Learned Helplessness

Note: Learned helplessness is not a DSM diagnosis.

...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.















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