the title of this post is that of a song by The Zombies which I’ve had on my brain for the last few days. as usual my musical references here are totally bang up to date 😉 I love this song for its mix of optimism and pain which seems appropriate for today when many of us are thinking new thoughts, trying new things, whilst maybe already prepared a little bit in our hearts that it won’t work, can’t work, because it never has.
there’s a name for this phenomenon – sabotaging ourselves by our own belief that we can’t do something, even as we try to do so for the umpteenth time. it’s called learned helplessness. I discovered it after listening to my own podcast with Belle. we had been talking about why I believed that I wouldn’t be able to stop drinking, because I hadn’t been able to moderate. And Belle asked me, “So, you can’t do hard things?” and I replied, with utter certainty in my voice, “No, I can’t.”
and we had sort of been talking in the past tense, so my answer sort of related to my beliefs in the past – except, of course, that it didn’t, it bloody didn’t, and I’ve been trying to come up with a different answer to that question ever since.
There’s a lot of information out there about learned helplessness, most of it referring to some pretty ghastly experiments involving dogs and electric shocks. the basic premise is that as humans, if we fail enough times at something, we stop trying. the best (and most hopeful) summary I’ve found is on the podcast You Are Not So Smart which you can listen to here. in that podcast they describe the way out of learned helplessness (involving CBT techniques) to change what is called one’s explanatory style. if something goes wrong in one’s life, then it can be tempting to ascribe it to causes which are personal, permanent and pervasive.
e.g. “I drank again because I’m a fuck-up. I always will be, and I am in everything I do.”
(NB – I could have saved myself a lot of notebooks in the last three years of my drinking if I had just written this on a postcard once and for all.)
whereas in fact the cause could well be external, impermanent, and specific:
“I drank again because I let myself get hungry and tired. In future I will…xyz, and remember that I am an excellent *whatever you are proud of yourself for doing* “
if this former, acutely painful attributional style is a behaviour, then what are we getting out of it? I have blogged previously that every behaviour serves a purpose.
could it be that this belief saves us from the necessity of doing the hard work that is necessary to make a change? because, after all, if it is true, then there is no point in doing that hard work – so I am off the hook. I am squirming here as I write this – I am longterm sober now yes but I have a whole understairs cupboard of other behaviours that I keep closing the door on and ignoring…
if today is your first day sober, please know that you are not alone, that it is possible to change, and that others have done so. the question of whether it is possible for you to change is like a snake biting its own tail. if you have come to believe that you cannot change then that will make it difficult, maybe even impossible, for you to do so. it depends to a significant extent what you are trying to fix… I can’t remember where I read this and please do let me know if you recognise the quote, but if I ask myself the question
“Am I fixing my feelings, or fixing my behaviour?”
then it usually throws an uncomfortable light on the situation. the impulse to change is a powerful one, but if I am doing it to make myself feel better, without accompanying it with the painful necessary behaviour change, then the impulse will soon peak and crash without achieving its objective. and then I re-commit to another feelings-fix, then crash and burn again, and the snake goes round and round.
there is a world of support and tools available for us, whatever we are trying to achieve, online and elsewhere. they can help us, but we need to seek them out and use them.
that is my wish for me (and perhaps too for you?) for 2017 – that I work out what it takes to change my behaviour, and DO THAT THING.
if your Big Thing is not-drinking, and you would like to show yourself that you can DO SOMETHING, however small, towards that – would you please consider leaving a comment here below? especially if you haven’t commented on a blog before, or if you have been round the non-drinking block once or a gazillion times before.
I’d truly love to hear from you. it’s our year, after all, and I’d like to get to know you!
with all best wishes, Prim xx
PS if you haven’t already done so, please go and read Lou’s post today. it’s a corker!