Awhile ago, I wrote about a work colleague who experienced learned helplessness, the belief that one’s actions have no influence on the outcomes of events or experiences. He had gone from being a go-getter to becoming a no-getter, convinced that nothing he did at work really mattered.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, learned helplessness can be unlearned. However, it takes time and perseverance to change. Why bother? Because being able to understand and reframe failures is the key to resilience and long-term success.
It’s a big topic, but one way to understand how to unlearn helplessness is to look at an experiment from 1979, where researchers, building on the theory of learned helplessness, tracked the occupants of two nursing homes.
During the five-week study, the residents of the experimental home were given increased control and choice. The administrator told residents that they wanted them to take responsibility for themselves, pointed out available decision-making opportunities and encouraged feedback. A week later, the same administrator went from room to room, individually reinforcing this message. Patients then were given the choice to care for a plant, and able to choose one for themselves. Five days later, those with plants (90% of the residents) were shown how to repot it and given a choice of times when they could get the needed supplies. Lastly, all were invited to participate in a newly established resident council, and their ideas were solicited for the first meeting.
The findings, even adjusted for variables, were undeniable. The residents in the experimental home scored significantly lower on the Hopelessness Scale, a tool the scientists used to measure state of mind. They also became nearly 50% more active than before, whereas the control group remained steady. The results indicated a correlation between positive change on the Hopelessness Scale and increased activity level. In other words, by being given control and the ability to make decisions for themselves, the patients unlearned helplessness.
So what can you do to reverse learned helplessness? One effective way is by setting SMART goals, a method for active goal setting. Your goals should be:
S – SpecificM – Measurable
A – Achievable
R – Realistic
T – Timely
Setting reasonable goals and attaining them will help eliminate the feeling that your actions don’t matter.