A couple things happened one after the other on a recent afternoon. After a solid 3–4 days of blood glucose levels that ALL fell below 120, I had a high blood glucose level. Shortly after, I browsed through Facebook and saw a post from a dear friend of mine whose band was getting ready to play the National Anthem at an NFL game. My reaction to both, as much as I hate to admit it, was not good. My reaction to the high number was somewhat like this: “I thought I had it figured out! But apparently, I CAN’T control my numbers!” And my reaction to the Facebook post? “Hmmm… I’ll be playing for 30 minutes this Wednesday for, hopefully, a room with 20 people in it. I’m not really a musician.”
My mother-in-law has a wonderful saying that she’s offered to me on such occasions: “When you compare your inside to someone else’s outside, you’ll always come up short.” It’s pretty easy to see how that relates to how I reacted to my friend’s Facebook post. I see a musical accomplishment and assume that if only I could do that, my whole life would be perfectly happy (and, by contrast, I imagine his perfect, happy, trouble-free life). And at the same time, I forget all of the wonderful things I have in my own life, all of the accomplishments, and all of the joy. I judge my own life by the absence of one imagined thing. I judge my own life by my failure to reach this imagined “good enough” goal line.
I did something very similar with my blood glucose. Like I said, I’d had about four days of really good numbers. Then I had one bad number. And yet, my immediate reaction was to beat myself up for being “unable to control my blood glucose.” If four days of numbers completely within the nondiabetic “normal” range and one bad number isn’t good enough, what is? What exactly am I shooting for here?
I’m shooting for something that is impossible. There’s a reason we don’t talk about maintaining “perfect” control, but instead talk about aiming for “tight control.” Perfect isn’t something that exists in the natural world. It certainly isn’t something we should expect when it comes to diabetes management. We’re dealing with living systems here, living bodies that catch colds, have unexplained aches and pains, and generally have a tendency to fall short of “perfect.”
But beyond being an unreasonable expectation to be putting on myself, it’s a poor emotional choice. If I’m expecting perfection, I’m guaranteed to fall short. And if I’m guaranteed to fall short, I’m putting out an invitation for feelings of anger, sadness, and, worst of all, helplessness.
Learned helplessness is something anyone with diabetes must guard against. It’s a term often used by psychologists. It’s a technical name for that feeling of being absolutely stuck, and absolutely powerless over something. Since the downturn in our economy, many people have experienced this feeling in their job search. Someone may send out hundreds of resumes, only to have 10 offers to interview, followed by no job offers. After a while, the optimism, the sense of possibility that you need to sustain an effort like a job search, can begin to fall away. What you’re left with is that overwhelming feeling that “no matter what I do, it doesn’t matter. There is no way this can work, and there is no way I can succeed at this.” Learned helplessness is the point of giving up, as we become convinced that the future can only be an ongoing repeat of past failures.
If we expect our numbers to behave perfectly all the time (or if we expect all of our plans to work out perfectly and call ourselves “failures” every time someone else does something we haven’t yet), learned helplessness is the inevitable end game. And what makes this so dangerous for someone with diabetes is the way it can cause you to give up.
Imagine if we just decided to “give up” counting carbs, or “give up” compensating for high numbers. What if we just “give up” trying to better manage our condition? We will pay the price with our very health. It’s something we simply cannot afford to do. Diabetes demands something from us that can be very challenging: it demands that we learn how to keep working, keep open the sense of possibility for change, even when we are falling short of our ideal.
So how can we guard against this learned helplessness? For starters, we can stop expecting perfection from our numbers, from ourselves, and from our lives. We can remind ourselves that every single life on this planet experiences good and bad, pleasure and pain, success and failure. We can stop comparing ourselves to others, and stop assuming that whatever someone else has must be better, more fulfilling, and more successful than what we have. Finally, we can remind ourselves that diabetes control is not about being perfect all the time. It’s about the big picture. My big picture this week is darned good! My high number doesn’t change that.
I invite you to share some of the ways you have learned how to manage learned helplessness. What has helped you keep your faith in the face of challenges? How do you keep your perspective and focus on the big picture? How do you let go of disappointment to ensure it doesn’t take over? Share your insights with us.