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By Nathan Bailey, MA, LPC

One of the most basic parts of being human is the need to have an impact on the world around us, specifically to be able to change the things we don’t like or are hurtful/dangerous. When we can’t do that, we can suffer many negative effects. Learned helplessness and blind optimism have a way of digging the hole deeper. When this happens, online counseling in Pennsylvania or online counseling in Colorado can help you get moving in a good direction.  

Say you’re at the park and someone’s playing loud music (interrupting your nice relaxing day). You can get up and move to another area of the park. What if you’re not at the park but you’re in your own home and it’s your kids being loud? I suppose you could take an indirect approach and move to another room of the house or you could have a conversation with them about your expectations for music volume (i.e. “TURN IT DOWN!”). What if the person playing loud music is your neighbor or spouse and they don’t acknowledge your request to turn it down? It’d be hard to move and/or ignore the fact that your spouse isn’t open to your wishes. This either leads to conflict or avoidance. We might find ourselves shutting down, withdrawing, isolating etc. This is called learned helplessness. You’re believing “I can’t change the things happening to me that I don’t like.” These types of situations (and ones even more intense) can easily lead to anxiety, depression, substance use and even physical problems (ex. digestion issues). 

The impact of learned helplessness

Learned helplessness occurs when we experience repeated negative situations (or people), make efforts to do something about it and nothing changes. Eventually, we give up and get stuck in sort of an unhealthy version of acceptance. We feel like we have to just “suck it up.” We might even try to tell ourselves that it doesn’t really bother us or it’s no big deal. We bury those intense feelings of hopelessness but they don’t actually go away. Instead, we use unhealthy ways to cope. We could be unaware we’ve landed in learned helplessness “mode” but we do see the symptoms (ex. anger, disrupted relationships etc.).  

Another way learned helplessness shows itself is what I’ll call “blind optimism.” Can optimism really be a bad thing? It’s a good thing to have a positive outlook and want to believe good things can happen. Blind optimism says “it’ll all just work out soon.” We can find ourselves taking this approach when we don’t see another way through. It’s actually a form of learned helplessness, it just looks different on the surface. 

The impact of blind optimism

In his book Good to Great Jim Collins tells the story of Admiral Stockdale, a prisoner of war for 8 years during the Vietnam War. One of the interesting parts of the story was Admiral Stockdale reflecting that it was the optimists who suffered the most during their imprisonment. While this seems “wrong” (Collins calls it The Stockdale Paradox), it occurs because the optimists put all their hope in the belief that miraculous change would happen soon. They didn’t develop a way to manage or deal with the stress, disappointment, mistreatment etc. that was a part of their everyday life. When the miraculous change didn’t come, those optimists were ultimately shattered and unable to deal with reality. Those prisoners who hoped they’d one day be released, but at the same time did everything in their (limited) power to improve their present situation, were the ones that had better outcomes. Professional skier Drew Petersen wrote about his mental health journey (in a recent article for Outside magazine) and made this observation: “Overwhelming positivity can feel toxic when your life, for whatever reason, isn’t meeting those expectations.

What does this all mean for us? Well, yes, we should hope for the best outcome for our relationships, jobs, parenting, chronic pain etc. but we should also do what we can with what we have to improve the situation. No matter the circumstances we might experience (internal or external), there will always be something we can do to (as the US Marines often say) improvise, adapt or overcome. While this might not eliminate or solve the problem(s) we’re dealing with, there’s a healing power in knowing we’ve made something change for the better. 

Stuck in a job you hate (with no end in sight) that doesn’t seem to improve despite your best efforts? Maybe it’s time to take a class or two, pursue a certification etc. and feel good about developing yourself. Is someone in your life mistreating you and you feel trapped? Maybe that person isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but work on setting the boundaries you can. They won’t respect your boundaries? You can set more rigid boundaries that have consequences. Maybe circumstances in your life are preventing you from doing an activity you used to love. Maybe you need to re-imagine what it looks like. Maybe there’s a related activity you can do instead. Maybe you can find something totally different that you’ll love just as much (or more) but it fits better into your new lifestyle (ex. new parents needing to adapt their date nights to the realities of having an infant at home).  

The bottom line is that we can always find some way to improve our situation even if we can’t change our circumstances. Don’t get pinned down in learned helplessness. Don’t wish away your life with blind optimism. What can you do now that will help you change things for the better (even if it’s just changing your perspective)? 

Get help, get online counseling!

None of this is easy on your own. It might take individual counseling to get an outside, professional perspective to help you identify what you have control over and what you don’t. Online counseling in Pennsylvania and online counseling in Colorado make it more convenient then ever before. Schedule with one of our counselors today and live differently. Live better.