Note: Learned helplessness is not a DSM
...He was in a paralysis of will, a state known as learned
helplessness, often noted in laboratory animals subjected to
unusual stress; all impulses to problem-solving disappear, all
instinct for survival drains away...
Ian McEwan, Enduring Love
If my life is examined carefully, I don't think it would be accurate
to say that all attempts at problem-solving disappeared or that my
survival instinct was decreased. My progress seems extremely slow,
but uncannily enough, it looks as if I did find ways to solve
problems particular to me and my situation over time, and that I
continue to seek new knowledge and experience which might build on my
previous problem-solving efforts. And while I consciously believed
that I wanted to die, I consistently seemed to perform actions
necessary to ensure a kind of survival, and to find unexpected backup
plans when my current survival was threatened. I have not earned
status and respect in conventional terms, but I have discovered an
alternative way of life that fits my individuality.
In my family, I think the term 'learned helplessness' was misused as
a kind of judgment. I had had too much done for me, and this had
caused me to remain helpless. To correct this spoiling, I was subject
to 'tough love', with the idea being that I was to sink or swim.
Behind this was a lot of anger regarding my 'manipulativeness'. I had
made a choice
to be helpless. I was the kind of person who
gave up too easily.
But I had never been a spoiled child. If anything, I was considerably
more responsible than most children my age. I did not receive help
with homework, and I could be counted on to perform many tasks
without guidance or supervision. My father himself had frequently
praised me for my rationality, and considered me extremely grown up
for my years. When ill, I was the first one up, doing what others
could not, when injured, I held back tears and complaints. I tried
harder than most, if not all, kids encountered. Both of my parents
saw me as a kind of confidant, for many years.
Learned helplessness was found in laboratory animals who were
shocked in erratic ways, or in ways that exceeded their ability to
cope. When later they were presented with possibilities of escape,
they either could not or would not avail themselves of them - they
had lost confidence in any ability to control outcomes.
However, this was not true in the case of all such animals. Some
eventually found ways to overcome their fear or hopelessness, which
resulted in the idea that some creatures, and some people might have
a more positive attitude or more rational coping strategies.
It is not so easy to identify/measure the extent of erratic
behaviour, expectations and situations experienced, or how these will
affect any given human, or what else in their background or genetic
makeup might combine to intensify their apparent helplessness or
inspire them to combat it.
With humans, motivation can be a key factor. What motivates a human?
The desire to be loved is a very important motivator. If a human has
confused ideas about what love is, or about his or her chances of
acquiring it, its effect as a motivator might be lessened. By the
time I was a teen, I had extremely confused ideas about what love
was, and I had very little chance of pleasing either of my parents,
and almost nil of pleasing both.
A series of shocks which occurred within a short period of time
during adolescence when I should have been making plans and
preparations for my continued education or future, added on to the
history of previous shocks, may have led me to withdraw from the
world in order to process all that had happened, which, combined with
further unforeseen events, misunderstanding and erratic expectations,
unfortunately resulted in many years of chronic environmental
understimulation and demoralization, which in turn may have resulted
in learned apathy or avolition.