I grew up with an emotionally abusive parent. She was a compulsive liar and hugely critical of everything about me. Her abuse managed to instill in me both a fixed mindset and learned helplessness. She has been dead for 18 years and yet I continue to battle both to this day.
She ingrained a fixed mindset into me with the only positive thing she ever said about me. She always told me that I was smart. I think she convinced herself of that so that she did not have to take an active role in my education. She never helped with or even supervised with homework. It was my job to know what needed to be done and to do it.
The first time this became an issue was in third grade. We had to memorize the multiplication tables and I didn’t know how to. Imagine being only 8 years old and not feeling comfortable asking your parent for help with a school assignment. Imagine a parent so uninvolved that they don’t ever ask if their third-grader needs help with anything.
Prior to this, I had never had to study or put in effort for anything. I could get by with just listening in class and understanding the concept. I continued to struggle with math as it got more difficult through high school and college. Anytime I would mention having a hard time learning the subject, she would scoff and want to know why I would suggest that I didn’t understand since I was “smart.” Even though she claimed I was smart, she would lie to people (family, friends, other kid’s parents) about my alleged achievements. She lied to them right in front of me. She would make claims about things I had supposedly done or achieved that were not even close to true. It was clear that what I was doing was not living up to her standards.
Despite telling me I was smart, she treated me like I was incompetent. She never taught me to do anything around the house. I learned to cook by trial and error. Same with laundry and everything else. If I asked for directions or clarification, she would sigh loudly and get up and do it herself. If I protested that I wanted to do it, she would get angry and tell me to go away. She made it extremely obvious that she thought I could not do anything.
Later on, she would actively discourage anything I wanted to do outside the house. No sports because I was short and round. No outings with friends because I was anti-social. I am actually just an introvert, but she insisted as far back as I can remember that I am shy and hate people. Anything and everything there was some excuse that focused on my inadequacy with the activity.
Now that I’m older I recognize that those excuses were so that she did not have to make the effort to take me places or do typical parenting things.
Knowing that is why she did it does not erase the learned helplessness that it taught me.
Give Up Rather Than Try
Learned helplessness is when you believe that nothing you do will change anything. This can be the result of having tried many times to do something and continually failing. It can also be the result of being trapped in a bad situation that you could not change.
My learned helplessness comes from the latter. I was trapped in an abusive childhood and there was no way out since I was just a child. By the time I was old enough to escape, my mind was already warped into the belief that there was no escape. She has been dead 18 years and in many ways, my mind is still trapped there.
If I Have to Work at It, I Suck
A fixed mindset is a belief that positive attributes like intelligence are something you are born with and you cannot increase or improve them. It is the belief that you are either smart or not. Good at something or not. Born talented or not.
The number of things that I gave up on when I was young because I didn’t understand that something requiring effort did not mean I was a failure is a mile long. After figuring out that I had to work to learn math, I tried to avoid those classes as often as possible. Forget foreign languages. I started several and quit a few weeks into semesters when it got hard and required work. I believed that if it was something I could do, then it would come easily to me as my other classes did. Eventually, I stopped even trying at all. I chose colleges based on who required the least math and no foreign language. I made degree choices the same way. Other things like instruments or dancing, I just said a big old nope to.
Unlearning Learned Helplessness
Small Goals with Small Steps
In order to unlearn learned helplessness, you need to learn and embrace some tools for gaining competence. First up is the need for goals. You can’t learn to not react helplessly if you don’t have a goal to aim for.
Don’t start out with giant goals. Cut your teeth on smaller, more manageable goals first. If you are trapped in a life where it feels like you can’t do anything, do not set as your first goal to move across the world to hike in Mongolia. If that is what you want to do, fine, but save that goal for after you’ve worked through your learned helplessness.
Start with a small goal. What is something you feel you cannot do or cannot change? Do you feel like you cannot improve your life? Like you are trapped in whatever socioeconomic status you were born into? Maybe your first small goal is to look at ways you could improve your situation. You don’t need to take that step yet, but be open to the possibility.
Maybe go online and look at side hustle websites. Or look into how one could get financial aid to go back to school and get an education. Or check a book out of the library on how to interview well.
Only you know what needs to change even if you feel you cannot change it. Start to open your mind by just looking at these things. You don’t have to commit to doing any of them. You are just looking at information.
But once you see what is available maybe your next goal is to take a step closer to doing one of those things.
Acknowledge, But Reframe Feelings
It is important for you to acknowledge when you feel helpless. It is often a feeling that people don’t want to admit to. They will hide it under a bunch of justifications. Maybe they want to improve their situation, but nobody in their family has gone to college so they tell themselves that it is impossible. When really they just feel helpless to make it happen for themselves.
Try to dig under your justifications and hidden feelings to the helplessness below. Once you get to that helplessness, try to reframe it. Instead of thinking there is nothing you can do to improve your situation, try instead to think that there is nothing that you know to do to improve your situation. That small change can help you open your mind to start being willing to look at possible solutions.
Make sure that when you are looking at these feelings, you are not attacking yourself. Don’t start attaching negative labels to yourself as a result of the way you feel. Make sure to include the word feel when you think about your feelings.
Think that you feel helpless. Do not think that you are helpless. Feelings change. Just because you feel helpless right now, does not mean you will feel helpless forever.
Changing to a Growth Mindset
Step Outside Comfort Zone
For me, the most important part of learning to have a growth mindset is learning that struggle is okay. I spent so much of my youth believing that if I didn’t understand or could not do something right away, that meant I was stupid and trying was pointless. Eventually, that lead to me avoiding subjects in school and activities in life that did not come easily or naturally to me. I missed out on so much just because I believed struggle = failure.
To begin to change that the first thing is to find small steps that will take you somewhat outside your comfort zone, but not so far that you quit. The first time I ever stepped outside my comfort zone in school was when I decided to major in something that required calculus. I was scared to death. I took two math classes that I technically did not need (having placed out of them) as a way to work myself up to calculus.
It still kicked my ass. I will never like math. It will never be something that comes easily or instinctually to me, but I did learn it. I got a B in the class, which was a lower grade than I was comfortable tolerating from myself, so that wasn’t great at the time, but I’m able to look back now and see that forcing myself through it led to me eventually developing more of a growth mindset.
I still don’t have a growth mindset in everything, but it is something I continue to work on. I’m much more open to growth than I was when I was younger.
Another important tool is to remind yourself of times when you didn’t give up. Admittedly, for me, those are rare, but they do exist. The above calculus example is one of them. Making it through my Master's program is another.
There are probably areas in your life when you accomplished something you didn’t think you were capable of. Maybe you kicked ass at a project at work. Maybe you pulled off a stunning Thanksgiving feast for your family. Maybe you learned to swim or yodel or grow orchids.
Whatever your success is, remind yourself about it often. It isn’t bragging, it is retraining your mind to see yourself as capable of learning and growing.
It is important to forgive yourself for the things you walked away from. I’m still ashamed of the number of times I quit foreign language classes back in college. It serves no purpose to beat myself up over that.
You did the best you could with where you were emotionally at the time. Now you are ready to embrace growth. Part of that is making peace with your past. Accept what you did, allow yourself forgiveness, and move on. If it bothers you too much and is something that is still possible, go learn now.
The final step is to be patient with yourself. It took you an entire childhood and however much of your adulthood that you have lived to learn a fixed mindset.
It will take a good deal of time to unlearn it and embrace growth instead.
Both a fixed mindset and learned helplessness are often things that are taught to children before they are fully able to reason effectively. This makes it incredibly hard to change the programming that is now wired into your subconscious.
Just because it is difficult does not mean it cannot be done. It also should be done. Whatever status quo comfort you are gaining from maintain your fixed mindset and learned helplessness pales in comparison to what you will gain by learning to change those parts of yourself.
Being open to new experiences and believing that you can learn and grow as a person will allow you to create a life that you are content with and proud of.
Take a deep breath and take those first small steps.