You and I have similar bodies. And similar brains. Similar minds and hearts, even. Humans are mostly, well, human.
Which tells me that if you can do something I can do something. At least mostly. Like I can’t Michael Phelps, but I can pay down my credit cards. I can speak my truth and argue calmly. I can eat fairly healthily. I can quit my job or apply for a promotion. I can go on a date or at least introduce myself to someone. I can do human things.
As can you.
Except it’s not that simple.
A long time ago, some psychologists did an enlightening, if cruel, experiment with a bunch of dogs. They paired up each dog from group A with a dog from group B, put them all in little boxes, and started administering electric shocks. Dogs from group A eventually discovered that if they pressed a nearby lever, the shocks would end. They got to rescue themselves. Group B dogs, however, had no lever. And even though their shocks also ended when their group A mate found its lever, since they didn’t experience solving the problem by pressing the lever, they felt completely helpless about the shocks. Nothing they could do. Inevitable. Unstoppable. Helpless.
Later, they took all the dogs–group A and group B–and put them in different little boxes with a small partition in the middle of each. Electric shocks began again on the side the dogs were placed in. To avoid the shocks, they simply had to jump over the little partition to the safe side. Remember the dogs from group A? The ones that got to experience rescuing themselves? They jumped the partition to safety. And the group B dogs that just had to wait out the abuse? The ones who had experienced the shocks helplessly before? They just lay there accepting the shocks. Ingrained belief that there was nothing they could do. “Learned helplessness.”
Group A dogs had learned a story about themselves and shocks: I can change this.
Group B dogs had learned a different story: I can’t help getting shocked.
And, as a reminder, group A dogs and group B dogs are all dogs with the same puppy-legs built to clear those partitions. But their experiences created stories about themselves. And those stories dictated how they handled the next challenge.
Which is why I say it’s not that simple.
Yes, you and I have the same fingers with which to type that text, update that résumé, add that friend, sign up for that class, and bravely reach out to hold that hand. But you and I have very different stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
My story includes an odd jumble of affection and hiding and anxiety and determination and hope and authenticity and pain and adventure and caution and expectations and wisdom and pessimism and and scars and bravery. And though it’s a jumble, it’s a very specific jumble, specific to me. And it informs every day, every decision, every thought, every moment.
And our stories include the fate-type stuff we’ve learned about ourselves.
Having learned about ourselves that we “can’t,” or we’re “not strong enough,” or we “always do that,” or we “can’t help it,” or we “will always be treated like” . . . we accept our fate as our story plays out the way it’s “supposed” to.
Like: When I work out, I always end up in pain or injured. I’ll never be healthy and strong. So why bother trying?
Or: We always end up in a fight when this subject comes up. And I can’t deal with confrontation. So I’m just going to pretend it doesn’t matter to me anymore.
The themes that we’ve experienced, whether willingly explored or helplessly forced on us, have become our stories about ourselves.
Like those dogs.
“I can” or “I can’t.”
And while it’s not that simple–as simple as being humans that can change–it also is that simple.
Group A and B dogs are both dogs with legs to jump. And when the researchers finally showed the group B dogs they really could change their situation, holding their little legs and teaching them to move, the once helpless dogs did learn to rescue themselves.
You and I are both humans with human bodies and human minds.
And when someone finally showed me that I was allowed to experience and express a full range of emotions, ask for what I want, say what I really feel–I shed a little learned helplessness.
All this to say, you CAN.
Not you can everything. I can’t be on the Yankees team, which is super frustrating.
But you can do that thing–the one you keep wanting to do or trying to do or meaning to do or starting to do or committing to do.
That thing you’ve been remembering each January that you really want to do, and drafting to-do lists and schedules about, and starting, and eventually stopping every time.
Finding that community. Reading those books. Sharing that struggle with a friend. Eating in a way that feels better to your body again. Sticking to those boundaries next time. Sticking with therapy even when it gets too hard. Applying for that new job. Registering for those yoga classes. Cutting back on the Amazon shopping. Reserving more time for your loved ones. Or starting that difficult conversation that makes you a little nauseated.
Do you ever find yourself quick reality-checking a hopeful idea or plan or desire you had? “But you’ve tried that already, and you never stick with it.” Or “You’re just not that person.”
My story about myself includes decades of patterns that dictate to me who I am now–what I could do next, what I couldn’t do next–what my life officially looks like.
Staying up too late.
Being only mildly expressive.
When I was 18, I was a loved and respected participant in a number of churches–they were like my families, and I was the confidant of most of my family members. And I had a best friend. I turned 19 and hopped on a plane to Africa, having that large home of friends and church families to come back to. Then I very suddenly, thoroughly, terrifyingly lost all of it. My family, my church families, even my best friend. Gone.
(Yes, I know I’m the common denominator there, and that’s not a great look. It’s a rough story.)
So in my story there’s this big theme about not getting too close to people, especially communities.
Talk about a powerful theme.
And I’ve stuck to that theme through a whole lot of life.
Stories are powerful.
What’s your theme?
What happened to you?
What’s your brand of helpless?
What’s your story of you?
And what if you aren’t actually trapped in that story?
The assumption that your story has to go a certain way–follow your norm, or any norm–like if you were abused you’ll be anxious, if you struggle with addiction you’ll never stop, if you try to save money you’ll fail–that assumption is a story you’re telling yourself built on powerful experiences you’ve learned from.
But what if you’re the author? And what if, as the author, you can just throw any random new color you want onto the page?
And remember, it’s simple and not simple: The trappedness in our stories is like learned helplessness. And while you may have the same mind and body as the next person–while you have the potential–remember that those dogs actually needed someone to move their legs. The aloner you are, the trappeder you are. So as you decide to change your plot this time, ask someone to help move your legs. A therapist. A bodyworker. A mentor. A friend.
What is your story about you?
And what if you’re the author?
Would you write something different next?
There is power in stepping back and asking what stories we’re trapped in and whether we’d like to re-write them.
What new plotline are you going to write today?