It isn’t suffering that leads to helplessness, it’s suffering you can’t control.
Dr. Seligman back in 1964 first proved this theory when studying dogs reactions to shocks (yes, I know it sucks that anybody would shock our best friends in the name of science). The dogs were in two distinct control groups. One group had a panel they could touch (paw) to stop the shock, one did not. After only a few times being shocked, the dogs with the panel stopped the shock while the dogs with no option simply whimpered and waited for the agony to end. Humans are a lot like dogs. When we feel some semblance of control in the midst of our suffering we can remain hopeful. However, when life feels beyond our control, we can quickly lay down and give up. Learned helplessness, as Seligman coined it, is in ever increasing abundance, isn’t it?
Wrestling is a suffer-fest. So too is long distance running or cycling. In my personal research of these three, it’s clear that most of us can endure just about anything as long as we know when the acute pain is ending. So, friend, remember this – the only thing that all the major world religions/philosophies agree upon is this – life is suffering. Fact. You and I are going to suffer while we’re here on planet earth. The best preparation for the unchosen kind of suffering is “chosen suffering,” as my friend Grappy likes to call it. Chosen suffering inoculates the system for the unchosen kind that we all know is coming, we just don’t know when, where, and how.
I know it seems insane to choose suffering, but think about it for awhile, it actually makes perfect sense. Choose to put yourself through some acute pain. Train the brain to accept acute pain. Make it short and really hard. Tell yourself how long you want it to last. Start really small, maybe run a half mile, sprint a hundred yards, or do as many pull ups as you can in two minutes. It’s going to hurt but only for awhile. Do a little more tomorrow and then a little more the next day too. Set yourself up for success by starting with baby steps and building up from there. Sooner than you think, you’re going to change your mind. You’re going to change your relationship to chosen suffering. You are getting onboard the pain train and, in fact, you’re the conductor too!
You’re going to begin to learn to do hard things and remain hopeful as you realize it didn’t kill you after all. When we study the elite in any endeavor they have a resilient mindset that is built through this kind of chosen suffering. After awhile, the elite begin to love what they once loathed; they begin to look forward to the tough tests and even love them. This is the opposite of learned helplessness, this is learned optimism. The best way to learn optimism is to learn to do hard things well by embracing the suck of doing hard things poorly, at least at first. The elite choose this purposeful suffering and persevere through the pain. They tell themselves they’re in control, they’re the conductor, and talk back to their limiting self talk when resistance raises it’s ugly head. They hop on board the pain train because they know where it’s going, it’s taking them toward their big dream – they’re labor of love. Hard labor we disdain as we tire. Hard opus, remember, we sustain as we perspire.
It isn’t suffering that leads to helplessness, it’s suffering you can’t control. It is chosen suffering, the kind you feel like you control, that leads to learned optimism. The elite train the mind to learn to love the tough tests. They are not super human, they’ve simply chosen to suffer in service to their passion, purpose and toward the aim of their opus. Life is hard and good when we’re onboard the pain train headed toward an opus worth the strain. Where are you learning optimism? Where have you given up? Are you laboring on the pain train you’ve grown to disdain? Are you laboring in love toward your self authored, opus, one that is worthwhile enough to get you onboard the pain train? Slow down and sit with these thoughts for awhile. Slow down.
Live hard. Love harder (Thanks, Teeks)…