This is a picture of Sugar, a retriever that belongs to a close friend of mine. I first met Sugar a couple of years ago and found that she was a “very active dog”. Well, that’s what I told my buddy as his dog playfully tackled my little girl in his backyard. I was just being nice. The truth is Sugar is a crazy, wild (perhaps even mentally unstable) dog. I mean, this dog is just insane! Uncontrollable! At least that is what I thought, until I visited Sugar’s house again a few months ago. I walked in the front door and braced myself for Sugar’s paws in my face or a full-on frontal Sugar hug. Instead, I found the picture you see here: Sugar standing politely with his leash wrapped around the legs of a small chair. She didn’t make a move. She didn’t even bark to indicate that she was ready to rumble with me. To my amazement, Sugar just stood there, almost paralyzed. I asked Sugar’s owner what was going on. “Is Sugar sick?”, “Have you medicated her?”, “Have you taken Sugar to the doggie psychologist?”. With that, my buddy explained the secret weapon he used to control Sugar. When Sugar was just a small puppy, they would put her leash underneath the legs of this same chair. And as a puppy, Sugar learned that she did not have enough strength to go anywhere when attached to the chair. Now, Sugar doesn’t even try to get away from the grasp of the purple chair. She is convinced she is not strong enough to pull the chair. Even though she now weighs four times her puppy weight and could drag that small chair all around the neighborhood, Sugar is sure her best efforts will not do anything to get her out of the situation. So, no matter what happens, Sugar is pretty much paralyzed when she is bound to the hopeless situation of the big bad purple chair.
Now, let’s be clear: I’m happy Sugar is in a state of learned helplessness. Her owners need a little leverage with her and I need to be able to walk in their house without the fear of a Sugar attack! But I can’t help but think how often we find ourselves in the same kind of situation as Sugar. Bound up by a situation that has been plaguing us for years and convinced that we can’t do anything to overcome it. We are paralyzed by the hopelessness of our ability to affect change in a situation that seems so big and has defeated us so many times. Actually, that is where stress, anxiety, and depression come from. As humans, we can find ourselves in situations where we experience learned helplessness. Even if we have grown as individuals, and developed the ability to deal with our situations differently, we become convinced that we will always revert to yelling at our kids or getting nervous when talking to new people or stressed out when facing a deadline at work.
If you want to defeat the power of depression and stress in your life, your first goal should be to eliminate the power of learned helplessness. Researchers have found that about a third of the animals or people who encountered noise or shock that they couldn’t escape from and couldn’t control, did not descend into learned helplessness. They recovered and even experienced growth after the negative experience rather than slipping into despondency and hopelessness. These same researchers found that it is optimism that made the difference between those with an “all is lost” mentality and those with a “this will pass–can do” mentality. What does it take to maintain your hope in times of stress? OPTIMISM: the belief that you can handle whatever situation you find yourself in and that the stressor you are currently experiencing is manageable.
If you are ready to engage optimism instead of learned helplessness, focus on the battleground of your mind. Monitor your negative thoughts, the ones that tell you that you are never going to be able to handle the difficult situations you encounter in life. Then challenge those thoughts with the truth about what you are capable of. The research shows that this strategy is incredibly effective. A positive mood reduces the time it takes doctors to make complex diagnoses; a social worker that feels appreciated will double her client visits. Bottom line: You have to believe that you are bigger and stronger than your big bad purple chair. Even if you have failed in the past confronting specific situations or relationships, you must believe that you have the ability to respond to setbacks. You must see opportunities in the same old problems. You have to believe that you are perfectly capable to shift direction and remain optimistic in the face of opposition. Trust this one thing: You are capable of growing beyond your past and standing firm in your belief that you can handle your life.