Crush Your Goals by “Unlearning” Helplessness

goal without plan is just wish

My little sister is my hero.

She’s endured a ridiculous amount of pain in her life and experienced events that no one should ever have to go through. In spite of it all, she’s truly the most positive, determined person that I’ve ever known.

Whenever I have a big issue or problem, I find myself going to her for advice because she’s so damn wise. She always has a perspective that I’ve never considered, and that’s actually helpful to me.

Yesterday, we were reminiscing on how far she’s come in her life, in such a short amount of time.

After she left the cult over 5 years ago, it took her several years before she felt she could act assertively, and make decisions independently without someone having to act or decide on her behalf.

She had little experience in deciding on even the smallest decisions for herself, even as small as what she wanted to eat for dinner.

The truth was that for most of her life, even small decisions like that were made FOR her, by authority figures in the group.

When she first left, I remember she used to follow me around closely at the grocery store, looking terrified every time I’d point to something and ask if she’d like to try it.

If we went out to dinner, she’d BEG me to decide on what to order for her. Even if I refused, she’d usually opt to get nothing rather than risk making the ‘wrong’ decision.

On a much larger scale, she felt pretty beaten down by life and her circumstances.

She was paralyzed with fear that she would never be able to figure out how to build a life for herself outside of the group.

Like me, she left the cult without any education – except she was much older than I was, putting her in an even more difficult situation.

Almost everything she experienced during the first few years was foreign and scary to her.

She deeply believed  that she was totally helpless in the world, and there was not much she could do to improve her situation.

When she enrolled in school for the first time and got her first ‘real’ job, she used to bawl her eyes out insisting that she could NEVER get through a class or make it through the work day.

She told us over and over that all her effort was pointless, and she would never get an education or be able to hold down a job.

Her issues felt insurmountable, and she was too overwhelmed to tackle even small problems.

Now, several years later, I’m absolutely shocked at how sassy and confident she is!

Seriously, she hardly ever even listens to me any more ;o)

I honestly can’t believe that it’s the same person who spent the past 2.5 months fiercely negotiating down interest rates on her student loans with her Financial Aid department.

She’ll be getting out of school in 2 years with barely any debt, however, she does need a small amount of student loans for this year and next.

The FINAID team at her school slapped together some terrible award package, and referred her to a few outrageous private loan options.

She was technically eligible for a much better award of federal loans and some grants, but they insisted that she wasn’t.

On top of that, they took forever to process the paperwork.

My little sister was NOT having it. She called their office multiple times a day, every day, for 2.5 months.

She showed up several times a week on her lunch breaks from work, demanding to speak to the executive director.

She finally got a meeting with this elusive man, after months of trying.

He agreed to significantly alter her award package, but only if she promised NEVER to call or go to their office again! Mwahaha

She’s WAY more badass now compared to I ever was dealing with the same situation myself in school. She cracks me up, but I’m so proud of her!

No one makes decisions or acts on her behalf any more.

She asks our opinion, but she understands that she alone can make the choices and take the action needed to improve her life.

When she faces a big problem, she doesn’t hide from it any more.

She has clear goals set for herself, understands what she needs to do to achieve them, and is extremely invested in ensuring the outcome is successful.


“Learning” to be Helpless:

My little sister, through zero fault of her own, struggled a bit with learned helplessness when she first left the cult (and kicked it’s ass pretty hard, I might add).

I struggled with the exact same thing when I first left the group. It’s a disabling mindset and can take a lot of time and effort to kick.

Learned helplessness is when someone has learned to act helplessly in a particular situation, even when they are very much capable of ultimately changing the circumstances.

When someone is repeatedly subjected to a negative stimulus or environment which they can’t escape from, eventually they will stop trying to avoid what is harming them.

Even when opportunities arise to escape the situation, their learned helplessness will prevent them from taking any action.

Rather than taking action, the individual might wait for someone to ‘save’ them and take action on their behalf, or hope that the situation improves on its own – neither of which is likely to happen.

Particularly damaging can be the impact on one’s personal identity and the general feeling of lack of control around one’s life.

The impact of this is enormous – it can play a significant role in someone’s social, emotional, health, and financial well-being.

You don’t have to have had a particularly difficult childhood to struggle with feeling  helpless about improving a particular aspect of your life – anyone can feel this way from time to time.

Perhaps not to the degree above, but most people can relate to facing down a huge challenge, believing the problem is too difficult to solve, and then giving up before really trying to solve it.

Believing You Are Helpless Can Derail Financial Goals:

All of us who are interested in financial independence and / or retiring early, have our own unique money challenges to face.

Maybe we have what seems like a monumental goal – retiring decades earlier, becoming a millionaire, paying off a large amount of debt, or drastically increasing our salaries in a short amount of time.

Perhaps the goal is smaller, like paying off a small amount of credit card debt, lowering our expenses, or saving a few hundred dollars extra per month.


Whatever the goal, our minds can be FANTASTIC at tricking us into believing that the problem is too difficult to solve.

Especially when life throws curve balls, it can be so easy to feel helpless over the situation and then back down from solving the problem.

For fear of making the wrong decision, it’s easy to justify inaction – more so if we think our actions won’t make a difference in the long run.

To compound the issue, our brain’s negativity bias will step in to convince us that we lack the time, money, energy or resources needed to achieve the goal.

Strategies to “Unlearn” Helplessness:

Here are the concepts that my sister found personally helpful in helping her climb out of this mindset.

I’m using the same strategies myself to help me pay off 6 figures of debt, and retire by 45.

#1: Set a goal:
  • One of the best things you can do to avoid feeling helpless over a situation, is to set a very specific goal for yourself.
  • Better yet, write your goal down. Studies show it actually helps you accomplish significantly more.
  • This act of goal setting alone will not only help you visualize your intended outcome, but will also help you start to feel more in control.
  • The mental energy and critical thinking required to set goals will help you see your situation in a whole new way.

My little sister documents ALL of her short and long term goals. Seriously, she’s tracking over 75 goals right now in an Excel spreadsheet! 

She takes all of this extremely seriously – no half-hearted New Years resolutions on her list ;o)

#2: Believe that your goal is achievable:
  • If you don’t really believe that your goal can be achieved, you’ll never take action to make it a reality.
  • Consider the strong possibility that you WILL be able to achieve what you set out to do.
  • You are clever and resourceful enough to figure out how to reach even your loftiest goals. 
  • Just because you don’t feel capable enough to figure it out, doesn’t change the fact that you actually are.
  • Consider that even if you fail to hit your goal, chances are your situation will have improved significantly just by taking action in a constructive way.

For example, one of my sister’s goals was to graduate from college with zero debt.

She won’t achieve this goal, but she’s saved tens of thousands by consistently trying every way within her power to keep her student loans to the absolute bare minimum.

#3: Make Sure Your Goal is Reasonable:
  • Your goal needs to technically be feasible, so make sure your expectations are grounded and reasonable from a logical perspective. Learn how to set SMART goals.
  • Start by researching how other people have achieved your goal, and learn everything you can about the topic.
  • Talk to people who successfully achieved what you’re aspiring to do. Ask them questions like how long it took them, what resources were available to them, what were the exact steps they took, what did they have to sacrifice, etc.
  • By the end, you should have a solid understanding of whether your goal is achievable, based your current abilities and the resources you have available.
  • Be reasonable, but also make sure you set goals that challenge you!

As my little sister likes to say, if your dreams don’t scare the s**t out of you, then you aren’t dreaming big enough.

LOL, I completely agree! ;o)

#4: Think outside your self-imposed constraints:
  • Thinking small will do nothing but keep you locked into the specific constraints of your situation.
  • The more you focus on the big picture (how your hard work will impact your life in the long-term), the more you’ll find the motivation to take action and keep progressing, even when life knocks you down.
  • Stop focusing on the narrow constraints of your situation – the larger you expand your thinking, the more creative you’ll get at finding clever solutions for your problem.

A self-imposed constraint for my sister, for example was that she felt she was way too far behind in her education, and believed she would NEVER catch up. She didn’t try at first, because she didn’t see the point.

It did take years of effort and tutoring, but she’s now a top student in her program, with one of the highest GPA’s in her class!

Anything is possible  – you have to think beyond the boundaries of your situation, if you are serious about achieving the results you want.

#5: Break your big goal down into smaller ones:
  • There’s no better way to remove self-doubt than by achieving success – no matter how trivial.
  • Success has a way of creating even more success.
  • Make sure the larger goals you set are broken down into much smaller ones, so that you can celebrate many small successes all the way up to achieving your dream goal.
#6 Set a Timeline:
  • Every goal you set, big or small, should have a timeline associated to it.
  • Setting due dates for your smaller goals will keep you accountable and on track to reaching your main goal.

For my financial goals, for example, I have clearly defined milestone dates for both the smaller goals (paying off my student loans, increasing my side income), and the larger goals (reaching financial independence by 40, retiring by 45).

I also track targeted dates for all of the actions associated to achieving these goals.

#7: Ask for help:
  • Show your goals to your partner, best friend, or someone you consider a trusted ally.
  • Ask for their objective feedback and to list everything they think you need to do to achieve your goal.
  • Sharing your goals with those you trust also helps to keep you accountable, an added bonus!
  • Better yet, consult an expert’s opinion. This doesn’t have to cost anything – do the necessary research to find the answer, solution or approach from a credible source, so that you are clear on what needs to be done.
To summarize:
  • When we feel like we have no control over a situation, we can easily start to  internalize this helplessness.
  • The inaction that follows could lead to bypassing opportunities to change or improve the situation.
  • Once “conditioned” to believe that we can’t affect the outcome and that the result we want is unachievable, it’s too easy to permanently give up hope and stop trying.
  • Even when we’re later in a situation where control IS possible, we’ve learned to become helpless.

Avoid this mindset at all costs. If you find yourself falling into it, use the strategies above to try to see your situation differently.

Remember that anything you set out to do has most likely already been done by someone else in a similar situation to you.

If they did it, you can too!



6 thoughts on “Crush Your Goals by “Unlearning” Helplessness

  1. Great post. I’m trying to teach my daughter that she can solve problems that are hard. I want her to grow up with the attitude that she can do anything!

  2. Ava,I found your blog through Budgets are Sexy. I was speechless after reading about your history. Your story is incredible and I find it so motivating!

    My life was nothing like yours but I can relate to what you said about the dangers of believing you’re helpless and waiting for someone else to save you.

    My husband and I don’t earn that much but we have a goal of saving 800k for retirement and paying off our house. Every day I catch myself doubting whether we’ll ever achieve this goal. We’re only 7% there so it’s tough to see the finish line.

    1. Hi Leslie,

      Thanks so much for the kind words! I’m glad you found the post helpful :o)

      Wow, you’re almost already 10% done with saving 800k!! That’s a huge deal!

      I know it’s tough, but when I find myself worrying unproductively about how we’re going to achieve our goals, I try to focus all that energy towards figuring out how we can earn more and/or save more.

      Bottom line for us is that the lower we (reasonably) reduce our expenses and the higher we increase our income, the more money we’ll have to invest and the faster we’ll be able to reach our goals.

      If you don’t mind me asking, when are you looking to retire? Interested to hear more about your situation!


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