LEARNED HELPLESSNESS
Dee Chadwick
26 Jul 2020
If we can learn something, then we can unlearn it and replace with more healthy ways of being. So, learned helplessness can be replaced with helpfulness, an ability to depend on ourselves, to be self-reliant, to be willing to have a go at things, support ourselves and hopefully others too.

ORIGINS OF THE TERMINOLOGY

The concept of Learned Helplessness was originally accepted as a phenomenon in which an animal or human experiences an uncontrollable, inescapable event and subsequently has difficulty obtaining desirable outcomes, even when it is easy to do so.

The terminology originated with behavioural research on negative reinforcement which was carried out by Martin Seligman and Steven Maier using dogs. You can check out details of this research in an article in worldatlas.com.  

Over time, the term went on to be increasingly used with reference to people when considering their passive acceptance of situations that could readily have been changed. The helplessness was usually related to previous experience. Experience in which the subject was not in a position to readily escape from a negative/painful situation. So their default setting was to helplessly accept the pain, the punishment, the negative experience, with their experience of the previously uncontrollable event passively carried through to a current, easily controlled event. Having said this, it was found that some human subjects studied had the opposite reaction and they would try even harder to overcome subsequent experiences. The vagaries of human nature coming in to play. I guess we have all met people who fall into both of these camps!  

Subsequent research involving human subjects has shown that whilst often a follow on to trauma or abuse, it can also be quite simple things that lead to learned helplessness.

MORE RECENT SPIN ON THE CONCEPT

As with any aspect of science, research is on-going and ideas change. Wikipedia now tells us that ‘over the past few decades, neuroscience has provided insight into learned helplessness and shown that the original theory actually had it backwards: the brain's default state is to assume that control is not present, and the presence of "helpfulness" is what is actually learned’.

I guess that this ties in with the fact of how helpless human babies are. How totally reliant they are on a carer.

This consideration led me to reflect on my many years of learning and of teaching. I have always felt that a vital element of teaching was the supporting and encouraging of the early development of a healthy emotional intelligence (EQ). This very much affects children’s attitudes – and can carry on through to adolescent and adult attitudes. One example is with maths – and those early attitudes to the seemingly random squiggles that we call numbers. How many adults have you heard say that they are ‘no good at maths’. Usually this means that they struggle with number work rather than they find the likes of calculus hard.

As a special needs advisory teacher, it was difficult to get parents and teachers to understand that you needed to take a child right back to the point at which they convinced themselves that ‘a sum’ or basic working with numbers was too hard for them. Once they actually, belatedly, gained confidence with this, they could then begin to move on with a previously lacking confidence. Otherwise, they had a learned helplessness as far as maths was concerned  and numbers slipped down a slippery downward slope of evasion, excuses and much continued use of fingers.

Teaching styles, and the ability to adapt these styles to meet the needs of individual children have an important part to play. Not an easy part when you have to take into consideration a whole range of abilities, personalities and needs within each class of children.

However, if you find that trigger point, re-work it and re-frame it, then the child – and hopefully the adult in future years – will consider themselves able to work with numbers.  How many parents I encountered who simply employed a tutor to re-work current classroom number issues. Sadly, though this may appear to help, it was largely a rather expensive exercise in papering over the cracks. Especially as that negative self-message of uselessness remained lurking to bite posteriors.

Parenting styles also come into play in encouraging a movement away from learned helplessness. No two siblings are the same – even identical twins begin to show differences due to environmental rather than genetic factors. They each need to be responded to each as an individual in order for them to move away from that state of helplessness. In so many busy lives, it can be much easier to support the maintenance of said state. Doing the tasks that lead to independence often take little fingers and inquisitive minds longer than the measure of patience and time available to many parents!

Then there are the children whose parents continue to call them ‘their babies’ well into childhood. This is frequently accompanied by a lack of handing over of basic tasks to said children, thus re-enforcing the concept that they are still babies in the mind of the child as well as the parent. What seems to be a problem with parental need is made into a problem for the children.

I have subsequently worked with many adults in the counselling situation who showed that they had at some point learned to be helpless. Or, was it that they simply that they hadn’t been encouraged to develop a ‘have a go attitude’? Getting them to consider this has led to a similar change of attitude and behaviour as with the maths. A late  development of skills that had passed them by. I well recall a 50 year old client, who, as a result of severe parental childhood abuse had missed out on so much of life’s early skill development, a pattern which continued as their default setting in adulthood. Once we had spoken of the abuse, and brought it out into the open, this client actually felt able to offer eye contact. He was genuinely surprised to discover that this was a part of ‘normal’ human communication. We spent much time role playing of chats, more formal communications and also things such as how to shake hands. How delighted they were to greet me with a hand shake and tell of their chat with the check out lady at the supermarket rather than the previously offered head-down grunt. As a therapist, I took great delight in seeing this (delayed) metamorphosis, and the wonderful reaction of a 50 year old beginning to learn about the world around them at a whole new level of understanding.

 However, there were always some who chose, for whatever reason, to continue with their learned helplessness. Was this a ploy that some adults seemingly used, very effectively, to get out of doing things on a physical, economic, social or emotional level? Was it a chosen way of being, or simply an acceptance of the continuance of a pattern set many years earlier? Again, I am sure that many of you will have encountered such people! I well remember one adult who would happily watch me from the sidelines whilst I carried out tasks. At one point she went to make herself a cup of tea, then sat down to watch me and have her drink – and no, she didn’t bring one for the worker. I challenged her about her attitude and was assured that her family called her ‘a princess’ as she never did anything. Obviously her learned helplessness well fits the concept of never having changed her default setting from ‘can’t do’ to ‘can do’, via ‘I’ll have a go’.

LEARNED HELPLESSNESS ASSOCIATED WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES

Depression, anxiety, PTSD, phobias can all include learned helplessness. For example, in a depressive episode, the learned helplessness can be seen in the stating that there is no point in trying to get better as they simply aren’t going to get better. So they give up, stop using strategies they have been given, stop attending or attempting to get support.

On the other hand, learned helplessness can also be a lead in to the above mental health problems.

TAKING US BACK

Some of us have to learn to break out of an enforced helplessness when we have previously been used to being an independent, coping adult. This must be so very frustrating. Maybe someone who has had a brain injury, or a physical injury, a stroke so having to re-learn skills which had probably been taken for granted for many years. Skills such as walking, talking, developing a level of being able to function independently.

An article in Psychology Today suggests a range of options for moving on from helplessness, across all ages – ‘People can push back against learned helplessness by practicing independence from a young age and by cultivating resilience, self-worth, and self-compassion. Engaging in activities that restore self-control can also be valuable. For example, an elderly person who feels helpless in the aging process can engage in small exercises that they know they can do to restore a sense of control.’

Wise words to take on board as we endeavour to work towards or to maintain a positive self-esteem, a positive self-concept no matter what our past history of life’s ups and downs, trials and tribulations. Putting that positive spin firmly into our repertoire of actions will support our learning of optimism rather than helplessness.

If you feel that you would benefit from taking this through – do get in touch. I am beginning to see clients face to face again in the garden gazebo if weather permits, or in the conservatory which can readily be sanitised before and after a client.

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