While conducting research into burnout for my book (briefly, in between the more important tasks of scrolling social media and refining my Amazon cart), I came across an article about learned helplessness and it hit home hard.

Learned helplessness is the psychological state of feeling powerless to the point of giving up. It arises out of a belief that circumstances are beyond your control and it’s not worth trying to change your situation. It plays an integral part in many cases of burnout.

With the challenges we are facing right now through COVID-19 (job loss, grief, boredom, meaninglessness, overwhelming uncertainty, financial and emotional strain, etc.), learned helplessness is rife.

It’s not ‘acceptance’ of your situation in the empowering, Buddhist sense. Learned helplessness is throwing in the towel and getting out of the game.

It tends to happen when you feel like you have no control no matter what you do, on an ongoing basis. You decide that situations are too large for you to overcome, or you are doomed to fail again and again however hard you try. Hopeless and disheartened, you become resigned to failure or negative outcomes. This might be reflected in low self-esteem, no motivation, frustration, and pessimism. If it continues, you can reach the stage where you just don’t see the point anymore.

Last year after a string of setbacks including in my US visa application being denied, I felt utterly defeated. I was staying with my Mum which, while lovely, impacted my self-confidence. In the words of my judgmental mind, no 41-year-old woman should be living with her mamma. I stopped coaching for a couple of months, believing myself incapable of facilitating perspective, wisdom and change for my clients because I couldn’t do it for myself. I felt overwhelmed and scared by the fact that I couldn’t be bothered climbing out of the hole I’d fallen into.

Reading about learned helplessness reminded me of that intensely powerless and despondent feeling. As I poured over the literature, searching (please let there be a solution) for a solution, it became clear that overcoming learned helplessness comes down to adopting an optimistic approach.

I was circumspect at first – I am allergic to bland forms of positive psychology and being told to “think happy” makes me literally homicidal.

Luckily, this is different: optimism can be learned.

I’d always considered myself an indefatigable optimist, an upbeat, look-on-the-bright-side kind of gal. Turns out I’m totally not. I did a survey that forms part of a book by Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the psychologists who originally coined the term learned helplessness: Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Turns out I’m very pessimistic. After a string of setbacks, my optimism has all but disappeared.

“Pessimistic labels lead to passivity, whereas optimistic ones lead to attempts to change,” says Dr. Seligman. “Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling.” This makes sense: I see it happen to pessimistic people around me, their fears inevitably manifest in some form or another. This gives me extra resolve to stop pessimism from becoming my norm.

After a bunch of setbacks, I forgot my optimistic nature and particularly with the challenges we are facing due to COVID-19 right now, I figure I’m going to need that optimistic instinct in spades.

So I’m going to remember my optimism.

  • I’m working every day on actively cultivating an optimistic perspective.
  • Especially when difficulties arise, I’m looking for the good stuff, the opportunities to learn and keep moving and motivated.
  • I’m using self-compassion when optimism feels too hard.
  • I’m digging deep to find things I’m grateful for when I feel overwhelmed by challenges.
  • I’m reminding myself of the tools and strength I have within and the support I have around me – and using both.

I cannot control all the circumstances, but I can take charge of my response.

Now more than ever, I’m opting for optimism.