you feel out of control then?
Q4: How could you think about yourself now, that empowers you and acknowledges your strengths?

Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff
Ep 6 Stop Feeling Out of Control
Ep 21 Setting Boundaries
Ep 23 Imposter Syndrome
Ep 26 Helpless Rage
Ep 33 I Can't Do It
Ep 35 Taking Your Power Back
Ep 56 Victimhood v Authority

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[00:00:00] Hi everyone, my name's Dex Randall, and this is the Burnout to Leadership podcast, where I teach professional men to recover from burnout and get back to passion and reward at work.

[00:00:22] Righty- o, then. Hello, my friends, this is Dex with you again this week for an episode on this, rather insidious enemy, learned helplessness. And last week I spoke about self advocacy, which is a skill that can very profitably be learned in burnout recovery, and which I do teach to all my clients.

[00:00:46] But what if you feel too helpless to stick up for yourself? That's what we're going to talk about this time. And if that's true, learned helplessness could be a factor in you not speaking up, along with poor boundaries, low self esteem, excessive self judgment, and depressive thinking. I have included a few podcast episodes in the show notes that will help you with some of those.

[00:01:13] So today learned helplessness and to clarify, I think it's a situation where a person has repeatedly experienced a stressful situation, which they were believed they were unable to control or remedy and the result is that they've stopped trying even when opportunities for remedy are available. And this generates a limiting belief that remains in place for life if not challenged.

[00:01:42] If you like, it's a fatalistic hopelessness and inaction when faced with a frequently occurring stressor that one cannot protect oneself from. And viewed in this light, I think it shares a residual effect with trauma, where inability to protect oneself or the people one cares about and the resulting guilt or self blame frequently lie at the heart of a traumatic response.

[00:02:11] And in both cases, I think the trauma entrenches itself if there is no "safe other" present who will listen, believe, care for, and protect the person. Because to me, learned helplessness implies passivity, a shutting down, not just of one's efforts, actions, voice and defenses, but even a presence to what's happening.

[00:02:40] Perceived lack of agency might cause a person to absent themself from the stressful scene altogether through dissociation, or perhaps you might want to look at it through a lens of addiction. In learned helplessness, a person will avoid making decisions. They'll usually give up quickly. They'll feel frustrated.

[00:03:06] They'll show no effort or motivation to act. And they'll usually refuse to try. They'll be passive and or silent. Not struggle physically. Not ask for help. And maybe shut down. Therefore, learned helplessness handicaps one's ability to self care. And learned helplessness might be experienced in relation to things like violence or abuse;

[00:03:33] addictive processes; emotional neglect; a domineering partner; a perfectionist parent; poor performance at work or at school, even when effort's being made; neurodivergence or disability; trauma; bullying, either at school or from parents or family; natural disasters, there's another one. And probably many more.

[00:04:00] What they have in common , the resulting characteristics are likely to be things like low self esteem, low motivation, low expectation of success, as well as a lack of sense of control, low persistence in solving problems, an assumption that lack of success is a function of lack of ability. So then imposter syndrome, depression and anxiety, addiction and risky behaviors.

[00:04:31] Also not asking for help and descending sometimes into a victim mindset. I mean it all sounds terribly unfortunate. It's not an exciting thing to experience and the helplessness of it, I think, really gets into the heart of people, gets into the spirit of people. So I think right now, let's not dwell in that

[00:04:55] misery. Let's get right into the antidote, shall we? But firstly, of course, if this is a scenario that you're familiar with, if you experience learned helplessness, and if there has been violence, bullying, neglect, addiction, mental illness, or other trauma in you or in your family history, and this has not previously been successfully treated or resolved, It really may be helpful to seek professional therapeutic help with it.

[00:05:26] It is not recommended for you to listen on here if you have untreated trauma, because it's generally beyond the scope of coaching to support in these areas. So if that sounds like you, Please take care of yourself as you need to. However, for the rest of us, if there have been life events that have incited this learned helplessness that are perhaps of a less serious nature or that have been worked on previously, then coaching can be a great support.

[00:06:00] And I'm thinking particularly here, I don't know why, of the number of women in burnout who come to speak with me for whom learned helplessness, typically of a gendered nature, seems unavoidable to them and it impairs their ability to rise up out of burnout without external assistance. Learned helplessness can, of course, happen to anyone.

[00:06:25] Any age, any gender, any anything. Women might be more socially conditioned to it, which is very regrettable. But anyone in burnout will have some pockets of it, chipping away at their attempts to recover and succeed. If you relate with imposter syndrome, being an over giver, having poor boundaries being all things to all people.

[00:06:47] Facing relentless demands of every kind round the clock. And never saying no, feeling beaten down, empty, used, never off duty, no time for self care. And some of this is probably going to resonate for you. I think you can do something about learned helplessness. Otherwise, perhaps I wouldn't have made a podcast episode on it.

[00:07:11] In fact, speaking of which, I think you already did do something about it. You chose to listen to this episode. So you've demonstrated, at minimum, a measure of curiosity. But also some self responsibility, self acknowledgement, perhaps a little bit of self acceptance that this might be a relevant topic for you.

[00:07:35] So that part about not seeking help in learned helplessness, you've just overcome that, right? Step one, you've done it. I salute you. But, stay with me because there is more work to be done for most of us in burnout. And when I say most, I actually mean all. Sorry about that. Because we people who are subject to burnout, and I include myself in that, I have been in burnout.

[00:07:58] We've tried so hard to excel and to please all of the people all of the time. We've strained every sinew to solve people's problems. And we can be very crestfallen, to say the least, if we have not succeeded. Especially if we're now overwrought and crashed out, frustrated in helpless rage about our annoying and inexplicable failure to win at absolutely everything.

[00:08:27] This is burnout, right? When we tried so hard. Maddening for most of us. So I think what to do in learned helplessness for yourself right now, and also via burnout recovery coaching later. Which burnout recovery coaching, by the way, fixes all the shitty things about burnout, not just this one, even the ones you currently see as outside your control and beyond help.

[00:08:56] I'm not kidding. Burnout recovery is the shit. So if you've never heard me say this before I think perhaps it's good for you to hear it now. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with you just because you're burned out. Or equally just because you have some learned helplessness. Burnout and learned helplessness just happen to a set of people with certain characteristics who choose to become overachievers at all costs and do not currently see themselves as meeting that goal.

[00:09:30] Join the club. I hit the wall too in 2017. I learned to recover and you can too, 100 percent recover now and prevent burnout into the future because this is what I teach and coach all my clients. Also, good for you to know this. Burnout recovery does not rely on your boss, your organization, your job, your industry changing.

[00:09:58] Nothing outside of you needs to change in order for you to recover from burnout. It's an inside job. That's both the good news and the bad news. So you can flourish all by yourself and I can teach you how. So let's come back to learned helplessness. If you have that experience, How about you ask yourself some questions right now to dig around a little bit in how that happened for you and then we'll look at how to remedy it.

[00:10:24] Only do this, of course, if you are in a place where you can be introspective for a little bit without causing an accident. Not if you're driving. And, if digging into your learned helplessness is likely to raise up trauma for you, please don't listen on. It's not the time. You may wish to speak professionally.

[00:10:47] to somebody who can help you explore that safely. Please do the right thing for yourself. Be kind, take care of yourself. Okay, now I'm going to give you some questions and when you ask yourself these questions in a moment, for anybody who's still on board, ask them as if to a child who's already pretty unnerved.

[00:11:06] Try to be compassionate, gentle and kind with yourself, not pushy, critical and demanding. It's not the time for that, okay? I find the best way to evoke compassion in myself for myself is to see myself in my mind's eye as a young child, scared, upset and probably ashamed. Very much needing comfort and consolation.

[00:11:37] Not needing being kicked in the nuts, right? Definitely not that. We're not training for the paratroopers here. We're trying to rescue some hurt parts of ourselves and it's very tender work. Perhaps you can visualize this child running towards you, arms outstretched. And that maybe will open your heart a little bit.

[00:11:58] Maybe you'll remember what that felt like. See yourself as an adult now, able to care for the child, regardless of what's been true for you in the past, regardless of what your relationships have been like until now. You are capable of giving care to that younger version of you. So with that in mind, and for those of you who want to practice self compassion, I know the book by Kristen Neff is very popular in teaching self compassion.

[00:12:28] If you find it difficult to access, read a book like that. I'll put that in the show notes. But for those people who want to look into learned helplessness now by asking these questions, Here is question one. You can ask it yourself now. What learned helplessness do you have?

[00:12:46] Let's start there. What do you feel you can't do because of this learned helplessness? So really we're just looking for data. You might have inside yourself a number of answers. Your mind might pop in a whole bunch of thoughts about this. And if so, please feel free to pause the podcast for a minute and have a real writing frenzy.

[00:13:10] Let it all out. As much as will come out of you, what learned helplessness do you have? And what do you believe you can't do as a result?

[00:13:21] Okay, so once you've done that one, pause anytime you need to write stuff down. Question two. When did you first learn this helplessness? What happened? Remember that learnt helplessness usually comes from a repeated event and your repeated sense of lack of control. So we're looking for a series of events here.

[00:13:47] Again, please stop these exercises if they're bringing up trauma for you. And seek the support that you need. I'm not kidding.

[00:13:54] Okay, question three. How or why did you back then feel out of control or unable to fix things? What was that like for you? How did you sense that? What did you say to yourself about it as it was happening and about your helplessness or lack of control? Many people have learned helplessness about abilities they were developing as children, but their early efforts were derided or criticized.

[00:14:26] Judged inadequate perhaps. That's really unfair on a youngster. It's unfair at any time of life for a skilled person to humiliate a learner for lack of prowess or mistakes, especially when they've been trying their best. We don't blame though. It's really not that helpful. We don't blame the other party or ourselves or anyone or anything else.

[00:14:51] Because what blame does is it outsources our responsibility for ourselves even further, it leaves us even less control over our future. And what we're trying to do here is take that control back and take that responsibility back in order that we can change course. We're reclaiming responsibility so that we can heal our wounds and really we're looking at what's not working so we can take steps towards a better response.

[00:15:24] But for all of us, these are painful wounds. For which learned helplessness has to some extent protected us and spared us some emotional pain, particularly early on. However, what we're doing really now by perpetuating the helplessness is we're sacrificing future happiness and success. In our attempts to block emotional pain, and those attempts are not always successful.

[00:15:53] So as you're listening to this now, perhaps you've decided that it's no longer working for you. That learned helplessness is not a practical solution anymore. And you might especially find this if you have developed a habit of dissociating from the pain or disappearing into, for example, addictive behaviors, which is very common.

[00:16:17] So whilst we're looking at these questions, whilst you're answering these questions, remember to be super compassionate with yourself. You're a human being who has suffered, not somebody who's done something wrong. Those of us who feel this learned helplessness have probably carried a very big burden of self blame and self judgement and feelings of unworthiness and above all shame.

[00:16:43] And I think shame is completely misplaced in this area. So when you're asking yourselves these questions, when you're answering these questions, self compassion is so important. You need to find a safe place where you can look at these difficulties within yourself. Without self blame and self judgment.

[00:17:06] You're just a human who's suffered. That's it. And what we're seeking now is to become a human who suffers less. You're giving yourself that gift, so give the gift gently. Same with all of coaching work. Self compassion is always the foundation. So let's come to question four. If you were going to give up this learned helplessness, how would you be talking to yourself about this whole situation now?

[00:17:33] How would you think differently about it so that you could empower yourself a little bit more and acknowledge your actual own strengths and abilities at the same time? How could you be more in support of yourself in this area that was previously learned helplessness? And let me give you a couple of examples.

[00:17:56] If you grew up thinking that you were dyslexic and never going to amount to anything, but now you really want to be successful at work and even get promoted, how could you take a stand to support yourself and make that happen? Given that dyslexia does not need to be a barrier to success for anyone, what would you need to believe about yourself in order to be successful even with dyslexia?

[00:18:25] And I quite like that example because I myself am dyslexic. Some people believe it's a barrier. I personally don't believe it's a barrier for me and I don't believe it's a barrier for you either. If that's been cultivated in you, maybe you want to reconsider those views. In another example that comes up quite a lot with my clients, if you are a doctor with imposter syndrome thinking you're never going to get your charting done on time, what would you need to think about yourself, your charting, your willingness to serve, your problem solving skills, your adaptability to reform your relationship with charting such that it's not the subject of dread with you?

[00:19:10] So find a way to notice the untruth in your learned helplessness. Somebody will have given you some way to think about what you've done that suggests your inability, your lack of agency, your lack of skill. Maybe they've told you're not good at something, but that's not the truth. That's just something somebody told you once.

[00:19:35] So what we're looking for here is to find a statement that's more true about you now and your current capacities and abilities. And your willingness to find the solution to things, to be adaptable, to treat yourself in a different way. It's just your openness and curiosity about what change you can make within yourself and the way you think about yourself in relation to this helplessness.

[00:19:59] That actually lets you move on and embrace your real goodness and ability and strength. Because when we're in learned helplessness, the one thing we don't look for is our own power and strength and ability. We sidelined that completely. So now I'm asking you to look at it directly. Okay. What assets do I have that could counter this false sense of helplessness that I've entertained for a long time because I was believing it was true, but it really isn't? Okay?

[00:20:33] So you might want to answer those questions a time or two. You might want to revisit them, but they're the questions I would ask and I would really journal on them. They're not superficial questions. You might want to journal on them for several days as new answers and new information come to the surface. As your brain kind of coughs up more information that is useful to you in transitioning to a more positive view of your own skills and abilities, yeah?

[00:21:00] Because once you see this learned helplessness, once you journal on it, once you allow your brain to tell you what it thinks about it then the learned helplessness becomes just an obstacle to overcome. Yeah. Now you know how to deal with that because you're a problem solver. So overcoming those kinds of obstacles, if you do it through coaching, it's really just a series of steps of self support and as well, self compassion, self care, all of those self things that don't feature very highly in burnout, right?

[00:21:32] We cultivate those practices because the cornerstone of all burnout healing is becoming the champion of you. And this is one of the areas where that will have a really big impact. You teach yourself to view yourself through a new, refreshing, more accurate pair of glasses. And let the old jaundiced perspective, lack of power, lack of ability, hopelessness, helplessness, you just let it go.

[00:22:00] Because those ideas are old and worn out. They don't apply anymore. You don't need them anymore. You can just let them go and replace them with something that will serve you better. And to do that, you need to give yourself permission to go on that journey. You need to give yourself permission to change the way you think about yourself.

[00:22:20] It's actually that simple. But I think the process is much easier when you're working with a coach, who will hold you in unconditional love and care and belief. I believe completely in all of my clients, the goodness of all of my clients and the power. And the abilities and the skills of those people.

[00:22:40] But I think fundamentally what I'd like to say to you, listening to this, if you do have learned helplessness going through this process of coming out of that is amazingly empowering and you deserve it. I do teach it to all my burnout recovery clients. It's vital to start being kind and supportive to yourself.

[00:23:01] If you don't know how to do that, then I can teach you and you can learn. Because what you're going to do is You'll find a benign, a gentle, but very powerful way to walk through the world, believing in your own good, your own contribution, your own worth and worthiness, and freeing yourself up to share that goodness with the people that you love and serve.

[00:23:26] There's a really, I can guarantee this, there is a cracking mentor inside of you, waiting to be liberated, and I think if you learn to mentor yourself first, you will let that overflow onto others in need, and you'll soon be seeing other people much more as cherished beings rather than nuisances or threats, which they may seem at the moment in your life, particularly if you're not feeling your own inner strength, if you're not connected with them.

[00:23:58] So I wish you all a wonderful recovery from learned helplessness. It's had its day, never mind, move on. I can help you if you would like me to do that. That's what I have for you today. If you do want more and if you're in burnout and you want to emerge fully from any state of helplessness, And be your true, glorious self.

[00:24:18] You must come and talk to me about how to recover quickly and sustainably and get back to your best performance, leadership, success, and most of all, enjoyment inside working out. You can book an appointment to talk with me at Dex randall. com. Also, if you enjoyed this episode, please help me reach more people in burnout by rating and reviewing the podcast.

[00:24:42] I really do appreciate you doing that. And if you know someone else who's heading towards or in burnout, please send them the podcast link because every episode is packed with practical tips for burnout recovery. I recommend that new people listen to the first five episodes to get started. I thank you so much and I thank you for being here and sharing your time with me today. 

The impact of learned helplessness
Characteristics and causes of learned helplessness
Identifying learned helplessness
Compassionate enquiry and curiosity
Questions to ask yourself
Self-blame and shame
Returning to power
Resolving Learned Helplessness
Revealing your inner champion
Becoming a mentor