learned helplessness NOUN A condition in which a person has a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression. What Is Learned Helplessness? Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action. While the concept is strongly tied to animal psychology and behavior, it can also apply to many situations involving human beings. When people feel that they have no control over their situation, they may begin to behave in a helpless manner. This inaction can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change.
I have been thinking a great deal about learned helplessness lately – about when I learned that I couldn’t and shouldn’t trust my body, and how I internalized the messages that I would fail…at weight loss, at life skills, at anything I tried.
I went on my first diet at a very young age and started the first of over 35 failed attempts at Weight Watchers when I was around 4 or 5 years old. Over decades there were hundreds of efforts, “experts” visited, doctor’s waiting rooms, dashed hopes tethered to yet another diet, another plan, another Monday-morning start, and eventually the belief that I was powerless to do anything about my weight took root. The corroborating evidence — I dieted my way to over 400 pounds.
But now, after losing 225+ pounds, I’m left waiting for the other shoe to drop and for all this “winning” to reverse. And every time I eat in a way I’m not entirely proud of (more often than I care to admit out loud), I think, “Here it is…the beginning of the end. It’s all coming crashing back!” because for decades the all-or-nothing thinking meant just that.
Trusting I can keep this weight off, that one poor choice, one pound gained doesn’t mean 200 or even 20, and that I am not headed back to obesity prison is something I panic about daily. I am in uncharted territory with limited visibility ahead.
Learned helplessness shows up in other ways on my journey to well-being. Every day while running, I find myself mistrusting that my legs and muscles, heart and lungs can carry me. Since I started running last year, I’ve been working to better my pace, and as I gradually decrease this time, feel good in my body and enjoy the movement, I regularly find myself pulling back the second I realize I am improving. I push myself to go faster, farther, stronger, and then routinely psych myself out, slow down and not trust that I can do what I am, in fact, in that very moment doing. I don’t even trust what I see and feel and know to be true, weighed down by memories of what my body used to feel like.
The same can be said for my strength training goals: I’ve been working for months to get stronger, increase range of motion and trust that my arms and body can hold me as I do more push-ups and body strength exercises. And yet, day in and day out I struggle to mentally cross the threshold of where I have trained long and hard to be.
There are countless other deeply personal and more meaningful ways in which learned helplessness has held me back and kept me from moving forward in life – not to mention the very real and poignant ways in which my life was and still is profoundly impacted by living in a body that was morbidly obese for decades, some of which I am only now beginning to allow myself to feel the depth of and acknowledge.
So, what process wins when I hold myself back, doubt my abilities, stay stuck in the status quo, or quit before crossing the finish line? What process wins when I eat in ways I’m not proud of, that don’t align with my goals? What process wins when I routinely give up rather than pursue desired goals and push past my comfort zones? What process wins when I decide not to listen to the clear messages my body is sending – that it feels good, that it knows what it needs, that it knows how to take care of itself?
The only thing I can think of that would make me defy everything I know to be true is addiction.
Even in the face of decisions not related to food, I am certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that addiction is at the root of so much of the learned helplessness that comes bubbling forth on a daily basis — because years of living in a 400-pound body and the lessons learned via intuitive eating, therapy, self-reflection, countless self-help books, journaling, and ultimately low carb have taught me that the food on my plate is really a microcosm of a much larger picture.
Though slightly different for everyone, my narrative kept me from straying too far, so that I was “safe” and “untroubled.” Except it failed miserably in this stated mission because ultimately it kept me limited, depressed, imprisoned and very much troubled — this lying liar, or inner terrorist as I often refer to it, gaslighted me day in and day out, and (still) works overtime to get its way.
That I have lost a significant amount of weight would give one the idea that I have banished my inner terrorist forever, but indeed, this is not the case. I firmly believe that food addiction, like any other addiction, is never fully eradicated. So, without judgment or shame, I keep a watchful eye on it, and with a curious mind observe and have begun to even appreciate the myriad ways it finds to get the rewards it so richly believes it deserves. Low carb gives me a fighting chance by eating in ways that are satiating and nourishing, and bit by bit I do my best to dismantle every roadblock this dark passenger puts in my path. It can be exhausting to battle an enemy that is coming from within, but then I take a deep breath, remember how far I’ve come and try to not judge myself too harshly.
I used to believe I had to have it all figured out before I could possibly make sustainable changes. I used to wait until the sun, moon and stars aligned before starting, believing that things had to be perfect to move forward, that everything had to be perfect to proceed, that I had to be perfect to get better. I used to think that if it was hard, I was doing it wrong. Now I realize all of these barriers are food addiction in disguise, weaponizing my own my vulnerabilities against me.
It starts with me being aware of what I’m facing – I cannot possibly win a war against a nameless, faceless enemy that will stop at nothing to get what it wants. I only stand a fighting chance if I know and acknowledge what I am up against.
So, if you have a lying liar gaslighting you, telling you that it is all your fault and you should be able to handle this, and why can’t you just have a little, and this time will be different? Know this: it won’t.
If your lying liar is telling you “Go ahead, you’ve been so good on your diet, you deserve this!” or perhaps it’s saying “You’ve been so good, but the scale has barely budged. You’ll never lose weight!!” Or maybe the lying liar is worming its way through your brain with “You’ve screwed up! You’re disgusting! You’ve eaten like such a pig, you may as well eat everything and start over on Monday.” Then ask yourself: how can all these things be true when they are contradictory? And how will this time be different from any of the hundreds of other times if you don’t ignore this all-or-nothing thinking and forge a new path?
Every one of these scenarios are learned helplessness and food addiction finding a means to get their way. Do not let them.
Treat yourself with both loving care and the dispassionate observation of a scientist seeking data. Notice everything that triggers the impulse to eat: the people, foods, situations, places, times of day and emotions you’re experiencing. And when the thought to eat strikes, notice what precipitated it and start to prepare for hunger and cravings, without shame. With kindness put foods and practical strategies in place to thwart the roadblocks your inner terrorist has laid in wait for you. That is how you begin to circumvent the enemy within.
So, if you find yourself midway through leftovers, make a decision to stop the train once it has left the station. It is possible. Throw them away, pour dish soap over the stuff that is calling your name, and the very next time you get hungry make yourself 4 (6, 8?) scrambled eggs. Start with the basics at your very next meal. Not on Monday or after the uneaten cake is finished. Now. (And lest you think this blog is being written from the rarified air of someone who has lost 225+ pounds and has it…all…figured…out? I just did all these things after a day of overeating low-carb treat foods like it was my job.)
Start by trusting the process and trusting yourself – that eating off plan one time is not forever, and that this all-or-nothing thinking is just one of the maladaptive processes that landed us unwell in the first place. History does not have to repeat itself if you decide not to let it.
Trust that your body knows best. Our bodies are smarter than our brains in so many ways. Your brain (which is held captive by a lying liar!) will tell you both “It’s just a few bites, what’s the big deal?” and “See? You blew it!! Eat everything!!” but your body knows it won’t feel well tomorrow if it eats those cookies. Your brain will tell you “Grandma made this especially for me!” but your body will tell you your stomach hurts and your joints ache when you eat sugar. Your body knows. Listen to how your body feels when you feed it satiating food and how it feels when you feed it lots of carbs or processed crap, even the keto-friendly stuff.
Trust hunger, trust satiety, and trust that you can adequately nourish yourself. Most children know this intuitively, but somewhere along the way our brains unlearn it.
Try to think back to when you might have unlearned this, or learned you weren’t enough. Who told you, what were the messages (spoken and unspoken) that made you stop trusting yourself? Was it countless diets and mixed signals from adults that sent you into a confused world of diet/binge/shame/guilt? Are you replaying those tapes over and over in your head now, still, even though they may no longer be true?
Don’t stay married to an old story and the narratives you tell yourself. Don’t psych yourself out, give your life over to an inner terrorist that will stop at nothing to get its way while offering nothing in return.
Your future is in front of you. Trust yourself enough to live it.
Other blog posts from health coach Amy Eiges:
- I Am Not Broken
- Are You Hungry?
- Why Are You Eating?
- Lessons Learned on the Road to Losing 225+ Pounds
 https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/learned_helplessness  Hockenbury DE, Hockenbury SE. Discovering Psychology. New York: Macmillan; 2011.  American Psychological Association: https://dictionary.apa.org/learned-helplessness  https://www.contempclindent.org/article.asp?issn=0976-237X;year=2016;volume=7;issue=4;spage=426;epage=427;aulast=Nuvvula