You are in control of your life. After experiencing trauma, especially long term, it can be difficult to believe this. Trauma scars deeply. It causes so many intense emotions and negative self thoughts (ex: I am not capable, I am not smart, I have no common sense, I cause bad things to happen). It is difficult to follow your own intuition and conscience because of shame, fear, self-doubt and negative self beliefs ( I am bad, I am unworthy, I am weak, I have no value). Often issues related to feeling helpless or believing you do not have control over your life occur. This is termed learned helplessness, and this belief prevents many people from moving forward in life, even when opportunities arise.
Taking Responsibility for Your Life
Learned helplessness sounds offensive to many and may cause anger. There is a negative connotation to this phrase; no one likes to think of themselves as helpless. The majority of the time this pattern of behavior is subconscious and we do not realize we have the ability to take ownership of our lives. There is a belief that they cannot change their circumstances. Why? A pattern of helplessness has formed after repeated situations when the individual’s control was taken away by someone else (for example some type of abuse or neglect) or or something else ( for example a severe mental or physical health disorder , substance abuse, prison system or foster care system). People who experience secondary trauma may feel helpless in their jobs after seeing extensive trauma and not having any control over the outcome. An example would be someone in law enforcement that witnesses a lot of overdoses, death and/ or violent crimes. Continuous placement in systems like rehabs, jails, juvenile facilities, and residential programs can cause learned helplessness because of the lack of independence and forced reliance on staff to have needs met.
After reading the examples above and thinking of learned helplessness as a conditioned response to repeated, traumatic life events it should no longer sound like an offensive term. It is not something you chose or desired for your life, and it does not have to be the way you respond to your future. The first step to healing is to admit to yourself that this is occuring and don’t guilt yourself! Think of it as a typical response to life by many that experience lack of control repeatedly. Many of you may have tried to change the outcome of your life or a situation and it felt futile or pointless and you gave up because you were tired, overwhelmed or sick of being disappointed and hurt.
Think of when and how this belief that you have no control started. Most likely it is tied to a situation when this lack of control was real. Coping with this can be very difficult on your own and I recommend speaking with a therapist to process through all the emotions related to this. Once you identify and process, use this new awareness to view your life choices. Is there an area or areas where you’ve wanted to do more, learn more, or change and you haven’t because of a belief that you’re incapable, nothing will ever change or get better or no one will ever help you so there’s no point in trying? Are there times where you wanted to help someone else but gave up for the same reasons? These are the thoughts of a learned helplessness response, and they can be changed.
Changing Thoughts and Behaviors
How can these thoughts be changed? Small steps! Do not start big or you will set yourself up for failure. Small, planned steps can lead to bigger steps and bigger changes. For example, I believed I had no control over relationships. I felt unable to say no to people, and it was definitely related to feeling that I had no control over my life or myself as a person; I believed I had no right to say no to people due to trauma related shame and lack of self-esteem. I slowly started saying saying no to small things- giving someone a ride, or eating something I didn’t want to eat. I gradually went on to saying no to bigger things- family or friend functions that would be unhealthy or put me in a difficult position with my sobriety, completely ending contact with harmful relationships, and not allowing my children to be in certain places or around people I wasn’t comfortable with. I would have never imagined I was capable of doing this, but the more I said no, the more I was able to take ownership of my life, use my voice, and build confidence.
Psalm 9:9 (NIV) says the Lord is a refuge for the oppressed,a stronghold in times of trouble.I am so thankful that God is my stronghold. Stronghold is defined as a place that protects by resisting or preventing attack, or a place a specific cause or belief is strongly defended or upheld. Knowing God is with me everytime I decided to speak up has helped me immensly because I did not feel alone in my fight.
You have value and you have a responsibility to yourself to protect your body, mind and heart. You may want to read that statement multiple times because it is hard to believe and understand after experiencing so much pain, trauma and lack of control. I struggled with the idea that I had the right or ability to say no to others, even though my profession called for me to advocate for others and say no on behalf of others. Sometimes trauma is unavoidable, but often you have the ability to protect your mind, body and heart by using your voice, and making decisions that benefit yourself and your family. You are NOT helpless in any way, and even though fighting for yourself is exhausting, I promise it gets easier. As you overcome each obstacle there is so much freedom and a new level of confidence and empowerment with each time you say “NO”.
I’d love to hear your story. Please contact me with any questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org