What to Do When You Feel Like Giving Up
Meta: What do you do when you feel like giving up? If the answer is nothing, then this article will change your life.
Feeling like it’s time to give up walks hand-in-hand with the feeling of helplessness: the feeling that nothing you can do will change your situation, so you might as well lie down to take it.
The feeling has a name: it’s called learned helplessness. While naming it may not seem helpful, it puts us one step closer to understanding it.
Learned helplessness refers to the unproductive passiveness that follows an experience where the events were beyond our control. If you’re experiencing learned helplessness, it may be because you’ve experienced an event that was far beyond your control and then applied it to other situations.
In 1967, two depression researchers were the first to describe learned helplessness—in dogs. The experiment used is difficult to imagine for animal lovers, but it quintessentially describes human behavior in that situation.
In Seligman and Overmeier’s study, researchers put two dogs in cages. The dogs were lightly shocked through the floor, and they have the option to jump over the wall to escape the shock—they did. Then, the dogs were put in hammocks and shocked. Although they tried to fight it, they eventually gave up because there was no way for them to impact the shocks.
When the dogs went back to the cage, they lay on the floor despite the shocks because they had learned passivity as a coping mechanism.
Although it’s difficult to think about shocking helpless dogs, the experiment might resonate with some of the feelings you’ve experienced.
Have you experienced a situation beyond your control and learned to react to all situations that you feel are hopeless passively? Do you find it easier to quit when things get hard? Here’s what to do when you feel like giving up.
Change Your Perception of Yourself
We all have ideas about who we are and what we’re capable of. Most of us also learn those ideas at a young age.
We’re athletic, or we’re not. We’re creative or not. We’re smart or not. We’re funny or not.
Your first task is to change your thoughts. If you believe you can’t affect yourself and the person you’re becoming, then you won’t even try to affect those external forces that you’re battling.
Learning who you are and setting expectations for who you can be is the first step to opening up a world of possibilities.
Start by removing the negative self-talk. Replace your “I can’t” and “I’m not” with an “I should” and “I might.” Changing your thoughts gives you the latitude to try, and by trying, you’ll reject the whole concept of learned helplessness.
Are you ready for the most important part of changing your perception?
If you want to be more confident, don’t just tell yourself you’re confident. Behave like you’re more confident. When you act on your beliefs, you’ll believe yourself, and your self-perception follows.
The inverse is also true. If you believe you’re weak, and you act like you’re weak, then you’ll reinforce your negative self-perception.
As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we should be careful about what we pretend to be.”
So mean what you do and do what you say, and you’ll already be on your way to kicking helplessness to the curb.
Reject Your Helplessness
Do not accept your helplessness. If you look at an outcome and consider it the only future available, then you will manifest your fate.
Rejecting your helplessness requires both optimism and hope. Having changed your self-talk opens up your mind to both those things, but now, it’s time to put them into practice. How? Practice hope and optimism with problem-solving.
Rather than letting life happen to you, think of ways that you might change the outcome yourself. Look for a new path. Consider moving backward to move forward. Don’t be afraid to fail. While being knocked back seems scary and inevitable, it’s far more meaningful than laying down to wait for the next shock.
Why do you feel helpless? Why are you trying to do what you’re trying to do in the first place?
Trace your steps back to the origin of the feeling and ask yourself why you’ve made the decisions you made. Asking why leads you to ask how. The clarity provided will help you remember to keep fighting and start again.
Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
Why do you quit? Is it because it’s more comfortable to take what comes than to do the work to improve your situation?
The idea of being happier with comfort when what you’re experiencing is a shock sounds strange. That’s why we need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. So, how you do start doing things that make you uncomfortable?
Your first step is to begin. Showing up isn’t all you need to do, but it’s a huge step forward because starting means committing to change.
Once you’ve started, keep showing up every minute and every day. You won’t see results right away, and the discomfort you experience won’t dissipate. In fact, it will intensify. But the intense feeling is that of you leaving comfort – your comfort zone – behind.
The space on the other side of your comfort zone is terrible. It hurts. You don’t know where to turn. And you don’t know when or how it will end. But this space is your target because it’s what makes you tougher. It shows you that no matter what happens, you made it this far.
Some of us need an extra push to get out of our comfort zones, and that’s okay. Rely on those around you for help. Talk about what you feel because someone else has felt it, too. Before you know it, you’ll look forward to swapping stories with your friends.
Remind Yourself Why It’s Worth It
At some point, you’ll have tried and tried, but you won’t have budged. What do you do? Do you lay down in your cage?
No, it’s time to reassess. Take stock of what you want and check in with yourself to remind yourself of your goals.
Don’t forget to recognize the ways you’ve improved. Even if you haven’t reached your goal or removed yourself from the situation you’re trying to avoid; things have changed. You’ve changed in other ways.
- More confident?
- More experienced?
- More resilient?
- More skillful?
- More mindful?
Maybe you’re all of those things.
Remember to count your wins. Fighting for who you are and what you want is a win in itself, so recognize it.
Create an Accountability System
Hold yourself accountable for what you want—even if you’re not in complete control of what that is.
Being accountable doesn’t mean shaming yourself if you fail. It doesn’t mean completing a huge goal either. Rather, it’s a system that anyone can use to check in along the journey and make reaching your goals easier.
Start by picking a measurable and achievable goal. Don’t reach for the sky on your first try—progress will do. For example, a commitment to “being healthy” is hard to measure. What does it mean? Meanwhile, committing to going to yoga three times a week is a measurable goal: you either did or did not hit the mat on three separate occasions.
You also need outside motivation. A leader or mentor adds perspective to your journey while also holding you accountable. They’ll see your progress faster than you will. Don’t worry; you don’t need a guru. Choose someone you trust to share your vulnerable moments with and who will be honest with you especially when you need it.
Communication is important for accountability because it creates the feeling of connection. We hear about the person who climbed Everest, but not the sherpas and friends who helped them along the way. The value of that connection allows us to become invested in our goals, and it allows others to do the same.
You don’t need to communicate every day. Talking once a week will do.
When you share, don’t forget to allow for small failures. Failing must be okay if you want to succeed. Being accountable doesn’t mean avoiding failure, it means learning from the small ways you miss the mark to avoid them in the future or improve your path now. Plus, you need support most when you fail. Success can be celebrated alone, but you should commiserate failure in numbers.
Feeling Helpless and Being Helpless Are Different Things
Just because you feel helpless doesn’t mean you are. For many of us, those feelings are learned helplessness; we’ve experienced what it’s like to be shocked by external forces and then apply it even when we can help ourselves.
If you’ve been wondering what to when you feel like giving up, know this: you’re the only person who can help yourself—and you can do it. By remembering that you’re in control of your own life, you’ll find new ways to make progress even when you feel like you’re stuck in place.
Do you recognize those feelings of learned helplessness? How have you learned to cope? Share your stories in the comments below.