In the 1960s, a psychologist named Martin Seligman was trying to understand the relationship between fear and learning when he stumbled upon an unexpected phenomenon.
In the experiment, Seligman gave a group of dogs an electric shock they couldn’t escape. Eventually, they learned to stop trying to avoid it.
He then provided the dogs with an easy opportunity to escape the shock, but much to his surprise, they did nothing. The dogs just sat there and obediently waited for their punishment.
After conducting a series of subsequent experiments (later on with humans using loud noises in lieu of electric shocks) and finding similar results, Seligman coined this curious response learned helplessness.
It’s the idea that we feel helpless to escape certain negative or challenging circumstances, even though opportunities for change are present.
Why we’re all just waiting for the shock
Our minds are funny, feeble things full of cognitive biases that have been shaped by experiences, events, and memories.
Over time, these beliefs cause our brains to draw incorrect or false conclusions that ultimately affect the way we think, what we believe, and the decisions we make. As Carol Dweck says in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:
The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you live your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.
Much like Seligman’s dogs, we often find ourselves unable to move away from negative situations because our past has taught us that we are helpless to do anything to change how we live.
However, the way we react to these negative situations has a profound affect on how we live our lives.
Let’s say, for example, you were turned down for a big freelancing job. There are a number of things you could tell yourself:
- I’m stupid
- I’m not meant to be a freelancer
- I’m a terrible salesperson
- The client is a jerk anyway
- I had an off day
- I didn’t prepare for the interview as well as I should have
- I did my best, but the client found someone who was a better fit
What you tell yourself says a lot about the type of person you are.
According to psychologist Carol Dweck, people with a fixed mindset believe that their qualities are set in stone—that intelligence and personality are permanent and unchanging. They internalize setbacks with responses like ‘I’m stupid’ or ‘I’m a terrible salesperson.’
‘I failed so I must be a failure,’ they tell themselves.
Growth mindset people, on the other hand, believe we can change and grow with effort, application, and experience. They tell themselves that they ‘had an off day’ or ‘didn’t prepare well for the interview,’ and perceive their qualities as temporary and external.
It’s easy to see how years and decades of programming and labeling by our parents, teachers, peers, and even the media teach you to believe certain things about what you’re capable of doing.
I can certainly relate.
I struggle with my own set of cognitive biases and even see these pessimistic patterns emerging in my own daughter, who at five years old, says things like “I’m so bad at drawing,” “ It’s too hard,” “I can’t do it,” or “Can’t you just tell me the answer?” with alarming frequency.
As a parent, I’ve become extremely conscious of the messages I send to my children. I think about how I use praise (effort over intelligence), how I react when they make mistakes, and how I set and express expectations.
But most of us, myself included, didn’t grow up with parents who proactively cultivated a growth mindset in our malleable little minds, so it’s up to us to reprogram our own brains, which, according to Seligman, we all have the ability to do.
His antidote to learned helplessness (if you’re curious, there’s a test to see where you rank on the optimism scale) is called learned optimism.
Seligman argues in his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, that:
a pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent…[but] I have found that pessimism is escapable. Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes…but by learning a new set of cognitive skills.
The importance of developing self awareness
Change of any kind is impossible without self awareness. Studies have shown that self awareness is one of the most important components of effective leadership, because when leaders take responsibility for their weaknesses and shortcomings (while being conscious of their strengths), the people around them benefit.
Self-aware leaders help create a culture of ongoing learning and growth, where people understand that it’s okay to make mistakes and ask for help. It’s this kind of thinking—growth mindset thinking—that leads to innovation and creativity.
To jumpstart your own process of change, start with an honest self assessment.
Make a list of the things you believe about yourself and try to determine why you believe these things to be true:
- What are your strengths?
- What are your weaknesses?
- What triggers stress and anxiety?
- How do you respond to conflict and adversity?
We tell ourselves that we’re bad at math or public speaking or negotiating, but where did we draw those conclusions from? A series of bad math tests from the 7th grade? An important negotiation that went south years ago?
As you dig through your memories, you’ll likely find that much of the evidence you uncover does not support the assumptions that you’ve been making about yourself.
Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. More often, people know what they are not good at — and even then more people are wrong than right.
— Peter Drucker
On a regular basis, continue to gather evidence that either confirms or denies your beliefs. You can use a journal to document things like:
- Successes/failures from the day
- How you responded to stressful situations
- How you describe the good and bad things that happen
- Expectations you have for a particular decision
Regular, honest self critiques provide an opportunity to recognize patterns of pessimism and compare expectations with results.
This kind of clarity then allows you to identify ways to replace the negative thoughts and reactions with positive, effective responses.
Fake it ’til you become it
Conscious self-reflection also allows us to be aware of optimism and pessimism all around us. We begin to notice the way people perceive themselves by the way they talk about events, obstacles, and accomplishments.
According to Seligman, this kind of observation is important because in order to effectively change self-perception we must make an effort to emulate the behaviors of the optimistic, growth mindset people we admire.
In other words, fake it ‘til you make it.
Or, as social psychologist Amy Cuddy prefers to call it, “Fake it ’til you become it.”
Cuddy’s research shows that small tweaks in body language change not just how others perceive us, but how we perceive ourselves.
In a series of experiments, Cuddy found that the people who were asked to assume ‘high power poses’ for just two minutes saw increases in risk tolerance and testosterone, and decreases in cortisol (the stress hormone), while the people asked to assume ‘low power poses’ saw the opposite reaction in their body chemistry (low dominance, high stress).
Similarly, the self-perception theory states that if we want to think of ourselves as confident, creative, or successful, then act how confident, creative, or successful people act.
Just as we draw conclusions about other people based on their behavior, we create beliefs about ourselves based on how we behave in various situations.
Visualization is another tool that receives quite a bit of attention, thanks to the self-help community and massively popular books like Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret.
The brain can’t tell the difference between something real or imagined, they say, so picturing future success is an excellent way to rewire our brain and serve as a powerful source of motivation.
This is not to say that visualizing yourself nailing an interview will guarantee you the job (as much of the self-help industry will have you believe).
But spending time imagining yourself as confident, articulate, and prepared will eventually affect your self-perception (and is infinitely more productive than ruminating on all of the reasons you’re not good, smart, or capable enough to get the job).
Many of the world’s top performers swear by the power of visualization on performance, and studies have shown how similar parts of the brain are activated when you perform an action (i.e. lifting your arm) as when you imagine doing it.
Researchers Heather Barry Kappesa and Gabriele Oettingena, however, argue that there’s a downside to visualizing success.
Overly positive fantasies sap (and not fuel) our energy and motivation because we’re focusing on being on Easy Street–and not the difficult process of getting there.
I believe that the difference lies in how visualization is used. We can focus on the process (my preferred method), like a golfer visualizing his swing and form as he chips a shot out of a bunker on a windy day.
This mental rehearsal forces us to recognize and incorporate the hard work, challenges, and obstacles into our mental pictures.
We can also imagine the fantasy (or the end result) like Arnold Schwarzenegger who would picture himself on the podium hoisting the Mr. Universe trophy high above his head.
He found the emotions and sensations of victory and success energizing, which motivated him to spend the long, grueling hours at the gym.
There’s nothing easy about changing the perceptions and beliefs we’ve hung onto for years, but we owe it to ourselves to reject the idea that our shortcomings and flaws are innate and permanent.
That’s why we have to get out there and find the strategies and techniques that work for us. Maybe visualization is the answer. Maybe it’s regular journaling or imitation or something else completely.
What matters is that we keep taking action and keep testing ways to change how we think.
Because when we change our mindset, we change our behavior, and ultimately change the way that we work and live.
Find more of Rosanna’s work on hackerella.com. This post originally appeared at Crew, which publishes regular articles on creativity, productivity, and the future of work. Enter your email here to get their weekly newsletter. You can also follow Crew on Twitter and Facebook.