Karen and Steve stood in the hallway, complaining about their manager’s latest top-down decision. “He’s unfair.” “Micromanaging.” “Never listens to us.”
Gina met me for lunch, complaining about her relationship—the same things she’s been complaining about for years: “He never does anything around the house.” “Never listens.” “Doesn’t care about me.”
Then it hit me. For years, I’ve been complaining, too—about my dysfunctional family. When I left home at 20 and worked my way through college, I thought I’d left all that behind me. But new situations often triggered old emotions, dragging me back into the same old pattern. I’d complain, and by complaining define myself as a victim, giving away my power to other people in my life. Chronic complaining only confirmed my sense of learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is an attitude of giving up when we face adversity. As Martin Seligman (1998) has explained, we perceive the world as unfair, convinced that nothing we do will make any difference. In decades of research, learned helplessness has been linked to poor performance in school and careers, poor physical health, and clinical depression (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993).
The opposite of learned helplessness is hope, recognizing our personal power. Hopeful people ask “What can I do?” There’s a whole literature on hope theory, showing that people with high hope are happier, healthier, and more successful (Snyder, 1994) Hope means setting a goal—asking, “How would I like it to be?”; figuring out pathways or steps to that goal—asking, “What can I do to get there?”; and actively building agency or motivation—taking better care of ourselves, using positive self talk, and surrounding ourselves with positive, supportive people (Feldman & Dreher, 2011).
Hope helps us see beyond problems to discover new possibilities. If you’re facing unfairness at work, what are your options? Can you find strength in solidarity, organizing to work for better conditions? Get professional help? Begin looking for a new job? In your relationship, can you communicate with your partner? Get counseling? Or, if necessary, call the local domestic violence hotline? If you come from a dysfunctional family, counseling may help you work through the pain. You cannot change the past but you can act strategically, determine what you can do, then focus on those areas of your life where you can make a difference.
Now it’s your turn:
Feldman, D. B. and Dreher, D. E. (2012). Can hope be changed in 90 minutes? Testing the efficacy of a single-session goal-pursuit intervention for college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 745-759, DOI: 10.1007/s10902-011-9292-4.
Peterson, C., Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1993). Learned Helplessness. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned Optimism. New York, NY: Knopf.
Snyder, C. R. (1994). The Psychology of Hope. (1994). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.
Follow Diane on Twitter: Diane Dreher (@dianedreher) on Twitter