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18 Jul
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Learned Helplessness – Can You Fix It?

Learned helplessness could be all that’s stopping you from reaching your potential in life. You might not even realise that’s what the problem is. It might just seem as if the World is against you; you are just one of the unlucky ones; or you don’t have what it takes.

I was reading this morning about an experiment that took place back in the 50’s. They took a couple of dogs and put them in cages which had a floor through which could be delivered a mild electric shock. One of the cages had a switch. When this switch was pressed the shocks stopped. The dog in this cage very quickly learned to stop the shocks.

The other cage had no method of preventing the shocks so the other dog had to get used to it.

The second part of the experiment involved placing the dogs in cages where half of the floor was safe and half the floor delivered random, mild electric shocks. A low barrier separated the two halves. The dog that learned to use the switch very quickly jumped over the barrier and stayed in the safe half. The dog from the cage where no control was possible stayed in electrified part – it had given up on trying to prevent itself from experiencing pain. It had learned, in a very short space of time, how to be helpless in the face of adversity.

In a way you can see the sense of this, while the environment remains constant. I mean if there’s nothing you can do to change the situation, why not just accept it? Anything else is going to cause more stress. But it seems that having made this switch it’s difficult for an animal to subsequently make the switch back to normal operations where curiosity and a desire for self-preservation still function.

While this is very simplistic, it does correlate to human behaviour. Depression, anxiety, and stress are all linked to having learned that control of outcomes is impossible. Children who are set tasks that are too difficult for them (perhaps by parents who want them to excel) can learn that giving up early on saves hours of anguish and struggle trying to solve an impossible puzzle. Having discovered that failure is normal, a child may well go on to perform poorly at academic subjects in school, and then fail to reach their true potential in life.

If you feel shy in social situations, perhaps because you are a perfectly normal introvert, you can quickly learn that it’s safer to stay at home, or to spend time on your own. But that way nothing ever changes.

Depressed people tend to blame themselves when things go wrong. A failed exam would be their fault where others might be able to see that the teacher was a dead loss and really shouldn’t be allowed near students. Because of the length of time that depression tends to last it’s a great way to learn helplessness and give up because you appear to have no control over how you feel. Because you feel low all the time, you have no motivation, no drive, and no energy, so life just doesn’t work. That’s when you give up and it gets even worse. But, because you’ve given up, it’s not so easy to keep looking for a solution.

You don’t have to be depressed to be in a state of learned helplessness. All you need to do is to have given up on your dreams, accepted an unacceptable life situation, or settled for things being the way they are forever.

There is a very simple way to begin to leave this state.

Because it is learned behaviour, you still have the capacity to learn a new behaviour. So if you take into account your lack of motivation and belief that nothing makes any difference, there really should be no harm in doing something simple.

All you have to do is rediscover that you can control your destiny.

The easiest way to do that is to make simple choices.

Choose to watch something on tv that makes you laugh rather than something that makes you cry.

Choose to read one paragraph in a book by an inspirational author each day.

Choose to have tea or coffee. Have it black if you like white, have it without sugar if you like sugar – not to make yourself suffer more, but to demonstrate that when you have things the way you like them you are actually making choices and not simply accepting things the way they are.

Choose to go for a walk in the sun or in the rain.

Choose to stop reading this and go and do something more interesting instead.

Make simple small choices.

Become aware of all the choices that you make every day that seem normal. Choosing the same thing all the time is still choosing. It’s not the same as having no choice.

Set yourself small tasks that you can complete. Create easy challenges so that you can enjoy small successes. Once you reconnect with the good feelings that come with even small accomplishments, you are on the road to living a happier more fulfilling life.


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