Learned helplessness: 6 keys to breaking free from negativity

We've been told that one of the keys to becoming a successful leader and to creating a successful life is to see things as they are and no worse. But if you've been beaten down and suffered setbacks such as unemployment, it's hard to see the positive in anything.

Take investing for example. After the financial crisis of 2008-'09, many investors became shell-shocked from the market swings. All they saw was doom and negativity. I see this first-hand as a sudden wealth adviser. I need to look at the world and make some decisions about the economy, geopolitics, where to invest, etc. After analyzing the data, I can just as easily come to the conclusion that we are set for another recession or more growth -- seeing things as they are is meaningless when the data are so open to interpretation. As an investor, focusing only on the negative can cause you to lose the ability to see opportunities and miss out on good returns. While this can hurt your portfolio and chances for retirement, there is an equally nefarious consequence that can result after you suffer a setback -- maybe ongoing unemployment -- and then only look at the negatives.

Psychologists call this phenomenon "learned helplessness." The cause of learned helplessness, according to Dr. Martin Seligman, is being repeatedly exposed to an uncontrollable event, such as going on interviews or auditions and not getting called back. After many repeated and failed attempts to accomplish something while in an uncontrollable event, your brain "learns" that success is beyond your control, that you cannot affect the outcome. Once "conditioned" to this belief, the individual gives up hope and effort, even when later exposed to an event where control is possible. In effect, you've learned to become helpless.

This is one of the reasons why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The poor may have developed the belief that, no matter how hard they work and how much education they get, they will never get out of the financial straightjacket they are in. It's no wonder why the poor play state lotteries in greater numbers than any other income class. The middle class surely wants and needs the money, too. The difference is that the poor see the lottery as the only way they can get ahead. If you truly believe that, regardless of what you do today, you won't positively impact tomorrow, then you are destined to fall short of your potential.

Keep the following six concepts in mind to eliminate learned helplessness:

1. Change is possible. If you don't think your finances or life can improve, you won't take any steps to make them better. You must first open your mind to the possibility that your current financial situation actually can improve. If you are still having a hard time accepting this, ask yourself if it is possible for your life to get worse because of steps you take. If your life can get worse as a result of your actions, there's no reason it can't get better, too.

2. Think big. Think outside of your self-imposed restraints. If you think big enough, you will have the motivation to take the initial steps and the fuel to keep progressing, even in the face of challenges and disappointment.

3. Get perspective. If your friend were in your situation, wouldn't you encourage her to think about her situation objectively and to take whatever action that is appropriate? What would you tell her?

4. Set goals. Just the act of setting goals will help you overcome the feeling that you have no control over your future. The energy and thought process required to set goals will get your mind thinking in a whole new way.

5. Achieving successes. One of the best ways to overcome the belief that your actions don't affect your future is to start achieving small successes. While goals must be big and motivating, there should also be small and achievable goals along the way.

6. Consider a different viewpoint. Dr. Seligman's research on learned helplessness inspired him to look at optimists and pessimists and examine how both types of people explain good and bad events. In his book "Authentic Happiness," he writes that, "Optimistic people tend to interpret troubles as transient, controllable, and specific to one situation. Pessimistic people, in contrast, believe that their troubles last forever, undermine everything they do and are uncontrollable." In short, if we can change the way we explain the events that occur in our lives, we will be less likely to suffer from learned helplessness.

You do have influence over your life. Even if you don't believe it right now, act as if you do. Start small so you can begin to see how your actions produce results.

(Robert Pagliarini is a CBS MoneyWatch columnist and the author of "The Other 8 Hours: Maximize Your Free Time to Create New Wealth & Purpose" and the national best-seller "The Six Day Financial Makeover." Visit YourOther8Hours.com.)

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