Learned Helplessness: Are You A Prisoner To Your Thoughts?
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Do you ever feel like a prisoner to your own thoughts or circumstances?
This week I came across an interesting story. It was about some Red-Tailed Hawks at the Los Angeles Zoo. They had been confiscated from a poacher but remained in captivity.
One rebel zookeeper decided to “accidentally” leave the cage open and provide an opportunity for the hawks to escape. But when he approached the cage an hour later, he was shocked to see that all of the hawks were still there!
He tried to shoo them out of the cage, but most of them just flew a few feet. They didn’t want to leave the cage. They had been kept captive for so long that they had forgotten what it meant to be free. They no longer saw flying away as an option.
This psychological phenomenon called “learned helplessness”. This is the belief you are powerless to change an outcome. Learned helplessness typically develops following an event or series of events where a person has limited control over a negative outcome. Even when a person has the power to change their current situation, they’ve learned to feel helpless instead because of their past.
Situations Leading To Learned Helplessness:
- Receiving messages as a child that you are incapable or lacking
- Experiencing a crushing/memorable defeat
- Repeated failures due to a lack of support (in school, social events, work, home environment)
- Underlying and untreated mental health issues (like PTSD, Anxiety, or Depression)
How To Break Free From Learned Helplessness
Back to my story. The hawks were rehabilitated and eventually returned to flying. They learned that their new home at the zoo was safe, albeit different from their previous home in the wild.
Develop Learned Optimism
You too can break free of learned helplessness. The first step is to recognize what you say to yourself that keeps you stuck. What keeps you imprisoned by your own cage? Are there experiences in your life where you learned you had no power to escape? Maybe there were people in your past that falsely taught you that you couldn’t fly?
Begin to explore and challenge these thoughts. Using journaling techniques can be useful to rewrite your story. Sometimes additional support is necessary to reduce the impact of negative or traumatic experiences. There may be false starts and bumps in the journey, but like the Red-Tailed Hawks, you can learn to fly again.
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