We owe a lot to some poor dogs in the 1960s, who were the stars of Martin Seligman’s experiments in learned helplessness. Dr. Seligman used animal experiments in order to understand human depression. What makes people give up hope and stop trying to fulfill their desires? Seligman found the answer and was recognized as the founder of Positive Psychology. His research suggested that depression often starts with life experiences that convince us we are helpless when faced with hardship.
Seligman’s dogs essentially were divided into two groups: one group could escape an electric shock by pressing a lever or by moving to another part of the cage, but another set of dogs could do nothing to control the coming shock. It was no surprise that the dogs with control showed happier natures, while the dogs without control became dispirited. The unexpected result was that once the dogs lost hope and felt helpless, they no longer tried to escape the shock when they finally were given that opportunity. It was as if the dogs had stopped trying because they were convinced there was nothing they could do to save themselves. The scientists were able to reverse a dog’s helplessness by physically moving it through the actions that would save it from the shock.
After Seligman’s discoveries about learned helplessness, another scientist, Lyn Abramson, came up with the idea that depressive people not only stop acting in their own best interests, they also learn to think about adversity in ways that promote depression. In a nutshell, depressive people feel like bad times will last forever, will affect every area of their lives, and happen because they are inadequate in some way. In contrast, optimistic people tend to see bad times as temporary, limited to certain areas, and due to bad luck, not personal failings. The negative mindset is learned helplessness; the hopeful mindset is learned effectiveness.
Now here is the really interesting part. We all start out life like those dogs in the experiment. The lab environment corresponds to our childhood world, which controlled what we learned about life. This laboratory teaches some children that they can succeed if they try, while others find their best efforts have no effect. Adults who are willing to lend children a little power over their own decisions give kids a sense of capability and self-trust. These lucky children learn the self-affirming pleasure of knowing they can influence other people and get help from them. Other children unfortunately learn they have no power over rigid or unpredictable adults, who are unlikely to give them a hand. Most of us had childhoods that fell somewhere in between.
As we grow up, we carry that early learning forward. But learned helplessness can occur any time life gives us feelings of powerlessness. Some people suffer from learned helplessness only in certain pockets of their lives. They may be effective and successful at work or be happy with their mate, but still feel that some other area of their life is beyond their control. The problem is that feelings of helplessness in any aspect of our lives tend to soak into the other unaffected areas.
Bad situations that go on for a long time can begin to affect our entire outlook. We stop looking at the positive goal of what we want and start thinking about the negative goal of simple escape. Our main coping mechanism becomes avoidance. The end stage of learned helplessness is when we find ourselves thinking “What’s the use?” Even after we get out of the bad situation, we may have formed the habit of defeatist thinking.
The solution to learned helplessness—whether it started in childhood or adult life—is to reverse the person’s unwillingness to try. The idea is to start catching our learned helplessness as soon as it occurs. The best way is to notice the “What’s the use?” attitude and realize that we have been hypnotized into helplessness. Next we may realize we want to leave the situation. Finally, the ultimate recovery occurs when we start thinking, “What do I want now?” That is the treatment of depression in capsule form. The helpless person moves from no goal to negative avoidance goal to positive desire goal.
When people begin to recover from learned helplessness, their first thought is to get out of the situation. However, people need to realize that leaving the situation does not prevent them from carrying their thinking with them. The challenge is not only to focus on escape but also to think hard about what they really want for their lives. Otherwise they tend to leave one bad situation and find themselves in the same predicament later. Many forms of addiction are rooted in this dynamic of escape, in which people are so focused on avoidance that they have lost sight of their own desires. If you do not struggle to get out of the helplessness mindset, you will be at higher risk to knuckle under in the next situation that challenges you.
Many people who feel powerless are attracted to a new person or situation that makes it seem like all their needs will be met. These new attachments can be very seductive, but tend to not hold up over time. This is because the helpless person has not done the psychological growth work of learning to assert and pursue what she wants, especially when it conflicts with what someone else would like. When the honeymoon is over, the person will begin to re-experience the frustrated and helpless feelings she had before.
Some bad situations are dangerous and require escape, psychological growth or not. But if there is a choice, sometimes it helps to stay in a situation long enough to practice a more assertive style. Helplessness has been learned, and it can be unlearned. Sometimes the old situation is the perfect opportunity to become conscious of the triggers that activate a sense of helplessness. Practicing new behavior within an old situation can feel especially empowering.
We don’t intend to learn helplessness. Nobody holds up a sign to tell us we are headed there. It is one of those destinations we arrive at and wonder how we got there. But whatever the situation, once we start asking ourselves what it would take to make us happier, we are no longer hostages of the past. Unlike the lab animals, we can use our own minds to set us free.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.