Learning To Be Helpless

Learned Helplessness

In the 1970’s a researcher named Martin Seligman discovered a curious side-effect of some experiments he was performing on dogs.

In these experiments he had three groups of dogs. One group was placed, one at a time, into a cage that had an electrified floor and no way to escape from the shocks delivered to them through the floor. A second group was placed in the same set-up but they had the option of jumping over a barrier to get away from the electric shocks. The third group were not exposed to electric shocks at all.

After delivering shocks to the first two groups Seligman then put them all, one at a time, into a cage where they could escape being shocked. Only two of the three groups escaped. Most of the dogs who had been unable to escape the previous shocks did not even try to escape despite having the option to do so in the new experiment.

Seligman coined the term “Learned Helplessness” to describe the condition of the dogs who failed to escape even when escape was possible. He believed they had learned escape was not possible so they did not even try any more.

There has been much research into this phenomenon since then and Seligman’s original theory about this phenomenon being linked to human depression has been revised but the experiment continues to resonate within me personally.

When I learned about this experiment at university I immediately identified with those poor dogs. I felt I understood why they would sit, whimpering, and endure the pain rather than try to escape it. Sometimes the pain of failing is much worse than any other kind of pain. If you don’t try you can hope you would succeed and having that hope is better than trying, failing, and losing that little bit of hope.

An experiment like this cannot really explain the consequences of life experiences on human beings but it illustrates how some people can end up, like those dogs, in a cage from which they make no attempt to escape. They lie down, whimpering, and just endure the misery of life.

Seligman’s dogs were subjected to electric shocks at unpredictable times. They were confined in a small cage from which they quickly learned there was no escape but this does not begin to compare with what people can be subjected to.

I am convinced people can learn to be helpless too. It is the opposite phenomenon to “self-efficacy”. People with self-efficacy have learned they are capable of looking after themselves, of finding solutions, of getting what they need from life and from others.

Self-efficacy begins in infancy when the child cries and learns two things. That it can do something to get the help it needs. “I cry and my caregiver comes”. It also needs to learn it CAN survive and it CAN cope if, once in a while, it can’t get what it wants at all or can’t have it as fast as it would like. “I cry and my caregiver comes but I am not given the sharp and shiny object I want and, sometimes, I must wait until my caregiver has finished doing something else”.

The child whose cries are ignored or punished begins to learn they can do nothing to help themselves. “I cry but my caregiver does not come or they do not give me what I want or need without some form of unpleasant consequence.”

The child who is responded to instantly and is never made to wait or go without starts to believe they don’t have to do anything apart from want or need. “I cry and my caregiver drops everything and comes. Sometimes they come even before I am sure I need them!” It leaves them unable and unwilling to learn self-efficacy because someone else does everything for them including changing their want or need if it is not feasible. “I cry and my caregiver comes but I am not given the sharp and shiny object I want. I do not experience frustration or feel deprived over not getting it though because my caregiver convinces me I would rather have some other thing instead. I do not, therefore, have to learn to cope with feeling frustrated or deprived.”

Sometimes the child who is abused or neglected can respond with anger and begin to believe they have been unfairly treated and life owes them for that. They can then adopt the same position as the second child and feel someone else SHOULD be doing everything for them and taking responsibility for their wants and needs.

All three will, if conditions continue, lie helpless and hopeless in the cage and whimper as bad things happen. One will do nothing because they believe they are not able to do anything. The other two will do nothing because they believe someone else should be rescuing them and they should not have to do anything.

One will blame themselves: “I’m useless”. They don’t believe anything they do can make any difference now or ever because there is something about them that ensures things will always go wrong. They grow up believing “I can’t.”

“I can’t get what I want so there’s no point trying.”

“I can’t get what I need so why bother.”

“I can’t find solutions and nobody will help.”

“This is how it is, it’s how it has always been and it is how it is always going to be so don’t waste time trying to fix anything, improve anything or asking for help.”

The other two blame anyone but themselves: “You are useless”. They don’t believe they can do anything by themselves. They are certain they are only good at getting other people to supply their needs and wants. They grow up believing “You should.”

“I can’t get what I want – you should give it to me.”

“I can’t get what I need – you should get it for me.”

“I can’t find solutions – you, or someone else, should help me.”

“If you don’t help me, or do it for me, I will be miserable forever because there is nothing I can do. You are responsible for my misery and nothing will improve if you don’t do something to improve it.”

A third child is born. Caregivers respond to its needs lovingly but not slavishly. It is encouraged to do things for itself. It is not punished for being slow to learn – on the contrary – the harder it seems to have been for the child the more congratulations and celebration there is when it succeeds. It learns about rights and respect – its own and other people’s. It grows up believing “I can.”

“I can get what I want a lot of the time.”

“I can get what I need most of the time.”

“I can find solutions or sources of help.”

“If all else fails I can get through this and make it to a better place in time.”

The first child will be a victim of life and of other people for as long as they continue to lie still and whimper. They will look longingly at the cage door and never realise there is nothing stopping them from jumping OVER that door to escape.

The other two will do well, or at worst they will muddle through with the help of other people, until they are about thirty. Around that time all the people they are using to get their needs met will begin to get sick of them. We all have to grow up some time as far as the world is concerned. The child may be able to get by if it has parents who are able, and willing, to go on supplying its needs but some day the supply of help will dry up for both of them.

At that point the child will become quite distressed and frantic. They have never had to survive without other people and they don’t believe they can! They will not lie still and whimper – they will bark and bark and struggle furiously to break the cage door in the hope someone will come and help them. They too will fail to jump over the door but not because they don’t see it – because they don’t WANT to – they want someone to open the door for them and lift them out.

The third child will endure the shocks but they will not give up. They will keep an eye open for a chance to escape. As soon as the lid is removed from the cage they will jump out, shake off the misery, and run towards happier times.

Life is not, of course, as cut and dried or as simple as the picture I have painted in this article.

In my case I was a mixture of the “I can’t” and the “You should”. I was often given what I WANTED and made to feel I was special but I was also abused and made to feel worthless. I grew up believing nothing I did would get me what I NEEDED but I could certainly manipulate people to get what I wanted sometimes.

I believe we can learn to be helpless but I also believe anything we have learned we can UNLEARN. If you have, like me, learned “I can’t” or “You should” and you are now trapped in a miserable life take a chance.

Find yourself a good therapist and get them to help you learn to believe “I can” and start enjoying life. “I can” is the only road, apart from “God can”, that leads UP!