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Learned Helplessness - 4/6/2009

Have you ever  wanted to do something, but didn’t, because you felt controlled by others?  Thereafter, you hated yourself for not having the courage to risk “being you”.  As a child, you saw yourself restricted by parents.  As a student, you could blame your teachers.  Later in life, the culprit was your boss at a job you disliked, but was afraid to leave.  Still later, you carried that behavior over to your marriage, where you stifled your thoughts and refrained from saying what you felt because you didn’t want to hurt your spouse, or risk his/her wrath.  Yet, you stayed, mitigated your resentments and hid your true emotions.  In essence, you lived a lie and justified your actions on the basis of political correctness, religious teachings and the welfare of your children.  There were times you let your feelings out but, for the most part, only when you  built up sufficient anger to give you a sense of false courage.  The rest of the time,  you grinned and bore it, thinking, “This is the way marriage works.”

I can’t count how many people I’ve seen in therapy who fit that description.  They complain about the spouse they chose, the error they made by marrying him/her and how dearly they paid for that mistake.  They forget to mention that their spouse probably did, as well, since having a partner who resents you because they didn’t have the courage to break off an engagement doesn’t make for a happy marriage.  Some of them eventually divorce but, sadly, several years later, they’re back in therapy with a new spouse, singing the same song, second verse.   It makes me think of the 19-year-old prisoner who is sent to jail for 20 years.  Every day, he rattles the bars of his cell and shouts, “Let me out.”  Upon his  release, he goes out into a world that has changed from iceboxes to refrigerators, typewriters to computers and victrolas to ipods.  In desperation, he  runs to a familiar spot - the corner drugstore where he and his buddies used to hang out.  But when he gets there, he finds a high-rise.  The environment, the people and technology have totally changed.  He is so frightened, he robs a 7-11 across from the police station and is immediately caught, placed in his old cell and, within an hour, begins rattling the same bars, shouting, “Let me out.”  

Early in childhood, most of you learned to live your lives as helpless individuals, trapped by forces beyond your control.  As a child, that was essentially the case.  By 18, however, you are free to make decisions, exercise your own judgement and express your viewpoints, i.e. to be your own person.  But, you don’t know it because few of you ever outgrow your learned  feelings of helplessness.   As a result, you continue to live your life as an emotional child, governed by the thoughts, beliefs and controls of parents, who were formidable in your eyes as a 4-year-old, but shouldn’t be as an adult.  

Why didn’t you grow up?  Because there are many payoffs for remaining a child.  You don’t have to take risks.  You can blame everything on someone else, feel anger toward those who control you and view yourself as a victim.  Consequently, you continue to live your life influenced by early childhood messages, such as, “Be a good little boy/girl”, “You’re the  little man in the family now”,  “People don’t like you when you cry”, “If you want to be loved, you’ve got to earn it”, or, “You’ll never amount to anything.”  You let the wounded child inside determine your actions, fears and expectations. There is a psychological experiment titled “Learned Helplessness”, that best illustrates this phenomenon.

Briefly, the experimenters built a cage 7 feet long,  4 feet wide and 4 feet high, with a 2 foot high partition in the center. They then placed dogs, one at a time, on the side with a metal grid floor attached to a low-voltage electrical charge.  After lowering a lid over the compartment, they sounded a buzzer and 30 seconds later, administered an electrical shock.  After a number of trials, the dogs, on hearing the buzzer, began to whimper, whine, growl, defecate, urinate, or curl up in the corner waiting for the inevitable.  Once that behavior was reinforced, they repeated the process, only this time, they removed the lid from the box.  They one again sounded the buzzer, but not one dog jumped over the partition.  Instead, they whined, whimpered, howled, defecated, urinated and curled up in the corner, expecting the inevitable.  The smartest dog finally learned to leap over the partition after 200 trials and then only with the aid of an experimenter, who manually lifted the dog over the partition into the safe area.  This study isn’t necessarily palatable, but the implications, with regard to human behavior, are startling.  It suggests that, once you’re exposed to enough repetitions of hurtful behavior, you can become so accustomed to your helplessness that you go through the remainder of your life trapped by invisible “lids” that are no longer there.  Thus, you may fear making simple decisions, standing on your own two feet, or expressing your opinion.  In part, it explains why battered spouses stay in abusive marriages, why husbands and wives who feel controlled or depreciated never speak up and why people capitulate to demands and behaviors that are unacceptable.  As a child, you had no choice.  As an adult, you do.  But, if you are unable to recognize that you’re free to be you, you still behave as though you’re trapped.  As a result, your world becomes a cell with a door you rattle but never open, even though it’s not locked, all because you are restricted by invisible fears from your past.  Recognizing this will enable you to see that the only limits you have are those you carry with you from childhood.  But, most importantly, this study says when you are free of your past, you needn’t go through life feeling like a victim and wasting precious years, resenting your world and the people in it.

Even worse, if you never realize you are free, you hate yourself.  You have difficulty  recognizing if what you do is what you want, or what you feel obligated to do.  The confusion thwarts your wherewithal to enjoy or relish any situation, because you constantly question, “Am I drinking this milk because I want to, or because my mother told me to?  If I’m drinking it because she told me to, then, somehow, the taste is contaminated.  If I’m drinking it because I want to, I can enjoy the frothy, creamy, cool liquid.  I can relish dipping a chocolate cookie or a graham cracker into it, or mixing it with ice cream and making a milkshake.  The possibilities are endless”, as is the pleasure, because you are governed by your thoughts.   You are no longer restricted by an  emotional umbilical cord that mandates that you be controlled by your inner child. As a result, your fears and anger subside, because your rational adult has taken over control of you.

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