For well over 30 years I’ve been responsible for managing challenging situations, challenging students, and more often than you might think, challenging staff too. While there have been many times when I’ve got things wrong, I’d like to think that for the most part I’ve been very good at what I do, offering support and yet stretching comfort zones in the right measure and at the right time. However, while the work I’ve done has often been complex and multifaceted, providing me opportunities to grow, staying in the same environment also meant that I perhaps became too accustomed to certain organisational and cultural norms. I’ve been used to the routines and expectations that come from working within a school, knowing what was expected of me and equally, what I was entitled to expect from those around me. Stepping away from what I knew and presumed has presented me with a whole new set of questions, questions about the world I’m entering, and questions about my capacity to engage with it in the most effective and fulfilling way.

Not everyone perhaps, but most of us find change difficult. Even if the circumstances we’re in aren’t what we would want, maybe we’re unhappy or unfulfilled in some way, we can still find a means to justify staying exactly where we are. We’ll dress it up in some way, saying to ourselves, “This is just who I am”, or perhaps, “That might be ok for others, but I couldn’t possibly ….”. However limiting our situation, it’s familiar, it’s what we know, and there can be a degree of comfort in that. In a very real sense, although we’re unlikely to want to admit it, we can allow ourselves to fall into what Martin Seligman describes as “Learned Helplessness”

In a series of experiments that few of us would condone, Seligman showed how by ringing a bell at the same time as applying an electric shock, a dog would subsequently act as if shocked when hearing the sound of the bell, even when no shock was applied. He then put the dog in a large crate, divided by a low fence that the dog could easily jump over. One side of the fence, the side the dog was on, was electrified, while the other side of the fence was “safe”. Even though the dog could easily jump the fence to reach the “safe” side, when it heard the bell, it simply laid down. It had learned to be helpless. Its expectation was that there was nothing it could do to alter its situation, it just had to accept its lot.
We like to think that we’re intelligent creatures, in command of the world around us, immeasurably superior to all other species, and yet all too often we act in just the same way as Seligman’s dog. For many years I’ve toyed with the idea of setting up my own business, of offering a range of services that I think could add real value to the lives of others, and yet only now have I done so. In part that’s because being at West Heath satisfied a need to contribute with others to a mission that has real and deep meaning. If I’m honest though, it was also because of doubts about my capacity to make a success of working for myself. Would I really be good enough, would there be people out there who would see value in what I’ve got to offer and who would be willing to pay for it. So, when the bell of mortgage payments and the loss of a secure income began to ring loud, there was a real temptation to lay down and accept that, “Being self-employed just isn’t you David”, “Think what you’re risking, what you’re doing now is alright really, just let it go”.

Recognising that we may be staying in a situation as a result of some form of learned helplessness is a good thing. Awareness of what may be happening is after all, the first stage in being able to choose to respond differently. However, it’s only truly helpful if it’s accompanied by a compassionate self-acceptance and by the courage to open to the vulnerability that challenging our current sense of self entails. For me it’s about being prepared to “Walk the talk”, a willingness to engage in exactly the same processes that I support and guide others through when I work with them. Sure, it means that things are a lot less predictable and secure, something that for me and many others, can be a cause of discomfort and even anxiety. At the same time though, it’s exciting and empowering, expanding the sense of who I am and of what I am capable.

It’s right of course to be wary of thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Yet it’s empowering and life-affirming to know that the boundary we often place around ourselves, and which serves to limit us, is frequently a mirage, an imagined electric fence that becomes mere “smoke and mirrors” the moment we’re brave enough to step through it. Or perhaps it’s just me …………………?