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Compiled and edited by Frederick Mann
Copyright © 2002 Build Freedom Holdings ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

#TL80A: Creativity Report #1 includes important information on helplessness. This report adds to that information. See also Curing Helplessness and Learning Optimism and #TL12: How to Achieve Emotional Control.

The basic issue that needs to be confronted is that people stuck in helplessness may very well also be helpless about their helplessness. If so, this would be a pernicious trap from which escape might be difficult. Fortunately, there might be a paradoxical method of escaping: Consciously and deliberately decide to be as helpless as possible in as many parts of your life as you can! Spend some time pretending and acting out the most extreme helplessness you can manage!

Then attempt to apply the Helplessnes Formula in #TL80A: Creativity Report #1.

Discovering What You Can and Can't Control

Epictetus was born a Roman slave around 55 A.D. He became a famous philosopher, and said:

"Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can't control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible... Trying to control or change what we can't only results in torment." ('The Art of Living: The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness' -- A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell.)
For practical purposes, you can't control other people's minds and the decisions they make. The notion of "closing the sale" is a fundamental fallacy. It assumes that you can control the mind of your prospect. Now, it's true that you can use all kinds of manipulative techniques to influence your prospect and persuade him or her to buy. But the final decision is always his or hers.

Dr. Michael Hewitt-Gleeson has written an important book called 'NewSell' -- see Money Skill #40: Marketing:

"It has been the sacred belief of the selling profession, ever since the subject was first written about, that the primary goal of the salesperson is... to close the sale! The Law of NewSell says: Don't Close the Sale! The NewSell challenge is:-- that in any field test, it will beat "oldsell" profit-results hands down, every time, in any market and with any product."
If you don't control prospects' minds how can you "close sales?" If you try to "close sales," you'll experience rejection -- and turmoil.

Now make two lists: One of the things you can control and another of the things you can't control.

If you try to control what you can't, you may experience frustration and helplessness.

See also Tools for Handling Control Issues: Accepting Powerlessness.

Build the Resiliency of a Top "Survivor Personality"
Highly recommended: The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life's Difficulties...and How You Can Be, Too by Al Siebert, Ph.D.

Check out THRIVEnet and Resiliency Center.

The following text -- original mirrored from -- provides some key insights related to helplessness:

One of the most common tasks of anyone engaged in teaching young people is helping a student who is stuck during independent practice of a directed lesson. The giving of corrective feedback is so common and ordinary that it goes unnoticed in teacher training while rarely considered as a problem area in teaching methodology. The research is quite clear: helplessness, dependency, low self-esteem, low achievement, and most discipline problems are a direct result of the way a teacher gives individual help to a student who is stuck. With the best of intentions and doing what comes naturally to most - teachers, aides, tutors, and parents have been inadvertently reinforcing the exact behaviors they are trying to eliminate.

Based upon observations in real classrooms a teacher will spend five minutes helping a student "understand" the skills/concepts that the teacher just taught during the acquisition phase of a directed lesson. The kids that need help are the same kids (usually about 5 or 6) hour after hour and day after day, and it doesn't matter if it's kindergarten or twelfth grade - the ones that needed help when they were six will be the same ones when they're seventeen. How could something as simple as helping a student with good intentions foster such chronic underachievement?

To Get Noticed You Must Fail
Kids learn at a very early age that if you want attention from your parent you have to get "noticed". Not following directions, whining, and clinging are just a few of the techniques young children learn in order to get undivided attention. In school there's no parent -- but the teacher will do just fine! Clinging and whining may work in kindergarten and the primary grades, but as the students go through the upper grades they learn new "notice me" techniques. Following directions and working independently will not get you noticed in a class of 34 students. If you want to get noticed, first you have to fail. Raise your hand after a lesson and the teacher will have to come over to you (that's their job) and then say, "I don't get this?" The teacher will then spend five minutes (maybe more ) re-explaining the lesson one-on-one. For the students who have Ph.D's in adult manipulation raising your hand is minor league. Better to goof off and draw the teacher's attention, then when the teacher arrives to do discipline, side-track them with "But I don't get this!" - get to goof off and get individual attention too - can't beat a deal like this!

Learned Helplessness
If a teacher takes five minutes to help a student in a work period of 30 minutes, then he/she can help six students (5x6=30) while the rest of the class gets no help. It is also conceivable that while the teacher is helping the first student the last student to get help could be working for 25 minutes incorrectly. For these students, waving their hands and waiting for a private lesson from the teacher is a way of life in the classroom. They will never learn to read or do math since the only time they're engaged is when the teacher is standing over them. As soon as the teacher leaves, they stop working. And what do these students do while waiting for help? They fall off-task and start to find other ways to entertain themselves. Now the teacher is drawn into doing discipline to keep order which takes time away from helping.

Increasing Helplessness: Give Me An Aide
When special funds are divvied out many teachers' first priority is to hire a classroom aide. With extra help, surely the most needy students will get the individual attention that will bring them up to grade level. This time-honored approach sounds like common sense - reduce the student-teacher ratio. An untrained aide, however, can be an educational disaster. In ten seconds an untrained aide can undo what has taken the teacher weeks to accomplish. As one teacher put it after going through training and getting her students to work independently, "When I came back from training in the use of the 'Positive Helping Interaction', it just so happened that my aide was ill on Tuesday which gave me a week to use the technique before she showed up on Thursday. I was helping a student when she entered the room. Twelve students immediately jumped out of their seats and ran up to the aide shouting 'I don't get this!', 'Can you help me!', 'I'm confused!'. Upon leaving, I heard one student say 'We like Mrs. Smith better than you. She helps us. You don't help us anymore like you used to.'" Expect little thanks from students who are forced to grow up and work on their own.

The 20 Second Helping Interaction
If a teacher can cut the helping interaction to 20 seconds he/she can help the whole class while at the same time eliminating the "helpless" students (they won't want you if you're only going to stay for 20 seconds).

How do you help a student in 20 seconds? First, let's examine the TYPICAL WAY a helping interaction is performed:

Math: (Step 1)

T- "Sally, you need help?"
S- "I don't get this?"
T- "What part don't you get?"
S- "I don't get any of it!"

(Step 2)

T- "Let's see, you have a mistake in step two - where you forgot to bring down the 3. Watch me do it and I'll re-explain long division as I go along. Now you try it"
S- "Okay"

(Step 3)

T- "Good. Now let's do some practice ones together... oops, you forgot to multiply right here"
S- "Gosh, I hate math" etc., etc., etc.

Now, let's examine what went wrong:

Step 1) Message: You again! Gosh, you're dumb!

Step 2) Message: Not only are you dumb, but I'm going to point out just how dumb you are. Then I'm going to fill your head with all 12 steps of long division which I know you can remember flawlessly .

Step 3) Message: Since I don't trust you to do this by yourself, I'm going to stand here and ... oops, dumb again!

If the teacher is lucky, he/she should be done with Sally in 5-7 minutes - only to return after recess when Sally will again be stuck, this time, in creative writing.

The correct way to help a student who is stuck:

1) Tell them what they have done CORRECTLY - (Although you will always see what is wrong first- stop and take a breath- then focus on the last part of the problem that is correct )

2) Tell them the next STEP - (trying to re-explain all the steps causes cognitive overload)

3) Turn and LEAVE - (Staying signals "I don't trust you - you'll probably fail")

Let's help Sally again, the correct way:

(Step 1)

T- "Sally?"
S- "I don't get this!"
T- (after recognizing the error -relaxing breath- then focusing on the last step Sally did correctly) " I can see you've done step 3, multiplying 4x7 which is 28 correctly."

(Step 2)

T- "The next thing to do is bring down the 3 here. Do that and I'll come back to check it."
S- "Okay"

(Step 3) Walk away.

Done correctly, this helping interaction should take about 20 seconds (less as you become better at it - more depending on the prompt: "The next thing to do is ... "(teacher judgment).

If a teacher is ever going to break a student's chronic helplessness cycle he/she has to stop "rewarding" the student with their body for five minutes of undivided attention - better to come back five times for 20 seconds in a class period teaching one step at a time than standing over a student pointing out his/her failures and confusing them with "talk" that they're not going to remember anyway. Once the students see that there is no incentive (the teacher) for being helpless , that they can do the work on their own (one step at a time prompts), they are not failures ("You did ____ correctly") and are trusted to work on their own (walk away) they will give up their game of "notice me" and begin to become independent learners.

It may be worthwhile to make a list of everything your parents said and did to you that may have played a role in your helplessness. See Discouraging Words and Phrases.

You could also make a list of everything said or done to you in school that may have played a role in your helplessness.

How about a list of how aspects of the political system you live under that lead to dependence and helplessness?

Are there any aspects of your religion that lead to dependence and helplessness?

"Program X" and Assessment of MLM Madness!
Quoted below is an excerpt from the Members' Update Page with an email from "MZ". It may be indicative of a degree of helplessness. If I were to do his work for him, as he requests, would I be helping to perpetuate his helplessness?

"Q. What kind of attitude is necessary for success?

A. See Money Skill #42: Improve your attitude. I received the following email (edited):

"My name is MZ. I must have been one of your first "Program X" signups, since I've already received 370 spillover signups from your efforts. I'd like to thank you for that. It's been exciting to see this powerful demonstration of "serious marketing muscle" in action. To say that I'm impressed would be the understatement of the millennium!

Initially I didn't think that I would upgrade, but now I'm really reconsidering. I guess, the fear of losing out started to kick in and with one leg of my binary already prebuilt it would be a blunder of epic proportions to not grab this opportunity. This leads to the main reason for contacting you. Is there a way for me to utilize your marketing muscle? Let me clarify. Would you consider featuring my Program X sign-up link on your opportunity page or in other promotional methods you are currently using?

Of course I don't expect a hand-out from you and I'd be willing to compensate you for your help..."

Of course I would like to see MZ succeed, because his success will add to my success. He stated a very important realization: "...[I]t would be a blunder of epic proportions to not grab this opportunity." The way to "grab the opportunity" is to get "STOP THE MLM INSANITY!" to as many people as possible (without spamming) and to follow up, to those who respond, with "The MLM WALL OF SHAME!" The system will take care of the rest!"

Anyone who can operate a keyboard and a mouse to perform simple online actions has the potential to become successful, and earn a substantial income. But what if some people who join "Program X," live their lives (or major portions of their lives) out of a context of helplessless? How do they transform the context of helplessness into a context of power?

By a "context of helplessness" I mean that helplessness pervades your life, skews your perceptions, debilitates your thinking, and renders you inactive and ineffective. If MZ is stuck in helplessness, he may never take the simple steps necessary to "grab the opportunity."

It's like a baseball player who steps up to the plate. He may raise his bat, but never makes an attempt to hit the ball. If the pitcher throws four balls (outside the strike zone), the player gets a "free walk" to first base. But he can't motivate himself to walk. He just stands there. Or, like MZ, he says to a team mate, "Hey, you're a great ballplayer; please carry me to first base and I'll pay you!"

You may think this a silly analogy. How can anyone be that helpless!?

Many people have some areas of their lives where they are comparatively powerful, but other areas where they are more or less helpless. Some people are very competent and powerful in their jobs, but in some other areas they may be relatively incompetent and helpless. MZ may be a competent computer programmer, but too helpless to include a simple signature promoting "Program X" at the end of his emails.

A significant percentage of people who've joined "Program X" are stuck in helplessness -- maybe more than 50%!

What Do You Control?
It may be worthwhile to divide your life into segments such as job, family, health, etc. Then for each segment write down what you control. How much are you in control? What can you do to increase control? What is different between the segments where you have a high degree of control and the segments where you have little or no control? What do you do in the segments of high control that you might be able to also apply in the segments of low control?

A revealing exercise may be to repeatedly ask yourself, "What do I control?" Write down all the answers that come up. Continue the exercise for as long as new answers come up... even if it continues for many days!

Check out Choice Theory. I Highly recommend 'Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom' by William Glasser, M.D.

Helpless Identity
It's possible that at an early age you created a "helpless identity" to deal with certain situations. It's also possible that to some extent you got stuck in this "helpless identity." Or in some segments of your life, or in certain kinds of situations, you get stuck in a "helpless identity." The best way I know of to handle this condition is called Idenics. I've made a special arrangement for my contacts to receive a FREE Idenics telephone session. To schedule, call Mike Goldstein toll-free at 1-800-IDENICS (1-800-433-6427) and tell him Frederick Mann sent you. For those outside Mike's calling area who can't reach him on the toll-free number, you're welcome to call him at 1-303-695-4940.

"Another approach to man's predicament starts from the fact that the human infant has to endure a longer period of helplessness and total dependence on its parents than the young of any other species. The cradle is a stricter confinement than the kangaroo's pouch; one might speculate that this early experience of dependence leaves its life-long mark, and is at least partly responsible for man's willingness to submit to authority wielded by individuals or groups, and his suggestibility by doctrines and moral imperatives. Brain-washing starts in the cradle." -- Arthur Koestler ('Janus: A Summing Up')

Externally Provided or Imposed Structure
You most likely grew up in a home where your parents provided structure: When to get up, what clothes to wear, when to have meals, when to go to bed, etc. Then you went to a school, probably with a more rigidly structure imposed upon you. Be on time, sit at your desk. Don't speak before raising your hand, regard the teacher as an authority-figure, obey the teacher, etc. If you attended college, you may have been in a setting with less externally imposed structure than school. You may have experienced some helplessness from having to create some structure yourself. Then you probably got a job, maybe with considerable and rigid structure provided. If you ever got fired, you my have experienced considerable helplessness as a result of suddenly having a relatively structureless life.

After the collapse of the USSR and all its communist structures, many people may have experienced considerable helplessness, when faced with a considerably less structured world.

Do you think that if religious and/or political structures were to suddenly disappear, many people would experience (at least temporarily) some helplessness?

In a job you usually have a boss or supervisor making sure that you're working. If you don't produce what is expected, you may get fired. There's pressure on you to do the work and to produce. When you're working at something like "Program X," you're on your own. You have to take personal responsibility to get the work done. This may require that you improve your SELF-CONTROL. See Tools for Handling Control Issues: Developing Self-Control.

The following text is mirrored from the original at

PROCRASTINATION: A Nineties Epidemic


Is there something on your to-do list today that you should have done yesterday? Have you been meaning to get around to changing careers or starting a consulting business?

Procrastination is no longer a minor nuisance to millions of Americans; it is a growing epidemic of the nineties. With all the talk about the drastic changes in today's workworld, one consequence of this revolution is being overlooked--that of the enormous time management challenges these changes bring. As the going gets tougher, even the tough are procrastinating.

Formerly paternalistic corporations are sending employees out into the harsh world of pavement-pounding for new jobs. The lucky ones who have jobs survive by contributing intrapreneurial (same as entrepreneurial, but within a corporation) inspiration, often while doing the work of several people and with fewer resources. Then there are the 60 million people--nearly half of all working Americans--who trend analysts predict will be part of the contingency workforce by the year 2000. Working as a freelancer, consultant, temp or entrepreneur means adjusting to a new, nebulous work structure.

How do these circumstances fuel procrastinating behavior? While the new ways to work in the nineties offer exciting opportunities for growth, they present psychological challenges that can be overwhelming. The need for new career identities, stronger self-concepts, the ability to learn new skills, continual self-promotion, the ability to be one's own boss and to uncover creative ways of earning a living can lead to a state of career paralysis.

Why We Put Things Off
Of the many reasons people procrastinate, three in particular are exacerbated by the new world of work.

1. A Fragile Sense of Self-Worth. Self-reliance is the new name of the game for achieving career goals both inside and outside the corporate structure. When we work independently toward a goal, we are vulnerable to negative criticism if we fail and increased expectations from others if we succeed. Take Allison, for example, a business manager for a graphic design firm. Allison wanted to change careers and sought career counseling. As the counseling progressed, it became clear that she really wanted to start her own business but was hesitant to do so. She confessed to a fear of failure: Could she finish what she started when she doesn't have a structure in place? It was only after breaking down the goal into manageable steps and reviewing her past accomplishments that she would consider carrying out her dream.

2. Lack of Control. Being at the mercy of the economy or the whims of employers builds resentment. People are staying in jobs because they are afraid they cannot get another one. Some are forced to take on extra work because of staff cutbacks. A systems analyst for a midsize bank found himself doing less of the "big picture" work he was hired to do and handling more details because of layoffs. Without realizing it, he began to put off tasks that he didn't enjoy as a way of maintaining control over the situation. As a result, he put his job on the line with nearly missed deadlines and lower productivity.

3. Inadequate Personal Management Skills. Having more to do in less time is a common complaint these days. A sales manager who bailed out of a position with a failing airline to start a consulting practice found that she became a procrastinator for the first time in her life. She was so involved in fulfilling her first contract, which she had secured easily, that she was not making the time to develop promotional materials that were needed to bring in more clients. Being your own boss means not just doing work but also creating work. This added dimension requires learning new ways to establish priorities and set deadlines.

She had a fear of failure.
Only after breaking her goal into steps
could she carry out her dream.

Conquering Procrastination
The keys to overcoming procrastination lie in combining time management techniques with principles from the behavioral sciences. Cognitive-behavioral psychology in particular enables us to break bad habits by altering the thoughts and feelings that feed them. By applying simple strategies from these two methodologies, I have seen clients go from career stalemates to career successes. To try these methods on your own, choose a specific problem area you would like to work on (do not try to tackle everything at once!), then follow these 10 steps to making things happen.

1. Analyze Your Procrastination. Identify when, where, and how you procrastinate. When we want to lose weight or save money, we sometimes start by keeping a log of our eating and spending habits. Try doing this with procrastination. Keep a small notebook on hand to make a note every time you find yourself procrastinating. Write down the time of day, where you are, the nature of the task, and your thoughts and feelings. Record these notes for just a few days, or this step itself is likely to become another onerous task to be put off. Carefully examine your behavior to discover when and how the problems begin.

Clients usually pay--but later than promised and without regard to when your bills are due.

2. Stop Calling Yourself a Procrastinator. Any behavioral change must start with an attitude change. If we label ourselves chronic procrastinators, we perpetuate our identity as just that. Keep your behavior separate from you the person. You are responsible for your behavior, but you are more than your bad habits. Focusing on the positive side of your self-image helps to ensure successful change.

3. Listen to Your Thoughts and Feelings. Tape recorded messages playing in our heads influence every move we make. Watch out for the negative thoughts and feelings that reinforce delaying behaviors, e.g., "I don't have time to do this perfectly, so I shouldn't do it at all." Try to record new messages like, "I don't have to do it perfectly, I just have to do it." If you are a perfectionist, it will probably turn out well anyway.

4. Understand the Change Process. Before you can test new behaviors, you must understand the meaning of change. It is often our expectations, not our methods, that keep self-improvement plans from working. Change is a gradual process. If you revert to old patterns, do not give up. Expect some setbacks and start again. Also, realize that simply vowing to change is not enough. The mental commitment must be supported by real action for change to occur.

5. Simplify and Streamline Your Life. Some procrastination results from simply having too much to do. Rethink the commitments you have made and establish clear priorities. Look at your physical environment to see if clutter is keeping you from getting things done. Rid your life of unnecessary obstacles and establish systems for keeping track of paper and projects. You are more likely to get to work if you don't have the added annoyance of sorting through piles of papers to find the work.

You're not just a consultant--
you are an office manager, repairperson, bookkeeper.

6. Think Small. All-or-nothing thinking keeps many projects from getting done. Even if you are the type of person who likes to dive into a project without much planning, make yourself write down each step involved and establish mini-deadlines. Reduce anxiety by focusing on one step at a time. A little action can lead to a lot of motivation, so one small step at a time is often the fastest route to completion.

7. Get a Fresh Start. You know the feeling you get when you buy a new pair of running shoes and look forward to running for the first time in years? Challenging or mundane tasks become more appealing if we give them a fresh face. Buying nice paper might even get you to make those long-overdue updates to your résumé!

8. Don't Go it Alone. Many people put things off because they don't know how to begin or get stuck halfway through. For any project you undertake, there is a resource to help. Guidebooks, consultants, adult education courses, networking groups, online computer services and colleagues can provide motivation, expertise, or hands-on assistance.

9. Trick or Treat. Trick yourself into working by minimizing distractions. One freelance writer who works from home turns on her computer the minute she gets out of bed. This way her workday officially begins before she has a chance to get distracted by anything other than writing.

You can also try playing "beat the clock." We have all had the experience of getting our homes cleaned up in record time when unexpected guests are on their way over. Try doing the same at work. Give yourself a short amount of time to get something completed. Even if the time frame is unrealistic, you will find that the adrenal rush may move you closer to the finish line in less time than you thought the task would take.

And don't forget about treats! Promise yourself rewards such as a fun day off for five days of productive job or assignment searching.

Consultants get paid only if they produce.
There is no such thing as a paid sick day.

10. Reflect and Rejuvenate. The problem with most attempts at personal change is that they are assumed to be linear, to have clear start and end points. Change is an ongoing, cyclical process. You will need to revisit steps one through nine from time to time until new behavior gradually replaces old habits. Remember that all-or-nothing thinking, perfectionism and perceived helplessness fuel procrastination. To increase your chances for success, set realistic goals, allow for slipups, and continually seek new solutions. For every valley there will be another peak until, for you, procrastination becomes a thing of the past.

I reserve one full day a week
for new business development.

Ms. Tullier is a career counselor and time management consultant on the faculty at NYU. Her latest book, Job Smart, is for recent college grads.

Breaking the Helplessness Habit

The following text is mirrored from the original at

The Stress Doc, just in time for the close of the Old Year, reprises a classic essay on breaking out of a rut and making small but achieveable and meaningful life changes. It's a two part-series that will inspire "Emancipation Procrastination" and "Habit Transformation." Don't "Just Do It!"

Breaking a Habit Part I:
Achieving Your Emancipation Procrastination

With the New Year on the horizon, let me pose a traditional question: how do you break a self-defeating habit and build a self-affirming and strengthening one? Notice I didn't start in the plural, that is, focusing on all your bad habits. If you're like me, there aren't enough life times to change all our nasty and naughty ways. And besides, not just variety, but a little deviancy, adds spice to a life. Still there are some habits which enslave us, especially those consuming demons - like smoking, uncontrolled eating, drinking and gambling, or mindless and endless latenight boob tubing, for example, watching reruns of Gilligan's Island or WWI footage for the twenty- third time. For such fixations, liberation needs to be the objective.

Perceiving the Problem
Often when exploring a subject, I like to begin with my old Roget's Thesaurus. Looking up "habit," one discovers such synonyms as "addiction," "custom," "mannerism," and "nature." There was one choice which momentarily threw me - "clothing." But when I realized how many people are addicted to shopping, it made perfect sense.

The spectrum of synonyms is instructive. Some habits or rituals are quite useful. They establish a tradition or routine, thereby providing a measure of order, efficiency and meaning to a life. Alas, some habits can also lock you into inflexible mind-body patterns and inhibit your openness to change. For example, for years I resisted using computers; I knew I was meant to write with pen and paper. Actually, this close-minded resistance had more to do with my own technophobia. (Interestingly, I still compose original material by hand and right-brain, though now I love transferring a written draft onto a computer screen for tight left-brained rewriting.) Such personal resistances or rigidities often reflect or may defensively regress into phobias, obsessions, compulsions and/or dysfunctional cravings.

Out of One's Mind
I suppose the mindless nature of habit makes it a true double-edged sword. When a person isn't self-conscious, and has the routine down, he or she cuts through extraneous steps, preserves energy, and becomes highly efficient. Peak performance requires well-rehearsed, automatic responding; it also demands we bring a multi-faceted self - experience, skills, emotions, focus, spontaneity, risk-taking, etc. - into the arena. Top performers in any sport or art practice endlessly to achieve this integration of fullness and economy or elegant simplicity. And when this synthesis becomes automatic and unconscious, high performance athletes say they are "in the zone."

The zone is a mind-body mix of automatic responding, full presence and relaxed attention, along with total immersion in a task. But not just any task. The task must be a hard and desired stretch; neither a severe strain nor an underwhelming or lightweight challenge. The synergistic result is "flow" -- an unselfconscious experience, as well as an altered state of consciousness, where time and effort fade away to graceful intensity and self-absorption. A flexibly structured habit infused with flow allows you to deviate from an established baseline. It's easier to improvise and innovate knowing there's a familiar, experience-based internal safety net.

But before you run out to your corner personal trainer or shrink to buy a habit, remember, habit does not just culminate in lightness of being and creating; it also has a truly dark side that can destructively turn against oneself. This habitual state of unconsciousness and mindless routine seeks to numb and dull emotions and self-awareness; it prefers inertia or frenetic and distracting, even addictive, activity, and tunes out or ignores situational demands. Denial, avoidance, putting things off and taking flight take precedence over engagement and flow.

Motivating Procrastination
To illustrate negative mindlessness or aversive habit, let's examine a familiar topic - procrastination. It's a problem many of us are quick to acknowledge and, of course, slow to do something about. I'll define procrastination as the sequence of events that ultimately enables or compels us to avoid thinking and feeling about a disagreeable task, making it easier to postpone taking necessary action. Why do we procrastinate? Reasons can range from the logical to the psycho-logical. Consider these ten disengaging stressors: 1) not having the necessary resources, tools and data; lacking the support, for example, from management, to do the job right; also, doubting the value and purpose of the task, 2) juggling too many projects; you no longer believe there can be life after deadlines; first comes exhaustion, next "brain strain," and, then, one just gives up, 3) grandiose expectations and rigid perfectionism, our own or others, along with anticipation of being harshly judged, can make it difficult to begin, sustain or complete a project, 4) impatience and impulsivity; as a recent slogan in Humor From the Edge proclaimed, "Hard work has a future payoff. Laziness pays off NOW!"; of course, there are many folks, not just Californians, for whom instant gratification takes way too long, 5) an underlying fear of failure; one is ashamed of being found out as incompetent, unworthy or an impostor; one tries to run from "The Intimate FOE: FEAR OF EXPOSURE," 6) anger at having to do a problematic task, especially a task seen as an unfair demand, like having to get up in the morning, 7) you don't want to acknowledge publicly your uncertainty, vulnerability or anger and risk creating a shameful experience or conflict situation; that is, one doesn't want to be labeled as "slow" or "not a team player," 8) to get even with someone, e.g., "Oh, I'm sorry. I guess this is the third time this week you asked for that report," 9) to preserve an illusion that the issue is simply one of effort and attitude not aptitude or ability, and 10) fear of success, that is, if we are successful this time, what might people ask, expect or demand on the next project; a fear of being misused, overused or exposed often lurks in the shadow of success.

A Personal Perspective
My interest in procrastination is well-earned. In the past, I've struggled with this issue, especially in the areas of new learning, the freedom to be curious and school performance. As a child I had absorbed the tension both swirling around my household - an extended menagerie of mood disorders - and was agitated from the taunting and bullying of peers. I shut down my rage and put on a mask - the unreal, "good" boy. This contributed to my difficulty in focusing, concentrating, processing information and remembering. When combined with bright, ambitious parents who could also be quite impatient, anxious or judgmental and classmates who were high achievers, not surprisingly, I feared that my efforts would be inadequate.

Eventually, my self-doubt and avoidance resulted in a self-generating and self-fulfilling pattern. I would shy away from tackling mental challenges, like turning down the opportunity to play an instrument, giving up on art lessons or glazing over when discussing math and science. My esteem, confidence and cognitive-emotional muscles were atrophying. Addictive television watching, schoolyard sports overkill, mindless solitaire and card playing were staples of survival. Along with all the hair growing on my palms from so much masturbation, I was becoming a werewolf. At the least, I was divided from my real self. I was "safely" trapped in an avoidance and addiction cage, first, of my family's making and, eventually, of my own design.

Clearly, underlying the power of many of these kinds of aversive, yet, seemingly self-protective, avoidance elements are long-standing social- psychological, biochemical and perceptual factors. These may range from emotional states of loneliness, abandonment, learned helplessness, unworthiness, anxiety, panic and rage to mood disorders, attention deficit disorders, as well as learning and physical disability issues. Such challenging bio-psycho-social factors have roots in painful childhood experiences, genetic predisposition, maturational deprivation and traumatic encounters throughout the life cycle.

How did I escape from bondage? Here's the very condensed version.. Pushed by my father's desperate, yet focused, determination, my parents finally started therapy. Three years later, in my early twenties, I had the courage to follow his lead. With counseling under my psyche, my social work education and training could be truly instructive, not just academic. What I learned is that I had to face my family of origin and generational family history, along with my individual essence. I had to wrestle with the fearful inner demons and long repressed yet, smoldering, hurts and passions. I had to embrace the natural gifts and genetic vulnerabilities to be my fullest - most caring and powerful, most truly alive - self. And it can take decades to resurrect and sort all that buried bio-psycho-social treasure.

Liberation from Habituation
A long and uncertain hunt for treasure always begins with a first step. So let's return to our opening question: How do you break one self-defeating habit and replace it with a pattern of cognition and behavior that strengthens your skill level and self-concept?

The above conceptual framework will be the launching platform. Examining procrastination's relationship to self-defeating habit convinces me that numbing routine and rigid ritual is often dysfunctionally analogous to fearful avoidance and denial. Each of these defensive maneuvers deadens the spirit along with the potential for awareness and change. With a greater understanding of procrastination, you have the tools to mine your personal raw material. And with some coaching and practice, over time, you can transform self-defeating, mind-body patterns into new learning, emotional growth, skill development and some well-earned pride (maybe even experience a little creative flow). All this can be the outcome of a polished new habit.

Next time, the Stress Doc's "Top Ten" skills, strategies and commandments for "Breaking a Habit." Until then, of course...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, "The Stress Doc," Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is a nationally recognized speaker, workshop leader and author on stress, reorganizational change, anger, team building, creativity and humor. He is also the internet's and the nation's leading "Psychohumorist." The Stress Doc is a columnist for the popular cyber-newsletter, Humor From The Edge -- HUMOR FROM THE EDGE HOME PAGE . Mark is also the "Online Psychohumorist" for the major AOL mental health resource network, Online Psych -- ONLINE PSYCH: THE STRESS DOC and Financial Services Journal Online. And he is an offline writer for two mental health/substance abuse publications -- Treatment Today and Paradigm Magazine. His motto: Have Stress? Will Travel: A Smart Mouth for Hire! Reach "The Doc" at (202) 232-8662, email: Stress, or check out his "Hot Site" website: or click STRESS DOC HOMEPAGE. (The site was selected as a USA Today Online "Hot Site" and designated a four-star, top- rated site by Mental Health Net.)

Also, for more info on the Stress Doc's Online Coaching program, email

The following text is mirrored from the original at

Building on last edition's analysis of procrastination and self-defeating behavior, in this closing segment the Stress Doc links the achievment of "emancipation procrastination" with belief and behavior transformation. Go for the flow and the new learning curve!

Breaking a Habit Part II:
The Stress Doc's "Top Ten" Habit Transformers

So here are the Stress Doc's "Top Ten" skills, strategies and commandments for "Breaking a Habit" and flowing into the New Year:

1. Choose a Habit. Target a habit that not only is objectively dysfunctional but also is a source of palpable psychic pain. Select a self-defeating pattern for which you can potentially focus "constructive discontent."

Here's a personal example, one that I will draw upon throughout to illustrate the ten-step method of habit transformation. Ten years ago, I undertook a major diet change after unexpectedly learning that my blood cholesterol levels were moderately high. Not being overweight, being basically fit, the scores were startling, anxiety producing and a blow to my ego. In light of a family predisposition to serious heart disease, a number of my eating patterns were definitely self-defeating.

A habit to which I had been fairly oblivious was now practically shouting for attention. As Pablo Picasso, the century's greatest artist observed: "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction." At the beginning of my fourth decade, a state of ignorance and denial had definitely been exploded.

2. Partialize and Assess the Problem. After choosing a target habit, select realistic problem parameters. Break a big problem into manageable bite size pieces. For example, if you want to lose weight, I don't recommend a cessation of eating. Nor do I favor having your stomach stapled, joining one of those all liquid crash diet programs or popping the latest diet pill fad. Instead, try gaining control by studying ways to reduce the intake of simple sugars and saturated fats (to 25% of your caloric intake, for example). If chronic depression underlies compulsive eating then, instead of diet pills, I'd suggest some psychotherapy, exercise and, even, an evaluation for mood medication by a psychiatrist. (For consulting with an expert, see 5.)

3. Establish a Challenging and Achievable Goal and Time Frame. One key to letting go of an undesirable habit is having somewhere new or something new to go to. Speaking metaphorically, if you are finally motivated to leave an island for which you have tired or outgrown, or are ready to break out from that which keeps you boxed in, you likely need some sense that there is a desired land mass to which you can migrate. Of course, believing you possibly have the resources and skills to cross the ocean is also useful.

In other words, establish some challenging yet obtainable goals; if you properly and gradually stretch your horizons and mind-body actions you should reach your desired objectives. Drawing on weight loss, again, here are two illustrative strategies: a) reframe your goal from just losing a specific amount of weight to exploring a new nutritional life style; reduce some of the performance pressure from idolizing the all mighty, magical number, and b) don't simply state an intention to lose thirty pounds. How about ten pounds in thirty days? Manageable steps in a manageable time table are not only more achievable, but also are healthier for your psychophysiological system. I'm not an advocate of shock therapy as the treatment of choice for habit change. Being startled, confronted and jolted out of denial is another matter.

4. Anticipate Grieving. Both before you start and/or during your habit changing program don't be surprised if you experience a poignant, if not profound, sense of loss. When I stopped having my nightly pie or pastry, gave up my creamy beef stroganoff soup and decided tuna fish with mayonnaise was not the eleventh commandment, I had a lump (and it wasn't crab meat) in my throat. I was saying goodbye to old, all too familiar, friends. And, if loss, loneliness, emptiness and depression or separation and performance anxiety are long-standing issues above and beyond your targeted habit, letting go will be especially troublesome. At minimum, a state of psychological withdrawal is a distinct possibility.

Another loss may involve the nature of your relationships with those people directly or subtly encouraging or enabling your old, self-defeating pattern. Now I'm not saying automatically drop these friends or associates. However, if your goal is to reduce alcohol consumption, then hanging in the barroom with drinking buddies is not the supportive environment you need. And remember, a non-toxic support system is often essential for life-enhancing change.

Learn to set boundaries and accept that some conflict is inevitable when you both shake up and take more control of your world. For example, it's important to refuse gracefully and convincingly your mother-in-law's second helping at Sunday dinner when you are feeling full. Take to heart the Stress Doc's "Basic Law of Safe Stress": Do know your limits and don't limit your "no"s!

Finally, take solace and hope from the words of wisdom of French author and philosopher, Albert Camus:

Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one [or loved habit] obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain.

5. Consult with a Coach or Counselor. If you can operationalize the previous four strategies, you may be ready to implement effectively your habit and behavior modification program. However, if these steps seem confusing or daunting or, even if they don't, consider seeking the experience and wisdom of a coach or counselor in this startup phase. A habit breaking coach will help you identify the strengths and vulnerabilities that you bring to the change effort. He or she will: a) assess grandiose, timid or rigid goal-setting expectations, b) provide tips and support for managing the uncomfortable emotions that are likely to surface and c) help establish a gradual stretch learning framework which anticipates forward and backward movement.

The smartest move I made to overcome my computer phobia was hiring a computer consultant. She gave me about half a dozen private lessons, walked me through the startup minefield and soothed my impatient and anxious brow. The money I spent on hiring this consultant was easily balanced by the sums (and psychic energy) I saved in not having to go back into psychotherapy over this raw beginner trauma.

With my eating transformation, a no-nonsense nutritionist friend read me the "diet act." She quickly interpreted the meaning of the cholesterol scores. She also explained why change was essential and what specific modifications needed to be made in my routine.

6.Take the Plunge. The objective of planning for negative habit breaking and healthy remaking is not to have everything perfectly figured out before taking the plunge. This is only a formula for endless preparation and procrastination. Jump in. As long as you can tread water and you know whether there are dangerous currents or where the alligators are lurking, you are ready for a baptism. You'll quickly get feedback regarding what you can and can't handle, along with available resources. You'll definitely glean insight regarding vital survival knowledge, skills and critical supports.

7. Seek Ongoing Support. Pairing up with a habit breaking buddy can make the "sturm und drang," the highs and lows, the ebbs and flows of habit breaking and change less overwhelming and more tolerable. Check in on a regular basis; even an email buddy is good. Share the progress and the setbacks: when you successfully resisted temptation and when, alas, you succumbed to those self- defeating tendencies. (Such as when I couldn't resist that cherry pie instead of the bagel at the coffee house.)

Of course, deviating from your plan is not a terminal offense. A slip up is often a disguised opportunity for understanding the vulnerable link in your habit-change goals, actions and resources. Which leads me to...joining a support group. I do believe in the "higher power" of group synergy. When people come together to confront their self-defeating patterns and distorted self-image, to embrace their pains and strengths while learning from each other new ways of being and doing, then the process of life affirming change is set in motion. And online/chat support groups that target specific problem areas are definitely cutting edge in the behavior modification-transformation arena.

8. Do It By the Numbers. Two numerical principles will help sustain hope and the change effort:

a) The 21-Day Principle. Not only is behavior modification an evolutionary process, it often comes in three distinct phases: "Unfreezing-Change- Refreezing." The first third involves acknowledging the self-defeating patterns and starting to let go. The middle third tries to incorporate new skills, tools, resources and pro-social activities. If the first third is depressing, the middle stage can be anxiety provoking as you awkwardly apply new insights and methods.

The final "refreezing" occurs when trial and error, along with practice, leads to those learning clicks and "ahas." The change starts feeling more natural. Using an example of learning to ride a bike, now you are no longer wobbling and weaving perilously, nor regularly falling off your two-wheeler. You are building up a head of steam and confidence; you're beginning to see the pass in the impasse. No more is the light at the end of the tunnel the proverbial oncoming train. (Okay, I'll sign up for an AA group -- Aphorisms Anonymous.)

Depending on how complex the habit transformation being attempted, you may need more than one 21-day change process. For example, it took about two months for me to shift from dieting (or concern about weight loss) to developing a new and natural way of eating while reducing my cholesterol scores to the low-normal range.

Finally, in the second and third stages, you may want to add a related behavior that both helps in the letting go and provides a motivational boost for making and sustaining change. For me, a powerful addition for changing my way of eating was the ritual of daily exercise. (Of course, an aerobic exercise regimen may necessitate another habit transformation process.)

b) The 80:20 Principle. Eighty percent of your results are usually produced by twenty percent of your activities. Clearly, this has implications for setting priorities and selectively investing time and energy. And most important, you can drop four-fifths of those nagging distractions without feeling so guilty.

9. Establish a Beachhead. One of the seductive traps about behavior modification is that sometimes there is early rapid learning. And then you hit a plateau. With no new gains (or weight losses) the inevitable frustration, discouragement and self-disparagement quickly ensues. Don't give up. While simple learning may occur quickly, the complex integration of a variety of tender mind-body patterns proceeds more slowly. Consider these habit breaking war cries: "Establishing a beachhead doesn't mean you've conquered the island." Don't get sky-high over quick victories or too deflated with some setbacks. It's (human) nature's way to ebb and flow...and to get knocked down. Remember, "many battles are fought and lost before a major undertaking is won."

I'll close this section with the hopeful insight of the pioneering scientist, Jonas Salk:

Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down; being courageous one more time than we are fearful; being trusting one more time than we are anxious.

10. Pursue the Path. Many people become so goal and outcome focused that they overlook the importance of process and the quality of the journey. Learning is not finite nor absolute, especially if the transformation attempted touches your mind-body-spirit. As sports psychologist, George Leonard, observed: It's the path of mastery, not the path to mastery. (See below for my poetic "The 8 'P" Path of Mastery.") Breaking, making and mastering a deep-seated, intricate behavior-learning chain is a lifetime process.

When it comes to habit change, one implication of this "path as much as destination" philosophy is to reward your small but significant gains. Don't wait to achieve your ultimate goal to pat yourself on the back or to share your efforts with others. Reward those procrastination busting steps. And finally, consider embracing my process-pathway mind set: I don't know where I'm going...I just think I know how to get there!"

By exploring and practicing this transformational "Top Ten," you will create an optimally challenging learning-behavior modification process. With this guide for habit transformation, you will: a) achieve emancipation procrastination, b) tackle a dysfunctional habit, c) get into the flow -- whether of a state of consciousness or the ebb and flow of learning and life, and d) evolve new skills and supports while strengthening a belief in your powers to initiate projects, achieve goals and sustain purposeful and healthy change. I can't think of a better gift to give yourself for the New Year! Or a better way to...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, "The Stress Doc," Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is a nationally recognized speaker, workshop leader and author on stress, reorganizational change, anger, team building, creativity and humor. He is also the internet's and the nation's leading "Psychohumorist." The Stress Doc is a columnist for the popular cyber-newsletter, Humor From The Edge -- HUMOR FROM THE EDGE HOME PAGE . Mark is also the "Online Psychohumorist" for the major AOL mental health resource network, Online Psych -- ONLINE PSYCH: THE STRESS DOC and Financial Services Journal Online. And he is an offline writer for two mental health/substance abuse publications -- Treatment Today and Paradigm Magazine. His motto: Have Stress? Will Travel: A Smart Mouth for Hire! Reach "The Doc" at (202) 232-8662, email: Stress, or check out his "Hot Site" website: or click STRESS DOC HOMEPAGE. (The site was selected as a USA Today Online "Hot Site" and designated a four-star, top- rated site by Mental Health Net.)

Also, for more info on the Stress Doc's Online Coaching program, email

More Extensive Formulas for Overcoming Helplessness
Helplessness can be very expensive. Consider the case of MZ above. Half the work has already been done to enable him to earn an income which could grow to $12,000 a week wihin a year or so. If he doesn't do the other half, he earns little or nothing. A sense of helplessness may prevent him from performing the simple online tasks that require little more than the ability to use his keyboard and mouse. Helplessness may also have other costs, such as general dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and even poor health. It therefore may be worth investing time (and even money) into overcoming helplessness.

For comprehensive formulas to overcome helplessness and related issues, see:

It may be worth spending 30 minutes or more to explore the entire to discover all that's available. There's a Series Content Index and an alphabetical Topical Index. (The abbreviation "SEA" stands for "Self-Esteem Seeker's Anonymous.")

More Articles and Books to Help You Overcome Helplessness

I highly recommend three books by Martin E.P. Seligman:

See also Learned Helplessness Homepage and The Martin Seligman Research Alliance.

Having Overcome Helplessness, It's Time to Move up to Power!
Apply the other formulas and guidelines in:

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