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Repairing Self-Esteem & Healing Learned Helplessness

Updated on January 3, 2018
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The Little Shaman is a spiritual counselor, hypnotherapy practitioner, and a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders.

Rebuilding self-esteem is a multi-faceted process and it does take time but here is one technique that can help a lot. It also helps combat learned helplessness, which is often a large component in the breakdown of self-esteem.

We all know what self-esteem is. It's how you feel about yourself. But just as a quick refresher, learned helplessness is what happens when a person has been unsuccessful in meeting their own needs or changing their own situation for so long that they don't feel there is any point in trying. They have learned to be helpless, in other words. It's conditioning that is often the result of abuse, and it can be difficult to break, especially when someone doesn't realize it's a problem and especially in conjuction with low self-esteem.

The way to start repairing both of these things is to take control, both of your life and your feelings. No one is responsible for your feelings or your life but you, and no one can fix these things but you. A great way to start doing that is by making goals. They don't have to be anything big or fancy. In fact, it's better to set smaller, more achievable goals. If your goal is large, you can break it down into steps so that it is less overwhelming and you will have more of a sense of accomplishment as you achieve each step.

For example, let's say your goal is to move out of your family's home because you have a narcissistic parent. To do this, maybe you need to become more self-sufficient. Now, "become self-sufficient" is a great goal, but there is a lot to that and it can seem overwhelming. So maybe you break it down. What do you need to do to become self-sufficient? Well, you need a job, so that can be goal number one. Maybe you need a driver's license, so that can be a goal. Doing it that way helps break down something that seems overwhelming and impossible into things that are totally achievable. Doing it one step at a time is much more manageable than facing everything at once. You can't do all the steps at once anyway, so it makes sense to look at it one thing at a time.

If your goal is to save $5000 to put as a downpayment on a new house, that $5000 can look pretty big when you are starting at $0. So maybe your goal can be to save $400 a month, or $100 a week, or however small you need to break it down. The point is not about the size of the goal. It's to feel a sense of achievement and that comes when you feel you are making progress.

If you don't have any larger goals right now, that's OK. You can make a goal out of anything. "Today I will go the whole day without eating sweets" or "Today I will clean out my car." Or "Today I will not think negative thoughts about my life." Tomorrow I think we will talk about negative self-talk, because that plays a big role here as well. When you achieve your goals, it helps to remind you that you are not helpless, that you can make decisions and that you can effect change. You did effect change. Your car was dirty and now it's clean - because of you. Some people might not think that's a big enough goal to matter, but it all matters. It also helps you feel better about yourself when you accomplish what you set out to do.

This way of thinking is especially helpful when you are trying to break trauma bonds and separate yourself from narcissistic or otherwise toxic people. As with any other addiction, thinking about the whole situation can be very overwhelming and this can lead to just giving up because it seems too hard, so focus on what needs to happen to successfully get through the week, or the day, or the hour. Deal with things when you get to them. Don't worry obsessively about something that has not happened, or that is not going to happen for a long time. Fear and worry contribute hugely to feeling helpless, so while of course you have to be cognizant of consequences for the things you do, worrying excessively about them does not help when making a decision or dealing with one already made.

Worrying about something never made it any easier. That can actually induce a type of fear paralysis, where someone psyches themselves out of doing anything at all. Consider the outcomes of what you are doing and prepare for them as best you can, but don't borrow trouble. Deal with things when they happen. Just because you think something is going to happen a certain way doesn't mean it will, and even if it does, you can handle it. You're not as fragile as you think you are, or are afraid you are. You made it this far, right?

So for some homework, why don't you write down a few goals for yourself? They can be daily, weekly, monthly, a one time thing, whatever you want to do. They can be anything you want. Keep them with you, or hang them on the mirror... however you want to do it where you will see them and be reminded that you are not helpless and that you are absolutely capable of doing these things. Because seriously... if you can hang in there with a narcissist or other toxic type and keep trying for months or even years to get through to this person, think of what you will accomplish when you apply that energy and drive to yourself. You will be unstoppable.

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