If you’ve ever taken a psychology class you’ve probably heard about Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness.
Essentially, the idea is that over time, if one experiences painful events that are out of one’s control, eventually one stops even trying to avoid the incident.
Characteristics of learned helplessness include decreased motivation and negative emotions like sadness and anxiety – even anger and frustration.
Eventually, one believes that no matter what they do, things will not get better. They believe they have no control over the situation’s outcome.
I believe I have over my lifetime developed the opposite of learned helplessness.
I call it learned fearlessness.
I haven’t always been this way. And there are plenty of things I am afraid of – the death of my children, incapacitating illness, heights, spiders larger than a dime. #especiallyiftheyarehairy
And yet there are many things that no longer fill me with dread, like saying “I am a writer.” or “I quit.” or “No.”
Much of my progress has been made over the last 6 years or so. It began to germinate when my mother died of early-onset dementia at the age of 61. Watching her take her last breath, and knowing that there is a highly genetic component to early-onset dementia, made me consider the state of my life at that time.
It wasn’t good.
I can clearly recall my therapist rejecting my idea that I should stay in my toxic marriage out of my fear of getting sick early like my mom, who was diagnosed at age 55.
“Who will take care of me?” I asked.
“What will happen to my children?” I worried.
She looked me squarely in the eyes and asked, “If you only have a limited time left, how do you want to spend it?”
In other words – in guaranteed misery, or with the chance of happiness?
Dear Reader, I left.
I said, “No more.”
The irony here is that all each of us has is a limited time. Early-onset dementia or not.
After I left the toxicity I was living in, things didn’t miraculously change overnight. #dotheyever?
But, it did get easier, little by little, for me to become brave. To cultivate courage.
I learned to recognize choices I made out of fear sooner. (Notice I said, “sooner.”) I still made – make – choices based out of fear sometimes. But as I began to flex my bravery muscles it got easier to recognize what I was doing. I was able to gain clarity and focus on what I really wanted my life to be like, and how to get there.
I still made – make – choices based out of fear sometimes. But as I began to flex my bravery muscles it got easier to recognize what I was doing. I was able to gain clarity and focus on what I really wanted my life to be like, and how to get there.
Sure, I stumbled. Took wrong turns. Said yes to what I thought I should say yes to.
Still do, from time to time. #human
Yet, increasingly I was hearing things like “You are inspiring!” and “I admire your bravery!” from people I look up to and friends whose opinions I value.
For example, a little over a year ago I decided to leave my job at the District Attorney’s office. I’d been there for over a year and, after returning from a trip to Europe with my family, decided I wanted to dedicate more time to writing. #travelcandothat
In order to do that, I was going to quit my full-time job and work part-time for a year and see what kind of writerly traction I could get. #madeupwords #artisticlicense
One of the attorneys came up to me, a very successful prosecutor of many of the office’s high-profile murder cases. She told me that she was proud of me and that what I was doing was very brave. A co-worker overheard her and said, “Oh but [dear attorney], I think you are brave. You face murderers in the courtroom!”
The attorney politely, but emphatically, disagreed saying, No, because that is my comfort zone. That’s where I am at home, in the courtroom facing criminals and putting them away for horrible crimes. But what Jessica is doing is really brave, she’s quitting and taking a leap of faith so that she can pursue her dream. That is bravery.
A few months ago I got my last paycheck from the part-time teaching job I had after leaving the DA’s office. Since then I have been living on savings and what I earn from freelancing. I did the financially irresponsible thing and took money out of my retirement to keep me afloat for a few months.
Hey, nobody else was gonna bet on me, so I better do it myself! #allmychipsarein
You see, I had to take the chance. I worked as a freelance writer once years ago, before my son was born. He just turned 11, so it was 12 years ago. #timeflies
I met with some success then, but I gave up too soon. I was impatient. I was not in a supportive environment. I didn’t believe in myself.
I was afraid of failing.
The hard truth is that had I stuck with it I would have been freelance writing for the last 10 years. Who knows where I would be now, right?
But hindsight is 20/20 and all I can do now is look forward without fear of failing. Without fear of success.
The only thing I fear now is not trying.