One of the great American psychologists is Martin Seligman. He was a cognitive psychologist, which believes people can control the condition of their psyches by using their conscious brains to monitor and change the way they think. In simple terms, people generally become what they think of themselves. Through his research, Seligman came up with a theory called "learned helplessness." This theory suggested some people have "learned" that when something bad happens to them, there is nothing they can do to recover. An example of this might be "I missed some squat reps today. What's wrong with me? I"m weak and suck at squats. I should just stop squatting, maybe stop training altogether." 

The unfortunate truth of Seligman's research is that many people become what they think of themselves.

A person might approach a social situation thinking that there is inherently something wrong with themselves; that most people would not want to spend time with them. And, eventually, that would be true. But if you were to speak with people from their social circle, you would find that they didn't think the person was inherently a jerk. It was just that the depressing view of himself and the world around him inevitably became part of every interaction with other people. 

Learned Helplessness can hold you back from your goals

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The wonderful truth of Seligman's research is that many people become what they think of themselves.

Yes, I know it is the same sentence as above. But what if the story you told yourself was one of strength, confidence, optimism, and happiness? How would things be different? I think you know the answer... 

How do we avoid going down the hole of learned helplessness?

  • Be aware of times when you are using negative self-talk. Do not allow the unconscious, helpless voice to have control over the conversation in your head. 
  • "Learn to love your great days more than you hate your bad days" - Dr. Bob Rotella. I love this!! Use past success to reinforce current endeavors. When you fail at something, don't try to find past experiences to reinforce your current failure. Instead, think of all the times you have been successful in the past; times you have proven to yourself you are strong, capable, and resilient. Turn your failure into an opportunity to learn. 
  • Learn confidence and optimism. Yes, you can teach yourself to be confident and optimistic, and it starts with the stories you tell yourself.
  • Change the way speak to yourself. Speak to yourself in a very deliberate and purposeful way. I wrote about these strategies just a few weeks ago. Speak to yourself in the second or third person - "You're ok," "You got this," "Mike is strong," "Mike can do it"... Sounds a little bananas, but research shows it works! 
  • Learn to view challenges, even failures, as opportunities to learn and get better. This is at the core of developing a growth mindset. Instead of... "I missed some squat reps today. What's wrong with me? I"m weak and suck at squats. I should just stop squatting, maybe stop training altogether." A growth mindset would approach this as... "I know I'm a good squatter. I have seen so much progress over the past six months. Just last week I set a PR. I know if I continue to train and focus on recovery between sessions, I will achieve my goal." 
  • Remove yourself from relationships that drag you into the helplessness hole. I touched on this in my last Muscle Minute when I wrote about Jerks... If someone in your life is consistently pessimistic, always complaining, and shows no desire to change for the better, it is time to create distance from that relationship. 

Written By: Mike Doran