Could You Have Learned Helplessness?

DSC_0284Feeling stuck where you are? Thinking you’re trapped by circumstances, and unable to make a change for the better? Just can’t see a way out? These are pretty common thoughts and feelings, but they’re also pretty commonly wrong. If you answered “yes” to these questions you may have “learned helplessness,” which can prevent positive personal change. Let’s talk about it

Learned helplessness” is a term coined by investigators researching behavior in experiments with dogs. Briefly, dogs were subjected to electric shocks from the floor of their pen, which they could avoid by moving to a new area of their enclosure. Naturally, the naive, untrained dogs did just that. They learned how to avoid the shock simply and easily by moving to a different place.

However, another group of dogs was subjected to shocks for a prolonged period while being immobilized, unable to move. Thus they were prevented from discovering the “shock-free zone” inside their enclosure. These dogs never learned that they could escape the shocks by moving, and, as a result, when released from their immobilization, they simply lay in the “shock zone” and suffered during the remainder of the experiment.

Can something similar happen to us? I think so. Perhaps an individual has tried over and over to lose weight, or quit drinking, or begin an exercise program (or whatever) only to fail again and again. After failing so often, the person could learn that the desired change is “impossible,” that he or she simply “can’t” change, and begin to ask internally, “Why try anymore?” From there, it’s a pretty quick trip to giving up.

It’s sad isn’t it? Kind of depressing. Like thinking about those pitiful dogs, whining while being shocked, when all the time there was a way out. I’ve met many people who feel this way about circumstances in their lives. Honestly, at times I’ve been there myself, feeling depressed and defeated over situations that were “impossible” to change. In fact, some theorize that learned helplessness might be an important factor in clinical depression. I can see that.

But let’s get back to the poor dogs. Eventually the researchers decided to teach the dogs that there was an escape, which they did by physically picking the dogs up and moving them back and forth between the safe and unsafe zones. Pretty soon the dogs got it – “Hey – if I just move here, no shocks!” Problem solved. What are the lessons for us?

Sometimes, like the dogs, we are forcibly “moved” by circumstances to make a change that we thought was impossible. I was never athletic in any way until, joining the Navy, I was forced into a running and work out program, thus finding my “inner athlete.”   Now I feel great about my (modest) athletic ability. In a more extreme example, incarceration sometimes produces a respite from drugs and alcohol that allows individuals to seek help and make lasting changes that seemed impossible when they were on the street.

So, as with dogs, physical force can work. But the good news is that we are not dogs. Our minds are capable of higher thinking. We are self-aware. We can reflect on our own thoughts and ourselves. Unlike dogs, we can be aware of the phenomenon of learned helplessness, and ask ourselves, “How is my thinking? Could I be slipping into learned helplessness?” If we’re feeling trapped, depressed, and defeated with no options, the answer may be “yes.”

In my experience, just being aware of this problem is helpful, but it isn’t enough to completely prevent us from falling into this trap. We need outside help, from God and man. The Holy Spirit may directly convict us of our errors, but God also works through people. Looking at our situations, others often see possibilities that we cannot. Our close friends can help us think better, to see other solutions, and take action to get out of the “shock zone.”

I don’t think it’s God’s will for us to feel trapped and helpless – about anything. Trust God, with whom you are never helpless. Develop some close friendships. Share your troubles. Seek and accept help.

It works for me. I know it can for you too.