Our brain is amazing. Not only it coordinated the immune system to fight off physical hazards, it also equips itself with layers and layers of defense mechanism to protect our mind. Ironically, it is the same defense mechanisms that are preventing us to grow up more often that it actually is protecting us.
Your psyche will try to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are. It doesn’t want to accept that you are wrong; You are always right. So even now, some of you reading this might be feeling your brain bombard you with loads of reasons to reject it. If you’re one of those, I’m warning you that what follows might not be comfortable. But if you’re willing to embrace the discomfort for the sake of improving yourself, then let’s take a look together at the forms this mechanism often come in.
1. Creating a Scapegoat to Reject Criticism
This often come in three forms…
Interpretating Criticism as Insult
“How could this guy say I’m lazy! He doesn’t know me! I bet he just say that to make him feel superior and to make me feel bad. I’m going to whip up an insult of my own to even the score!
Focusing on the Messenger instead of the Message
“Who is THIS guy to tell ME how to live? Oh, like he’s so high and mighty! It’s just some dumb writer on the Internet! I’m going to go find things about him that reassures me that he’s stupid, and that everything he’s saying is stupid!”
Focusing on the Tone to Avoid Hearing the Content
“How dare you talk to me like that?!”
These forms trace back to one reason: You want to feel good about yourself and you won’t let anyone say otherwise. With that reason, you – consciously or subconsciously – protect yourself from the truth that you need to accept.
What Should I do?
Based on my experience, when you encounter such events, do not follow your impulsive behavior. When you feel enraged or offended, your reasoning will be distorted. We all know the feel of looking back and thought, “How could I possibly do something so stupid back then?” Yes, this is that kind of situation.
Learn not to argue without thinking, and reflect first if what the other person said is true. If you feel that you can’t do that, wait until you have calmed down and do so.
Another thing you can do is train yourself to see things objectively, not subjectively. It doesn’t matter whom you’re speaking to; if what he/she said is right, then accept it. You need to learn to embrace the discomfort in order to improve.
2. The Delusion of “Being Myself”
I think we are all familiar of the phrase, “Be Yourself,” “The most important thing is to be yourself,” or something along that line.
It is correct, but incomplete.
Who you are only matters because of what it makes you do
“Be Yourself” teaches the good thing to be proud of who you are and that you don’t need to put masks in order to be someone else. However, this sadly become a double-edged sword that people use to excuse themselves of their negative behaviors or personalities.
“Being myself” is a common defense to almost anything. Well, if you are good and you do good because that’s who you are, then great. But what about psychopathic serial killers? Would saying “It’s important to be yourself” a right thing to say? Or does it justify the things he committed? No. Just like being a slacker, a cheater, or not getting away from watching TV in your basement all day – “Being myself” does not justify you if what you’re doing is bad.
Following “yourself” is not acceptable if that doesn’t make you a good person. It’s just an excuse your brain make to protect you from the guilt of accepting that you’re wrong.
We can see about this like a dirt and a fruit. “Who you are inside” is the metaphorical dirt from which your fruit grows.
What good is the dirt if it grows no fruit?
If the dirt grows no fruit, something needs to be done. Sow seeds. Water it. Fertilize it. The same thing is applied to us. If who you are doesn’t make us into a good person, then change it, because no one cares about who you are if you’re not good! If you are lazy, then make diligence your new habit. If you are a pessimist, spend time to read books or consult with wise people to develop optimism. If “yourself” is bad, then don’t “be yourself.” Change “yourself” into a good person so you can be good while still being “yourself.”
3. Learned Helplessness
In 1965, a scientist named Martin Seligman started shocking dogs.
He was trying to expand on the research of Pavlov – the guy who could make dogs salivate when they heard a bell ring. Seligman wanted to head in the other direction, and when he rang his bell instead of providing food he zapped them with electricity. To keep them still, he restrained them in a harness during the experiment.
After they were conditioned, he put these dogs in a big box with a little fence dividing it into two halves. They thought that if they rang the bell, the dog would hop over the fence to escape, but it didn’t. It just sat there and braced itself. They decided to try shocking them after the bell. The dog still just sat there and took it. When they put a dog in the box which had never been shocked before and tried to zap it – it jumped the fence.
We are just like these dogs.
If, over the course of your life, you have experienced crushing defeat or pummeling abuse or loss of control, you learn over time there is no escape, and if escape is offered, you will not act – we become a nihilist who trusts futility above optimism.
Studies of the clinically depressed show that when they fail they often just give in to defeat and stop trying. The average person will look for external forces to blame when they fail the mid-term. They will say the professor is an asshole, or they didn’t get enough sleep. Depressed people will blame themselves and assume they are stupid.
Do you vote? If not, is it because you think it doesn’t matter because things never change, or politicians are evil on both sides, or one vote in several million doesn’t count? Yeah, that’s learned helplessness.
What Should I do?
The key in breaking the learned helplessness is to keep moving forward. Be in control. We don’t have to force immediately continuing the thing you failed at, but we need to still be active. Researches show that being active reduces learned helplessness.
A study in 1976 by Langer and Rodin showed in nursing homes where conformity and passivity is encouraged and every whim is attended to, the health and well-being of the patients declines rapidly. If, instead, the people in these homes are given responsibilities and choices, they remain healthy and active. This research was repeated in prisons. Sure enough, just letting prisoners move furniture and control the television kept them from developing health problems and staging revolts. In homeless shelters where people can’t pick out their own beds or choose what to eat, the residents are less likely to try and get a job or find an apartment.
When you are able to succeed at easy tasks, hard tasks feel possible to accomplish. When you are unable to succeed at small tasks, everything seems harder.
Do something that distracts you from the pain of loss, but still keep you active (as opposed to being passive like turning into hours of TV, booze, and such).
You customize your ringtone, you paint your room, you collect stamps. You choose.
Choices, even small ones, can hold back the crushing weight of helplessness, but you can’t stop there. You must fight back your behavior and learn to fail with pride. Failing often is the only way to ever get the things we want out of life. Besides death, destiny is not inescapable.
McRaney, David. 2009. “Learned Helplessness,” You Are Not So Smart
Wong, David. “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person,” Cracked