Unlearning Learned Helplessness


I was out on a date with someone recently when she marveled at my ease in parallel parking.  Because she was younger than me, we were representing Generation X and Millennials respectively, she was accustomed to help from the now legally mandated back up camera installed in all new cars.  I never gave it much thought, but I am proud of my ability to quickly pull up, look over my right shoulder and with no one helping me, not even a high tech and expensive backup camera, maneuver into a tight parking space between two other cars. 
I work in the field of fitness, nutrition, and thirdly, wellness.  Wellness is an inadequate word for it, so I like to think of it as the good life.  Getting enough sleep, moderating or avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting health checkups, and socializing are “good life” concepts.  Agency, or the ability to do things, like park a car or cook a meal, is a another “good life” concept we should be thinking about.  I’ve seen many clients who literally could not get out of a chair without help become strong enough with 6 months to do a push up on the floor.  I focus on improving my clients’ agency, their strength and ability to do things- like place a suitcase on a luggage rack, get up and down off the floor, walk a few flights of stairs, or safely pick up a heavy box. 
I don’t drive a new car. Following the advice of financial gurus like Dave Ramsey and Clark Howard, I drive an older and long-paid-for 2007 Honda pickup truck, built when backup cameras were only a dream of science fiction,  I pondered the parking situation later and concluded that the backup camera is metaphor for a bigger problem.  We’re losing the ability to do more and more things, we’re becoming helpless.
Technology and change have their place, but often change for change’s sake, sold as progress, ends up hurting us in the long run.  Outsourcing and the drive towards further and further specialization hurt us when we can no longer act.  Agency is the ability to act, and we’re losing it by handing more and more of our power over to others and increasingly, to machines.  Without personal agency, we become passive, weak, and even helpless.
We don’t cook, join, gather, learn, master, build, or know as much as we used to.  Supplements are becoming substitutes.  The daily trip out to eat a fast-food breakfast ends up rendering us incapable of cooking our own scrambled eggs, the simplest of dishes.  Don’t laugh, I’ve known several who couldn’t.  The costly trip to the nail and hair salon every month racks up more and more credit card debt for millions.  Social media or online gatherings replace socializing in person, and  we shy away from or become apathetic about in-person interaction, hiding behind screens instead.  Video games replace in-person sports in rec leagues or real outdoor challenges like trekking, camping, mountain biking, or hiking.  How many families gather every evening to cook, eat together, pray, and talk?
Learned helplessness is a psychological concept that social scientists like Martin Seligman and Steven Maier described decades ago to explain what happens when someone gives up on finding a resolution to a difficult situation.  Unlike many psychological concepts learned helplessness is not psychobabble.  Learned helplessness is closely related to agency, in that someone who has agency takes action and is not helpless. 
Animals are the same as humans when it comes to learned helplessness, we both can “learn” to give up, or be helpless.  Seligman showed in his research that you can teach animals to give up. Dogs in his research who were repeatedly exposed to shocks eventually gave up trying to get away.  People in another similar experiment eventually gave up on getting away from a repeated sound.  Luckily, we aren’t animals though, we’re humans and we can rise above this helplessness.  
But we do give up too soon, too often.  The good news is that this paralyzing situation can be overcome.  In practical terms, things like cognitive behavior therapy, journaling, or even working with a mentor can help us to reframe thoughts.  Taking small, constructive, and concrete steps towards change can help us “unlearn” learned helplessness. 
Learned helplessness is associated with low self – esteem, frustration, passivity, despair, dissatisfaction, a lack of effort, and giving up.  Sometimes it comes from prior trauma. People who have learned helplessness have given up on taking action, or building agency, to change things, including bad spiritual habits, better known as sins or vices.   When agency declines, we feel helpless, and the problem is that our society seems to encourage helplessness, but we were not created to be helpless.
On the contrary, by emphasizing our own free will, our own ability to act, our own agency, we can co-create something better in life with God’s help.   On the one hand, we need God’s help, he’s the ground of everything and we need to work with what reality gives us.  On the other, we’re free individuals with the ability to act. 
Some people, Seligman showed, have what he called learned optimism, the opposite of what he called learned helplessness.  These are people who have learned that they have at least some control over any situation.  No matter what happens, these people seem to react the complete opposite way from a helpless person.  Our goal should be to build learned optimism. 
Building learned optimism requires avoiding 3 things:

  • Complaining- not because there’s nothing to complain about, but because it doesn’t help.
  • Criticizing- not because there’s nothing to criticize, but because it doesn’t help.
  • Procrastinating- because taking small and decisive action is key.

Building learned optimism (and unlearning helplessness) requires:

  • Thinking constructively. Ask yourself, “does this help me achieve my goal?” If not, don’t do it.
  • Re-framing situations.  Take every situation and ask yourself, “are you certain things will always be this way?” and “What is possible here?”
  • Micro-achievements.  Focus on the small things that eventually build up to bigger wins.

Be optimistic and unlearn helplessness.  No matter the situation, be the strong person who sees what could be, and work to make it happen.   We’re going to be one way or the other, we may as well be the optimistic ones. 

Helplessness can be learned, but luckily it can be unlearned too. 


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