Takeaway: Feeling lost and helpless? Remember that you can only control yourself and offer your point of view. Don’t fall victim to learned helplessness!
Not having control of a situation can really be miserable. It can lead to the belief that you have no control over your life or that no matter what you do you are cursed to fail and never succeed.
I remember when I was younger, I felt this way when dealing with my mother and her alcoholism:
she would drink and I would ask her not to.
And she would drink more.
And I would ask her not to and explain why it was bad for her and hurt the family when she did.
And she would drink more.
And it would break my heart.
Increasingly, I felt like I had no control and that no matter what I did I could not affect the results I wanted. But I had no words to describe this to other people…until I read about a guy named Martin Seligman.
Martin Seligman and several colleagues did several studies to animals and then later to humans (thankfully less extreme) which eventually lead to this idea:
Learned Helplessness is a phenomenon observed in both humans and other animals when they have been conditioned to expect pain, suffering, or discomfort without a way to escape it (Cherry, 2018) eventually they will stop trying to escape the pain or situation at all!
There were some disturbing studies done with animals in the 60s and 70s where dogs were placed in one large box with two areas. One half had an electric floor, but the other half didn’t, but was separated by a low barrier.
What they noticed was that some dogs wouldn’t avoid the shock: they wouldn’t even attempt to jump the barrier at all!
So, what was different about these dogs?
Dr. Seligman and group eventually learned it was that these animals were subjected to situations where they could not escape the pain.
When I read about this study as a young Ed, it was enlightening: I realized what was happening to me.
So, what can you do about it once you know you’ve encountered learned helplessness?
Battling Helplessness: Separation of Tasks
As I moved from my home to college, I started to realize what had happened to me. I met my friend Diego who showed me the greatest example of zen peace I could imagine and I did a ton of reading trying to find words for all the feelings I had (this is when I found the term learned helplessness).
I stumbled my way into the idea of setting my circle of control: at the end of the day, there are things I can control and things I can’t.
I like the way Alfred Adler described it best: there are tasks that are yours and ones that aren’t and if is not your task, it is not your concern.
At the end of the day, I could only tell my mother why I believed alcoholism is bad. I do not control her decision.
I only control my opinion of that decision.
So, I couldn’t control my mother’s decision about alcohol. Where else does this apply?
Everywhere! Anytime you try to change someone’s mindset.
Just don’t get attached to it! It’s HARD! But you have to be honest with yourself: what can you control?
The conclusion I came to is: The best thing you can do is know yourself and declare your opinion with clarity. And if it doesn’t work?
Love yourself and be yourself.
If you can’t change someone’s mindset, it’s ok. Literally the only thing in your control is to share your opinion, do your best, love yourself, and battle on!