Some of the most brilliant people I’ve known have something awful in common. Despite being smart and talented and working hard at everything they do, nothing works for them. It’s so confusing and frustrating when you look at someone who seems to have everything going for them and time after time, they fail at whatever they attempt.

If you know someone like this, you may feel frustrated with them. They’ve lived with this pattern so long that often, if you try and give them suggestions on how to move forward, they always push back. They can match you point for point as to why what you’re suggesting won’t work for them. Often, what you’ll hear is, “I know that works for other people. It just won’t work for me.”

Or maybe you identify with this pattern, yourself. If so, you may have even shut down your desire for anything good. It’s just too painful to want good things to happen when you know from vast personal experience that no matter how hard you work, your efforts won’t pay off.

At the heart of this pattern is a great oxymoron. It is the feeling that, “In order to survive, I have to prove that nothing works for me.” It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Who in their right mind would try this?

It’s good news, in a way, that this pattern has nothing to do with rational choice. Everyone’s survival mechanism is put into place before the age of 2 1/2, which is the age at which the rational brain begins to operate. So, by the time we’re actually able to make rational choices, the way we feel that we have to be to survive is already set.

Our survival mechanisms are absorbed from and in relation to our parents or other early caregivers. In the case of this defeatist pattern, one might absorb it directly from a parent who has this pattern as “the way it is to be human.” Or, one might have a parent whose survival mechanism is to need to pick up the slack for everyone around them. This parent’s child would develop the defeatist pattern as a way to give the parent a lot to fix and take care of, so that the parent will feel in their comfort zone.

The part of our brain that stores this survival mechanism is what generates every moment of our lives, without our conscious effort or thought. So, for the person whose little 2-year-old brain stores the feeling that to survive, they must prove that nothing works for them, they will keep finding themselves in situations that do just that—without any effort or choice.

I’ve seen this pattern show itself in every aspect of someone’s life, including career or achievement, health, relationships, and even the small events that make up someone’s day-to-day life. One particularly vivid and interesting example was a client of mine who started telling me about her washing machine saga one day. The Maytag people had been out several times to repair her new washer and were finally going to replace it. They had never seen such a problematic machine. I told her that this defeatist pattern could extend even to the objects in one’s life, and she said, “So, is this why we’ve had to replace our microwave 12 times over the past 5 years?!”

People with this pattern often have a real challenge in trying to change it. Even when they desperately want change on a rational level, the same part of their sense of self that proves nothing works applies across the board, so their brain puts up strong resistance to the work I do with them. Even when I point out a big change to them, they’ll often argue either that it hasn’t changed or that it wasn’t the exact change they were looking for, so it doesn’t even matter. But I have seen defeatists make big changes, and it is a wonderful thing to witness.

For example, my client with the failing appliances had been married for many years. One night, out of the blue, her husband said, “You know, you are still such a beautiful woman.” It was the first compliment he had given her in many years. Another defeatist client had a job installing blinds that he said was going to be impossible because of time constraints. He called me in amazement after completing the job. He had finished in less time than he even had allotted for it and far more quickly than any job he had ever done. When I asked him what the experience was like, he said the only way he could describe it was that it felt like time had slowed down.

Are you someone who has dealt with this pattern of feeling that nothing can work for you, no matter what you do? Or do you have a close family member or friend who has? I hope that understanding that this is just a pattern of feeling that actually can be unlearned will give you some hope.

Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest problem by filling out the SQ test and scheduling a free, 30-minute phone assessment.