Celebrate Your Power to Choose and Overcome Learned Helplessness

Have you forgotten about your ability to choose? How do we do this?

When I was studying psychology at UCSB for my undergrad degree, I learned about a study conducted in the 1960’s by the famous psychologist Martin Seligman, which clearly illustrates why and how we forget our ability to choose. 

Seligman came to understand the meaning of learned helplessness by the study he did with German shepherds. WARNING: it’s not so nice that they administered shocks to these pups, so if you're an animal lover like me, BEAR with me here. Let’s not allow their experience to be in vain and instead learn all that we can by using this information to help you climb out of the trap of learned helplessness once and for all. 


The dogs were divided into 3 groups. 

  • The first group were placed in a harnesses and periodically administered electric shocks. They were also given a lever they could use to stop the shocks. 

  • The second group was placed in the identical situation, however, their levers didn’t work, which rendered them powerless to do anything over the electrical shocks.

  • The third group was also placed in the harness but never administered shocks. 


Afterward, each dog was placed in a large box with a low center divider, in which one side produced the shock and the other side did not. They found that the dogs that'd been given the lever or received no shock at all quickly learned how to jump over the divider to get away from the shock. Sadly, the ones that had been given a lever that didn’t work to stop the shock in the early part of the experiment, acted powerless in this situation because of their conditioning. They didn’t do anything to avoid the shocks, they didn’t adapt or adjust. They didn’t know they had a choice other than to take the shocks. They had learned helplessness. 


This happens to us humans as well... It’s like no matter what you try if it doesn’t work, you start to believe you are powerless to affect any control or change over your life. Have you felt like this before? We all do at certain times. This is what it can look like:

Symptoms of learned helplessness may include:

  • Passivity

  • Giving up

  • Procrastination

  • Decreased problem-solving ability

  • Frustration

  • Low self-esteem



Have you ever felt paralyzed because you believed you didn’t have the power to choose?

Often times this comes about because of two contradictory beliefs that many of us busyaholics practice without even realizing: 

"I can’t do this”

& “I have to do this”?

When working with my clients I typically see three types of Busyaholic Learned Helplessness. 

TYPE 1: The Mind Chatter-Foggy Busyaholic: 

If this is you, you mainly think, “I can’t do this," and suffer from procrastination and although you feel busy, you are probably not producing what you’d like to in your life. Usually, this is accompanied with great shame, of course lots of mental chatter that make you FEEL busy even though not much is getting done. 

Your mind is running wild and you are exhausted before you start. Maybe you had 10 things to do, but you got 2 done. Each day you add on to the list of stuff you didn’t accomplish yesterday until you want to give up completely. Your self-confidence goes down and you don’t go for your dreams because now you don’t believe in them. Most of you out there are successful and tenacious you don’t usually give up completely on your dreams, but some things you do, and you have serious doubts that you can pull this one off, whatever is up for you. When I work with you guys, I help you clean up all that self-doubt, confusion and worry. Learned helplessness is not a sentence it’s about learning how to manage your mind.

TYPE 2: The Over-Functioning Busyaholic:

If this is you, you believe you should be able to have and do it all. Even the things you don’t choose. This is the kicker. Why do you feel you should do something you don’t really want to? You may look like you have it all together, but this is often a smokescreen. We all know that when we put too much on our plates we end up doing nothing well, and everything mediocre. This happens because of learned helplessness. 

TYPE 3: Is just combo of the above two. See more below.


when you believe that your efforts at work, or in your relationships or any other area of your life don’t matter people tend to respond in one of two ways.

Like TYPE 1: The Mind Chatter-Foggy Busyaholic: If this is you, you may have a tendency to check out and stop trying, kinda like a child who doesn’t do well in Math (were you one of those kiddos too?), or you try but all the while think you are doomed to fail anyways- which ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

And as in TYPE 2: The Over-Functioning Busyaholic: If this is you, often times you'll become almost hyperactive in your responses. You’ll take it all on, accept every opportunity, throw yourself into every assignment, feel extremely stressed because the perception’s that you have to do it all. This often leads to burnout and major resentments. Many people, including yourself see you as being important because of how busy you are. However the cookie crumbles at some point, and when it does it comes tumbling down. It’s not pretty. And it’s not your fault. That darn mind of yours just needs some cleaning up.

TYPE 3 Busyaholic Mixed Type: Mind Chatter/Over-Functioning Swing 

This sounds like a cruel advanced type of swing dance class. But in fact, this is so common. See if you recognize yourself. Do you vacillate between one extreme and the other. Sometimes you can get a bunch done, and you do, but other times you’re totally unproductive. You are frustrated and your self-esteem waxes and wanes.

Either way, none of these ways of operating in the world feels good right?

I know it didn’t for me, and often times it stops you just short from the true results and desires you want out of life. You can almost touch your dreams, but you just can’t quite reach that far. These syndromes cause a great deal of pain, emotionally, physically, socially, relationally and even financially. Can you relate?

Think back to how many times in your life you felt like you didn’t have a choice… but now know that you do:

Some examples I hear often are:

I don’t have a choice because…..

I have to stay at this job

I have to pay my taxes

I have to stay in this relationship 

I have to live in this apartment or house

I have to live in this city

I have to get through this training

I have to go to school

I have to keep working with these kinds of clients in my business

The best antidote to this Busyaholicism is to recall with Gusto YOUR POWER TO CHOOSE and do only the essential.

Start to choose only what is essential in life as if your life depends on it because it does in a lot of ways. As you can now see clearly how NOT CHOOSING can have some seriously adverse effects on your life.

Make decisions and make them as easily and quickly as you can

Practice Constraint 

Focus on only your Priority

Learn to say no with grace and ease

Stop People Pleasing

Get coached to learn how to get out of the learned helplessness trap

AND most importantly remember your power to choose

Becoming an Essentialist instead of a Busyaholic requires a daily mindfulness practice of focused-awareness on your ability to choose!

Self-Coaching Assignment for the week: 

Choose & practice only what is essential to you.

Each day when you wake up in the morning, decide that you'll use the following language:

1: "I choose to" instead of "I have to”.

With every little thing that you do. The internal script might sound like this: 

I am choosing to wake up at 8 am, I am choosing to eat breakfast, I am choosing to go to work, I am choosing to pay my bills, I am choosing to see this friend, I am choosing to spend Sunday leisurely with my loved ones, I am choosing to say no to working on the weekends, I am choosing to take care of my dog, brush my teeth, take a shower, eat healthy & pay my taxes. 

2: Choose the things you are NOT doing too!

“I am not choosing to _______________ because_____________.”

"I am choosing not to delete my emails"

"I am choosing not to clean my house"

"I am choosing NOT to prioritize work, so I CAN CHOOSE to prioritize my relationships this weekend"

NOTE: Try and not beat yourself up over what you're choosing not to do, by adopting this belief script:

“I really can’t do it all. So what is it that I WANT to CHOOSE to focus on? How can I commit to myself and constrain my focus to just that?"

3: Make sure that each and every decision you make exercises YOUR ABILITY to exercise YOUR CHOICE.

4: For goodness sake make sure that you like, if not love your reason behind each choice, ok? This is just good habit.

5: Take 100% complete ownership for the CHOICES you make. No more:

"I have to…"

"I should…"

"I can’t say no…”

This is all just untrue, you always have a choice. Yes, maybe it has some consequences, but all decisions do. I am not saying this is an easy practice, but AN ESSENTIAL one. It’s the best way I know how to get you smack in the seat of your own power, and out of learned helplessness, wasted energy & time, and living a life on purpose with greater abundance.


If you don’t make YOUR choice, step by step you’ll give away all your power until you end up being a function of other people’s choices. Or a function of your past choices. Yuck. Don’t give up your power to choose. Or accidentally give others explicit permission to choose for you. If this is you and you are stuck, do not hesitate and get on a mini session with me today. Let’s stop this cycle once and for all so that you can really live your life and love it. 

Let me know how this goes ladies. I know it is a powerful process and it takes a lot of practice to live the life of an essentialist and not a busyaholic, but it’s possible and it will bring you deep rewards and soon you’ll find yourself celebrating your power to choose. Go to it!