Five Tips for Overcoming Learned Helplessness (from someone who used to collapse/not get out of bed when faced with stressors)

Gratuitous puppy pic because my puppy is awesome. Bernie sanders! you are the cutest!!!!

Gratuitous puppy pic because my puppy is awesome. Bernie sanders! you are the cutest!!!!

In her excellent interview for an article called "The Hidden Trauma of Life After Fundamentalism," therapist and author Dr. Marlene Winell ("Leaving the Fold: a guide for former fundamentalists and others leaving their religion") highlights a few symptoms afflicting people with Religious Trauma Syndrome:

Those who leave such denominations may experience symptoms of RTS, which include, but are not limited to, learned helplessness, identity confusion, dissociation, sleep and eating disorders, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and interpersonal dysfunction. Critical thinking and independent thought are often underdeveloped. (emphasis mine)

I recently discovered this term "learned helplessness" and it was a huge ah-ha! moment for me. Here's how my psychology text describes learned helplessness:

Do you believe that you have no control over stressful life events? Do you believe that even your best efforts will result in failure? When you blame yourself for any failure you experience, are you more likely to attribute your failure to a specific factor—you're just not good at soccer—or to a more global feature—you're just too uncoordinated to do any athletic activity? These questions illustrate the key feature of a personality feature called learned helplessness, in which people develop a passive response to stressors based on their exposure to previously uncontrolled, negative events. (Pastorino, Portillo. What is Psychology? Cengage Learning, 2016. pg. 527, emphasis mine)

In other words, learned helplessness means we give up or have a passive response when faced with stressful situations.

In the context of recovery from Religious Trauma Syndrome, many of us may have experienced learned helplessness starting as infants.

For example, think about the damaging effects of the popular "sleep training" method "cry it out".

When parents leave a baby alone in a room to cry it out, researchers found that the baby didn't "learn the 'skill' of sleep... rather her brain escapes the overwhelming pain of abandonment and shuts down. While such a shutdown brings a quiet reverie for frustrated and exhausted parents, it comes at a steep price. The implicit memory encoded in the CIO baby is that the world is an uncaring place."

Can you see the difference? The baby doesn't stop crying because she's finally being obedient (as we were taught by parenting gurus like Dr. James Dobson, the Ezzos or Mike & Debi Pearl). The baby stops crying because she has learned that help isn't coming. The baby stops crying because she is overwhelmed by despair. Her brain shuts down and she collapses into exhausted sleep because that's the only escape.

"Cry it out" is a very popular practice in MANY religious households. I remember the authors of "Babywise" even going so far as to tell parents not to give in to a baby's cries for help because the infant was trying to "manipulate" them.

Sadly, the practice of "cry it out" is very widespread these days. Think about all the babies who are learning that nobody comes when they cry for help. Think about how this will play out in their lives: when faced with the inevitable stress of life, how will they respond? Probably by shutting down.

Well, I know a little something about this. Growing up fundamentalist gave me a debilitating case of learned helplesssness. A big part of my recovery has been learning how to handle stress and how to problem solve.

So, when we're faced with a problem, what can we do to overcome learned helplessness? Here are some suggestions I've culled from my own research + things that work for me:

  1. EMBRACE MAKING MISTAKES: honestly, I'd rather do ANYTHING other than find solutions to my problems. My house has never been cleaner, my laundry never more caught up than when I have an actual problem to solve. Experts suggest that what makes problem solving difficult is picking the solution from a selection of options. This is probably why it's more difficult for ex-fundamentalists to problem solve. We weren't ever given options. We were always told what to do and how to do it. Finding solutions to problems often means making mistakes. And mistakes aren't devastating when we are operating from a place of worthiness. Meaning, when we know we are unconditionally loved, our mistakes no longer have the power to crush us (THAT'S FROM MY NEW BOOK haha!!). When I first started speaking out against Mike & Debi Pearl, I was under incredible pressure to remain quiet. There were times when I wanted to quit. What helped was telling myself that speaking imperfectly was better than not saying anything at all.
  2. PAUSE: Take a break. Take a walk. Meditate. These things interrupt negative/defeating thought patterns. When I'm feeling totally helpless and overwhelmed, I give myself a break. NOTE: this is different than procrastinating which usually leads to MORE problems! :) A couple of Fridays ago I was feeling frustrated and helpless about some life situations. So, I cleaned up my room. After I was done, my problem was still there but I *felt* better and was able to handle it.
  3. RESIST "ANALYSIS PARALYSIS": many of us from controlling religious environments are hyper-vigilant and have a tendency to over-analyze every single decision. We are experts at making pro/con lists. We want to make The Right Decision. Unfortunately, making a very detailed pro/con list can easily trigger our "analysis paralysis" and prevent us from making any decision at all. The reality is that there are often many "right ways" of doing things. Sometimes we won't even know the next step until we take the first step. And even if we make a mistake, that's ok, too (see #1).
  4. TRUST YOUR GUT INSTINCT: I read an interesting research study about people test-tasting strawberry jam. The people who tasted and scored the jams without analyzing them were more likely to score closer to expert tasters' scores than another group of people who had to explain, analyze and defend which jam they liked and why they liked it. In other words, having to "give an answer" for every decision can interfere with better outcomes. Many of us who grew up in fundamentalism were expressly discouraged from trusting our gut instincts and our hearts. We may not even know what we like or dislike! Learning to listen and trust our gut instinct is often a process of trial and error but that's ok! see #1 and #3! Knowing ourselves is totally worth the mistakes we make along the way. Give yourself permission to go at your own pace. It takes time to figure out what WE like and want and need. We are allowed to change our minds, take our time and we don't have to defend why we like or dislike something. We don't all have to like or want the same things in life. :)
  5. INCUBATE: Sleep on it. Take the pressure off. Our brains need time to "encode" new memories, find solutions to problems and come up with new ideas. Although I've learned how to trust my gut instinct, I try not to make big decisions impulsively. I sleep on it. Our brains are VERY active while we are sleeping. I can't tell you how many times a solution will come to me in a dream or upon waking or a day later. Be kind to your brain and let it do the work for you while you take a snooze. I also highly recommend daily naps. I lie down every single day around 1pm and sleep for 15-20 minutes. This keeps my brain from "overheating" and perks me up for the afternoon and early evening.

How about you? What kind of tools have you found helpful in overcoming learned helplessness, "analysis paralysis" or the fear of making mistakes? I'd love to hear what works for you!