Learned Helplessness & Taking Back Your Life



“Everything is figureoutable.” Marie Forleo

“Acknowledge how rough your start in life was and that you were victimized and you had no choice in that and recognize that likely that set you up to feel like a perpetual victim. But staying there and thinking of yourself as a victim is a choice because you’re not a helpless child anymore. You’re an adult with options.”


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Episode transcript: 

Welcome to the Overcoming Sexual Abuse podcast where you get the tools and inspiration to help you overcome childhood sexual abuse. I’m your host Christina Enevoldsen, certified coach, author, and incest survivor, and I’m here to help you heal and live your very best life.

Childhood is supposed to prepare you to be an empowered adult, but childhood abuse leaves you feeling not only helpless as a child, but throughout your life. The learned helplessness can impact everything from the relationships you settle for, to the risk you’re unwilling to take. I’ll share the indications you’re still in learned helplessness and how to own your power and take back control of your life.

Children are vulnerable. They are smaller and weaker than adults, they have less experience, knowledge and wisdom than adults, and they lack the social status of adults. And that’s just among other things.

Adults are supposed to use their more powerful position to help children become powerful, to equip them and prepare them to navigate life and enter into adulthood feeling capable and confident.

But abuse is about power and  control. It’s about domination. Abuse says, “I’m more powerful than you and I can do whatever I want to you and you can’t do anything about it.” So abuse puts you in touch with your vulnerability, your helplessness and your powerlessness and abuse keeps you weak instead of helping you to grow into your power.

Childhood abuse prepares you for a life that doesn’t feel safe. It’s like being in that perpetual child role of only knowing your powerlessness and being very well aware of and alert to more powerful forces being able to act upon you. And it can leave you hyper-vigilant, always watching for where the threat is coming from. And it can leave you choosing the safe path rather than what you really want. And maybe you don’t even know what you really want because that feels too risky to even consider. And it can lead to being the nice one or the helpful one using that fawn response, people pleasing, when you feel threatened because you don’t feel capable of objecting to mistreatment or violation. Or maybe it’s not the threat of mistreatment but simply of being rejected. Because being alone or apart from the group feels especially threatening when you see yourself as small and powerless.

So the experience of being victimized can lead to believing that your identity is of a victim.

So being victimized is someone else acting upon you, but the role of a victim is how you see yourself, your relationship to the things around you. And that’s important to recognize that nuance.

An important part of healing is to see and own that you were victimized. There was nothing about you or the way that you acted or what you said or the way you looked or anything about you that made you responsible for what happened to you. You were victimized and that’s different from the role or identity of a victim.

And it’s important to make that distinction so I’m going to say it a few different ways. Victimized is when something bad happens to you. The victim role is believing that you’re someone to whom bad things happen. Victimized is an event. The victim role is a mindset and identity. Someone who’s victimized might say, “This event happened to me.” Someone in the victim identity might say, “This always happens to me.” You don’t have a choice about being victimized. You do have a choice about what you think about your circumstances and where you go from here.

Now, some people might think of this as victim blaming, but victim blaming is saying that you’re responsible for the abuse that happened to you, and that’s awful. That’s 100 % the abuser’s fault. But in the role of a victim in this learned helplessness, you might not take responsibility for what happens now. And remember, this is easy to do because childhood abuse doesn’t let you own your power, and you need power to change things.

I spent decades of my life in the role of a victim, and my life didn’t significantly change until I recognized and owned the power that I had. For years, I heard people being called victims with such disgust as though that was the worst thing you could be, “You’re such a victim.” And maybe you’ve heard it with that same shaming tone.

If you find you’re often in the identity as a victim, my intention is to help you feel compassion for yourself instead of shame and to see the power that you truly have.

I saw myself as the person bad things happen to. I expected unwanted things. If someone’s food order was messed up, I expected it to be mine. If someone’s car door was dinged, I expected it would be mine. If someone was interrupted, I expected it to be me. And I was on the lookout for bad things, and I experienced a lot of them, and that just reinforced what I believed about myself and my life.

And bad things happened to everyone. But the person with that learned helplessness doesn’t pivot out of that. And I’ll share how to do that because it might seem impossible. But first, let’s look more at what learned helplessness actually is.

In learned helplessness, you might see yourself as the victim of other people or circumstances or even your own personal choices. And it might be things like your misbehaving children or a lazy coworker or a cheating spouse or relationship breakup, a diagnosis, an accident or an injury, slow traffic, unwanted personal issues like addictions, generational issues or characteristics, or the system.

And again, you might be victimized by some of these things through no choice of your own. But because of the learned helplessness, you might not see your ability to change your circumstances or do anything about them.

It’s about how you position yourself. And if you don’t do anything to change the circumstances, the circumstances don’t change. So it’s easy to stay in a perpetual state of unwanted circumstances. Your beliefs act like the self-fulfilling prophecies.

Some ways that people in the victim identity view things is they see problems as personally against them. They have an expectation that they’ll be taken advantage of, either by circumstances or other people’s actions. They see problems happening everywhere all the time and believe life won’t improve–or if it does, it’s only going to be because of someone else or outside forces causing the improvement. They feel at the mercy of others and unseen forces and they’re problem-centric, hyper-vigilant, expecting the next problem.

So what happens when you see yourself as small and the issues of life as big? How do you adapt to that? Well, you might be submissive and over-accommodating. You might be dependent on others. You might sometimes be manipulative. And this makes sense because if you don’t feel powerful yourself, you need others to do things for you. But there’s a good chance you also don’t feel good enough about yourself to ask directly. So maybe to elicit help, you tell stories about how hard life is. And by the way, this is not the same thing as sharing your struggles and receiving empathy. You also might be envious or resentful of others who seem to have it easier or better than you.

And all of that is understandable. And I hope that if you recognize yourself in any of this, you can have compassion for yourself and understand where that comes from. And I hope that you can also recognize that living that way is an option and you have other options because it can be hard to recognize the choices and the power that you actually have when your life’s history tells you exactly the opposite.

And I know how hard that is because I’ve been there. So you need to know two things in order to make that shift. You have to know that something better is possible and that something better is possible for you personally because you might be able to see that it’s possible for everyone else but you might think that there’s just something about you that makes you incapable in some way.

And one of the ways that I felt victimized was by technology. Of course, having an online business requires that I be able to work with technology. So I started Overcoming Sexual Abuse Facebook page and website 14 years ago with my daughter Bethany. And it was a great partnership in a lot of ways, but especially because she did all the tech and several years into it, she was just ready to move on to other things.
And that was great, except that it left me with the tech and I was terrified. I bawled my eyes out.

I felt utterly and completely unqualified to do it. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know how to do a lot of the things, I felt incapable of learning it. And I felt like this circumstance of not being capable and seeing the technology as so much bigger than me was something being done to me.

And I knew about this victim role thing at that point, but I still found myself in and out of it because, well, more in it than out of it. And this time, I really wanted to find a way through because working with survivors is really important to me.

I knew it was only a feeling that I couldn’t learn the tech part. There wasn’t anything specific I could point to and say, “This is why it’s impossible for me.” I’d learned other things. I wasn’t born knowing how to use email or, you know, that wasn’t even around when I was born and neither was Facebook or the other computer programs I’d learned and Bethany had figured figured out how to build a website. She read about it and she learned by trial and error. So what was I telling myself she had that I didn’t have? What was the specific reason I was counting myself out when it came to developing that skill?

Maybe some people find it easier than other people, but when I broke it down into smaller steps, it just got down to it’s a series  of clicks.

So I worked through that and step by step I did learn technology. And now, all these years later, I don’t know how many websites I’ve built now but at least five or six and I actually kind of find it fun.

Now whenever I’m feeling like there’s something in my life that I don’t feel powerful enough to do something about and that might be a relationship issue or a health issue or some other life circumstance, I remember how impossible it seemed for me to master technology, and that encourages me. Everything in life is just a series of small steps.

Marie Forleo says, “Everything in life is figure-outable,” and I like that.

We have a cat, and he spends a good portion of most days sleeping on our bed. He’s really sweet and peaceful, but he’s also a hunter, and he hunts things we do want him to kill, like mice and rats, and he also hunts things we don’t want him to kill, like birds and lizards.

We have a bush in our front yard that’s quite thick, and things can hide in there, and it would seem that Jameson wouldn’t be able to get them. But he goes around and around the bush until he finds a way in. And that’s how I picture challenges and struggles and hardships and any unwanted circumstance. I think there’s always a way. I truly believe anything can improve or turn around. Not that it always does because circumstances don’t change unless you change them. But I do believe that it can turn around and my life is a lot better since believing that way.

There’s people who have called that spiritual bypassing. But spiritual bypassing is where you use spirituality to avoid unpleasant emotions or actions. And some people have believed in a positive outcome but not done anything to create a positive outcome and they just think it would magically happen. Believing that makes them feel better, that’s spiritual bypassing. But anticipating things getting better and taking action to make them better is the opposite of spiritual bypassing and here again it’s about the nuance.

Have you ever needed to make a meal from whatever you had on hand? I really don’t like cooking, but I do sometimes like the challenge of collecting all the ingredients of whatever I can find and seeing what I can make from that. And I imagine life a lot like that. My current circumstances are the ingredients and my life is the meal that I make with those ingredients. I’m the chef. I’m the creator of my life.

In contrast to being in the victim role, where I only focused on the problems, I felt surrounded by problems, but in the creator role, I focus on the outcomes sometimes, though admittedly I say to myself, “What the heck am I going to do with this?”

And something else that’s associated with the role of the victim is self-pity and feeling sorry for yourself. And self-pity says, “Why do I have to deal with this?” Or “I shouldn’t have to deal with this.” And as I say that, I can just feel my energy just being drained away when I think about those things. It’s a kind of powerless pouting, and it just keeps you where you are.

But what I think is important, and something instead of self-pity is self-compassion. Self-compassion acknowledges the difficulty. You connect with yourself and you show yourself understanding and comfort. And I picture self-compassion like a mother’s love that’s tender but also tenacious and doesn’t give up. When her child is in crisis, she finds a way. So self-pity is draining, but self compassion is energizing. It will help you see the options available in any situation and help you to move to whatever action is required to turn things around.

So acknowledge how rough your start in life was and that you were victimized and you had no choice in that and recognize that likely that set you up to feel like a perpetual victim. But staying there and thinking of yourself as a victim is a choice because you’re not a helpless child anymore. You’re an adult with options. And when you step into the creator role and fuel yourself with self-compassion, you can create something really beautiful in your life.

Well, thanks for joining me today. I’m bringing you lots more on healing and self-care and boundaries and family and other relationship issues. So be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any of it.

Learned Helplessness & Taking Back Your Life

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