You’re more powerful than you think.
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about clarity, intention, and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. Subscribe here. I am also a coach who works with sensitive people so they can stop second-guessing, make decisions confidently and live the life they’ve always dreamed of. You can learn more about working with me here.
Happy Sunday, friends. Today I want to talk about my past default operating mode, and how I moved on from it.
I use this word a lot in my work with coaching clients:
I see folks slip into this place so easily. A mode of freak out. Of self pity. Of negativity. Of spiraling out about worst-case scenarios. Of what’s-the-point-ism. Of fear.
For most of my 40 years, this was my default, too. I was addicted to worst-case scenarios, of my own inability to change anything in my life, to my victim narrative.
What despair mode encouraged me to live in was two states: learned helplessness, and learned hopelessness.
The first, learned helplessness — well, if you read my Princess in a Tower Syndrome post from a few weeks back, you have an idea what that looks like. I stayed stuck, using the excuse of not knowing how to do something perfectly to never do it.
In psychological terms, learned helplessness is the concept used to describe a state of not trying that from what I understand arose from an experiment done on animals. In this (uh, awful-sounding) experiment, the animals are given negative stimuli like a shock when they try to escape. After a time, they stop trying to escape completely, assuming that it is hopeless and they are unable to change the situation.
Then — and this is the real kicker — even when an escape is presented, they are unable or unwilling to take advantage of it.
Learned hopelessness, to me, is different. If learned helplessness is “I don’t know how and I’m scared to try so I won’t,” learned hopelessness is less “I don’t know how,” but more the attitude of, “Why bother? Nothing matters, anyways.”
I think today we’re suffering an extreme crisis of both learned helplessness and learned hopelessness. This particular combination is toxic not only to our personal lives, but to the state of our country, and the world at large.
And it’s ruining us all.
We’re so convinced of our own powerlessness, so committed to our own cynicism, so dedicated to our cloak of fear and our avoidance of shame, so enamored with our casual, too-cool-to-care-and-therefore-too-cool-to-be-hurt attitude, that we are literally living our lives inside the same cages that held those shocked animals in the experiments.
Better safe than sorry, right?
As I grew out of my addiction to despair mode and my excuses of helplessness and hopelessness the past few years, stretching towards something more capable and helpful, I focused on a few concepts that I’ve heard come up again lately in other resources I really enjoy that you might, too.
The first is the idea of commitment vs. motivation. The second is discipline vs. hopelessness. And the third is resourcefulness vs. resourcelessness.
The first, commitment vs. motivation, comes from a young Black entrepreneur and business coach I follow and learn a lot from, Dielle Charon. On her Instagram and podcast, she talks a lot about being motivated vs being committed. According to her, motivation is something that comes and goes; it’s great when we have it, but we can’t wait around for it to drive us, because sometimes it’s not going to show up. Commitment on the other hand, is something intrinsic to us. It’s a promise to ourselves. It’s the concept that we show up to do the thing we want to do, even on the days we’re not motivated. Dielle often asks, Are you motivated, or are you committed? If you have the latter, then you’re not going to fall pray to the external seductive promise of motivation, which only shows up when it wants to. You’re deciding to show up for yourself.
The second, discipline vs. hopelessness, is a concept you may be familiar with by now. It’s the wisdom of Mariame Kaba, a prison abolitionist. She believes that “hope is a discipline;” hope is something that can be practiced as a habit. Once again, our idea via learned helplessness and hopelessness is that we wait around waiting for motivation or hope, or an external factor, to come to us and then we do the things we want. You have to flip those concepts on their heads. You CHOOSE to practice hope and commitment as disciplines that originate in you; you don’t wait for permission via one of them deciding to show up for you one day.
Finally the third concept is one Kara Loewentheil, a podcast host and life coach, talked about recently: resourcefulness vs. resourcelessness. In a recent podcast episode of hers, she talks about this phenomenon that I get all the time too; people DMing me or emailing me to ask about something they could literally figure out on their own:
“We expect to have answers handed to us on a digital platter. But your brain is the most powerful problem-solver there is. You have the world’s most powerful computer in your skull, and some of you aren’t using it. I can’t tell you how often I get a DM asking me something that someone could easily find on my website. What coaching school did you go to? (Answer: the one listed on my website and mentioned in my podcasts.) Do you have a podcast episode on jealousy? (Answer: Yes, the podcast episode titled “Jealousy” that can be found on my website, in iTunes, and via google.) Do you have any suggestions for how I can become a coach? (Answer: Did I mention that google thing yet?)”
I can’t tell you the questions I’ve also gotten along these same lines. “Are you certified to coach and from where?” … It’s on my website. “Can you tell me how to start a newsletter?” Well I’ve written endlessly about how to cultivate a creative practice all over the internet. I once had a woman email me asking what my coaching rates were, not to see if she could afford my services, but because she wasn’t sure what to charge for her own and I guess she needed permission from somebody else to figure out what to ask for.
Loewentheil explained that by engaging in these kind of behaviors, “You are selling yourself short. You are shirking responsibility for your own life. You are training yourself to give up rather than figure sh*t out. The way you do one thing is the way you do everything. So if you don’t take responsibility for figuring out something small, I can guarantee you won’t take responsibility for figuring out something big.”
So, if you see yourself in any of the above, you may be panickedly asking: “Well, what now? How do I move forward from these behaviors?”
Number one, you had to know I was going to say this: Figure it out for yourself! You can do this! Read a book, google a thing! Try something that feels weird and uncomfortable, try that beneficial discomfort I talked about last week. Rinse and repeat for the rest of your life.
But you know I’m all about the practical and actionable here at the Sunday Soother, so I have a little experiment and assignment for you if you think you’re stuck in learned helplessness and hopelessness and would like to find a stepladder on out of there.
So here is your assignment:
- Commit to finding a way to make $200 extra this month. I dunno how, sell something, offer a service, work an extra shift. (Those of you who have $200 lying around, not good enough. It has to be an extra $200 you MAKE through your RESOURCEFULNESS.)
- Then donate $100 to a cause you care about.
- Then use $100 on something you want to learn more about. It doesn’t have to make sense. I want to take a birding course. Does it make any fucking sense to take a birding course right now?? Not really. But I want to. And that’s reason enough, because I’m trusting my curiosity, my interests, and I’m telling them they deserve to have time and money spent on them just because I want to.
Next, after you do your money assignment this month, commit to the next 4 weeks, not asking a single person’s opinion or help for solving a problem (unless it’s like, you need to repair your HVAC, then yes, please, hire somebody). If it’s a problem in your life, a decision you need to make: you do it. No one else. No endless asking dozens of friends and strangers on the internet their opinions. Just you. You alone, learning to trust your inner compass.
Why these things?
- Once you learn you can make money outside of receiving it from an employer, you start to get real crafty and real in charge of your actions. This is the biggest thing entrepreneurship has given me; the belief I can shape my world. Trust me, if you have time to read this newsletter, you have time to figure out how to make $200 bucks.
- You’re learning that resourcefulness can translate into money which translates into impact on how you want the world to be (donations) and your own interests, which validates those things for yourself.
- You’re not asking for anybody else’s permission to do these things or spend money on these things.
- You’re cultivating a practice of listening to your inner voice.
- You stop waiting around for permission or instructions from somebody else.
Because that’s what all despair, learned hopelessness and helplessness comes down to: waiting for permission.
Here’s a little secret: You don’t need it from anybody other than yourself.
So stand up. Shake yourself off. Push open the door that already is probably been unlocked a long time ago, only you just didn’t want to let yourself see it.
Walk on out the door. No, I don’t know where the path leads, either. But I’m willing to bet you can figure it out.