executive coaching


From Helplessness to Power in 3 Steps

One of the most common and debilitating self-limiting beliefs you can have is the belief that you are powerless. And this feeling of not having control is pervasive these days whether it be about climate change, politics, gun violence, or just the feeling that others (e.g. your boss, your kids) are running your life. It is easy to feel like life is happening to you. In the 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term Learned Helplessness to describe this feeling after conducting a study in which dogs gave up trying to escape electric shocks because they believed there was nothing they could do to avoid them. The dogs literally lay down and suffered instead of jumping safely to the other side of the cage. When we believe we are powerless to impact our reality, like the dogs in the study, we lay down and accept suffering, even though relief may be a few easy steps away.

So how do we get our power back? Through a 3-step process I call Learned Power.

Step 1 – Conditioning Power

The first step is to reverse the conditioning that we cannot impact our own reality. In the Seligman study the dogs had been part of an earlier experiment in which they were randomly shocked. Their experience taught them they could not do anything to change their reality. Dogs who had not taken part in the first study and were not conditioned to believe they were helpless were easily able to jump to safety. We have to re-establish (or make for the first time) the connection that our actions do in fact matter and change things. You can do this by smiling for 30 seconds when you’re in a bad mood and finding that you actually feel happier, cleaning your desk and notice that you feel more organized, saying hello to someone warmly and watch them become more friendly to you, taking deep breaths when you’re angry (the Mom-taught, low-fi version of mindfulness techniques), etc. The key here is to do something that you can see the impact of directly and immediately and repeat it.

Step 2 – Responding Powerfully 

Control is an illusion. Despite our best efforts, what do we actually control? Ask anyone who has been unexpectedly diagnosed with a disease, and they will tell you how life flips upside down. How can we tie our feelings to outcomes in a world where monkeys predict the stock market as well as seasoned brokers. We cannot control much of what happens in the world. But what we can always control is how we respond to what happens. So, by loosening our expectations of how things should turn out and more intentionally focusing on how we respond to what happens, we can have control.

This approach takes some time and training to cultivate. Most of us have spent our whole lives basing our identity around our perceived ability to impact things that are actually outside of our control. If you like the idea of this approach and are willing to put in the work, I recommend a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. For the hard work of meditating 10 hours a day and not talking to another person for over a week, you will be rewarded with more space to choose how you want to respond to things when you re-emerge. For those who can’t make this significant commitment, you can move your focus from outcome goals (e.g. to make a billion dollars or save the world from global warming) to process goals (e.g. to learn as much as you can about real estate investing or to start composting at home). This shift will put you in the arena responding, where you do have control.

Step 3 – Taking Radical Responsibility

The feeling of not having control essentially takes power away from us and leaves us playing the victim. We feel so much anxiety not from lacking control but from lacking power. I get home from a long day of work and am looking forward to reading my daughter a few stories before she goes to bed and then I can relax. But when I get home, I find she hasn’t eaten dinner or had a bath yet and my wife is running late. I’m tired and irritated that I’m not going to have the relaxing evening I expected. I end up doing dinner and the bath, and am not happy about it. Poor me. Total powerless victim.

So how do we get this power back? Instead of relying on others to do the things you want or expect them to do, take responsibility for them yourself. I call this radical responsibility. By taking responsibility for everything in your life you can actually do something about it. And you can act with power. I get home and I say that my daughter’s dinner and bath is MY responsibility and own these activities. I’m not resenting my wife or my daughter and I actually enjoy the extra time with her. This approach even works with things you really have no control over. Trump is president! I take responsibility. What am I going to do about it? I can make a donation, I can volunteer my time, I can move to California. And it’s not even about the actions, it’s more about the mindset of empowerment and what happens as a result.

So, the next time your experience isn’t how you want it to be and you’re feeling helpless to change it, use the 3-steps of Learned Power: 1. Condition Power, 2. Respond Powerfully, and 3. Take Radical Responsibility to get yourself to the safety and comfort of the other side.

Living Your Best Life is a new blog series aiming to answer the question, How can I live my best life? This twelve-month series explores this question through the topics of productivity, leadership, motivation, psychology, family, wellness, and society.