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Unlearn Your Limits

When we engage a growth mindset it helps us to view challenges as learning opportunities.

From the CONCERN: EAP Resilience Library

Experts have long promoted the power of adopting a growth mindset to build resilience and approach new challenges. In general, when we engage a growth mindset it helps us to view challenges as learning opportunities, more constructively manage criticism and see possibilities around each new corner.

Part of the work in approaching a growth mindset requires us to reframe or move beyond disappointing or discouraging experiences from our past. Not necessarily an easy thing to do. And, for some, it can feel like an impassable obstacle on the road to resilience.  Behavioral science may be able to explain why. During groundbreaking research on conditioned behavior in the 1960s, Psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman discovered a phenomenon called learned helplessness that affects animals repeatedly exposed to negative or limiting circumstances.

Also known as The Elephant Syndrome, it works something like this:

  • When trained in captivity, young elephants are tethered with a rope to a small tree
  • The elephant quickly learns that they are not strong enough to pull free of the leash and that escape is impossible.
  • Eventually, the elephant grows to a point where they could break free of the leash, but their trainers never need to tie them with a stronger rope, because the elephant still perceives the leash as being unbreakable. They’ve learned to be helpless in this situation and therefore don’t try to break free, even when they easily could.

Dr. Seligman and other behavioral scientists went on to observe the effects of learned helplessness in humans. They found that people are often affected similarly when repeatedly exposed to an uncontrollable event like a job interview or pitching ideas in a company meeting. After multiple failed attempts in these situations, our brains start to perceive that success is beyond our control. Once conditioned in this way, we often give up hope and stop trying, even in situations where success is possible.  

Learned helplessness can cause frustration, poor self-esteem and can hold us back professionally, personally and has even been linked to anxiety and depression. When we believe that we can’t influence a positive outcome regardless of what we do, we may limit our potential. The good news is that learned helplessness can be unlearned with the help of resilience-building cognitive behavioral tools. If you find yourself continually giving up in some situations—like not offering your opinion in meetings because you believe you’re going to be shot down—try applying one or two of the following to help influence a different outcome.

Believe that change is possible.

If we believe we can’t improve a situation or outcome, we won’t try. If this one is hard for you, look at it this way, doing nothing only ensures that nothing will ever change.

Try a new perspective.

Picture that you have a friend who is in the same situation. How would you encourage them to think objectively about their situation and brainstorm some potential actions? Sometimes we need to get out of our own heads to see our situation more clearly.

Reframe your responses.

Sometimes our ideas get shot down in meetings not because they’re bad ideas, but because we haven’t presented them in the right light. Before your next meeting, think of why your idea would be beneficial to the company or how it would improve the situation at hand and practice communicating it in that context. (Here’s my idea, and this is how it will help.)

Set some goals.

Setting realistic goals can help us get past the feeling that we have no control. Break your goal down into small, incremental, achievable steps to make it easier to get started and progress.

Enjoy small successes.

Every time you accomplish a step on the way to your larger goals, stop for a minute to savor the achievement. Remember that not long ago you felt stuck and now, you’re taking control and moving forward. Appreciate that victory!

Volunteer or help others.

Bring a neighbor’s trash cans in for them. Stop to hold open a door for someone. Do some volunteer work for a cause that has meaning to you. Acting on someone else’s behalf can give us the momentum to get out of mental ruts. And, it can be good to remember that others sometimes struggle and feel helpless too.

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