What’s the point? – Learned Helplessness

Another characteristic I’ve come across is Learned Helplessness. This is not an issue I suffer with but I found it to be sufficiently interesting as a lot of people suffering with Borderline Personality Disorder, depression and a many other mental illnesses deal with it.

Learned helplessness is when a person begins to believe that they have no control over a situation, even when they do. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

How Learned Helplessness was discovered is pretty interesting:
“Learned Helplessness was discovered in 1965 by psychologist Martin Seligman while he was studying the behavior of dogs. In the experiment, which was designed to be a variation of Pavlov’s famous “classical conditioning” experiment, Seligman restrained the dogs for some time in a hammock. Every time a sound was heard, the dog would receive an electrical shock. Later, the dogs were put in a confined box which they could easily jump out of. Seligman wanted to see if the dogs would have learned to jump out of the box when they heard the sound to escape the shocks. What surprised him was that the dogs just lay there and did not try to escape.
What Seligman had discovered was that the dogs had “learned” from the early part of the experiment that the shocks occurred at random, were unavoidable and didn’t depend on their own behavior. The dogs could, in fact, just jump out of the box to escape the shock but they had learned otherwise.
This kind of behavior pattern has since been demonstrated in humans if they have been exposed to punishments or discomforts which seem random and unavoidable. A feeling of helplessness and no power to improve one’s circumstances is one of the key factors in depression.”
The mantra of the person who suffers from Learned Helplessness is: “What’s the point in trying? I won’t be able to do it anyways. Nothing is going to change no matter what I do.”
Learned Helplessness can lead a person to falsely believe that they are more powerlessness than they really are. This can lead to them making poor choices, resulting in a worse situation, making them feel even more powerless, leading to more poor choices and a vicious cycle of depression sets in.
Like Seligman’s dogs, learned helplessness occurs when a person has experienced a specific series of negative events over which they have no control, despite their best efforts to improve the situation. Over time the person may begin to believe that no matter what they do, bad things will happen from time to time in a random fashion. Dysfunction arises when a person’s negative experiences are generalized to their broader situation or overall outlook in life.
This actually ties in nicely to another bit of research I found on Generalized thinking and depression.
More research has found that while this theory is a good basis, it fails to take into account how people vary in their reactions to situations that can cause learned helplessness. For example, not all abuse victims develop PD traits or remain in a victimized state, but may grow to be even stronger people for the adversity. It can remain specific to one type of situation or it can be generalized for all situations. Although a group of people may experience the same or similar negative events, how each person privately interprets or explains the event will affect the likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression. Why a person responds differently to adverse events is attributed to their explanatory style.
Explanatory style is a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative. Psychologists have identified three components in explanatory style:
Personal – This involves how one explains where the cause of an event arises. People experiencing events may see themselves as the cause; that is, they have internalized the cause for the event. Example: “I always forget to make that turn” (internal) as opposed to “That turn can sure sneak up on you” (external).
Permanent – This involves how one explains the extent of the cause. People may see the situation as unchangeable, e.g., “I always lose my keys” or “I never forget a face”.
Pervasive – This involves how one explains the extent of the effects. People may see the situation as affecting all aspects of life, e.g., “I can’t do anything right” or “Everything I touch seems to turn to gold”.
People with pessimistic explanatory style are people who generally tend to blame themselves for negative events, believe that such events will continue indefinitely, and let such events affect many aspects of their lives. They tend to see negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I can’t do anything correctly”)—are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression.
Conversely, people who generally tend to blame others for negative events, believe that such events will end soon, and do not let such events affect too many aspects of their lives display what is called an optimistic explanatory style.
Whatever their origins, people who suffer from events that were beyond their control consistently see a disruption in their emotions, aggressions, physiology and a multitude of other areas of their lives.  These helpless experiences can associate with passivity, uncontrollability and poor cognition in people, ultimately threatening their physical and mental well-being.

Traditionally I’m a pessimist. However, I’ve made a very conscious and concerted decision to learn optimism. Learned optimism is an idea in positive psychology that a talent for joy, like any other, can be cultivated. Learning optimism is done by consciously challenging any negative self-talk. It doesn’t always work, some days I definitely fall to a dour mood, but I do have a deeply instilled sense of hope that things can, and will get better.

Learned helplessness can also be a motivational problem. People who have failed at tasks in the past conclude erroneously that they are incapable of improving their performance. They may use learned helplessness as an excuse or a shield to provide self-justification for job/school failure. Additionally, describing someone as having learned to be helpless can serve as a reason to avoid blaming him or her for the inconveniences experienced. In turn, the person will give up trying to gain respect or advancement through academic/occupational performance.

I’m almost the exact opposite of this. I had so much pressure and responsibility put on me growing up that I absolutely believe things are my responsibility to change, improve, perfect, and the outcome depends solely on my ability. However, if I have to ask anyone for help, I have failed. If I can’t do something right, I have failed. If there is a way to do it better, I have not succeeded. I can always do better. I can always push harder. I can always do more. Instead of believing that things will never get better, I believe things are never good enough; can always be better. Things have to change in order to be good enough, but I have to change them, I have to do it in order to prove I’m worthy of having something better. If I rely on anyone else, for anything it means I have not proven myself capable and it’s not entirely my own victory.  If I have to depend on someone else for my achievement, for any minute part, than it’s not my achievement. I am performing below acceptable standards. There’s a compulsive edge that I can’t seem to express this morning. I refuse to be helpless. However, I also refuse help. Which is a demon all on its own.

Unlearning helplessness is possible.
Learned helplessness can be minimized by “immunization” and potentially reversed by therapy. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous positive experiences. Cognitive behavioral therapy can often help people to learn more realistic explanatory styles, bolster self-esteem, and can help ease depression as well. What’s important here, then, is to develop a supportive relationship with someone close to you be it a friend, lover, spouse, or therapist. Communication is key. Let this person know that you think this is a problem. When this kind of pessimistic, helpless thinking begins to take over, let them know that these are the times you need reminding of positive experiences and accomplishments that validate a more functional mental attitude. When it always feels like nothing will change or be different, having those small reminders that, IN FACT, things have been different before and can be different again, can be a very powerful tool. It’s not an overnight fix, but it’s a start.

4 comments on “What’s the point? – Learned Helplessness

  1. I have both confidence and L H at the same time. I was told i needed to be perfect AND one parent felt the need to actually do my homework so I (the family –this parent)wouldn't fail. AND I was in the honors programs. Talk about fucking with my esteem and helplessness at the same time!!!

  2. I refuse to be helpless. However, I also refuse help. You could have literally taken that entire paragraph out of my head. I think for me that I learned very early on that no one was there to help me, protect me, encourage me so if I wanted/needed anything then I had to do it on my own.

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