Learned Helplessness Creating a better life By: Troy Murphy | February 2015
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Many forces surround bombard and forge character. We’re not simply a blank slate written on by experiences, but we also aren’t immune from the damaging forces. Life impacts our becoming from many fronts. We are free to choose; but not completely. Life isn’t directed by unfettered freewill. Biological givens and learning experience structure the building blocks of feelings, motivations and social development. Surrounding by the blasting of determining forces, we grow. Scantly armed with consciousness, we defend against the creating powers of life. The magical emergence of consciousness gives humans an orchestrating power to deflect, change and refuse otherwise unmovable forces. We become autonomous agents.
The surrounding environment pushes and pulls our souls. As children we are vulnerable, the elements unknowingly choke our nurture our development, boosting or delaying our progression. We’ll never know the complexity of experience, most impacts go unnoticed, slightly changing trajectories. Other forces are so salient and life changing, we can’t ignore.
We still have choices. The more we believe in choice in determining destiny, the more assertive we act. However, if we drown in a deterministic view—cynical and skeptical—we cower to our perceived helplessness to a cruel and unpredictable world. During the 1960’s, Martin Seligman stumbled upon a discovery he referred to as ‘learned helplessness.’ He found that animals repeatedly exposed to inescapable shocks would eventually passively endure future shocks, even when an escape route was present. But dogs not previously exposed to inescapable shocks, when given an avenue of escape, would jump free, escaping the pain.
Like the poor animals that needlessly endured shocks when escape was possible, we also can be conditioned to endure unneeded pain, ignoring the glorious opportunities available. We passively cope when we have ample means to escape.
At times, we’re all guilty, suffering because we choose to endure. Sometimes suffering is necessary, endured with a purpose. Other times, our suffering has no value. We become accustom to destructive relationships, unhealthy bodies, underpaying jobs and purposeless evenings—we suffer. We postpone dreams for a meaningless present. We learn helplessness to our present existence and quietly acquiesce for less than the richness of a flourishing life.
Perhaps we prefer the shocks we are accustomed to. They become an acceptable part of our lives. We take jolt, complain, and then keeping living by the same principles that invited the painful charge. Changing trajectories is deliberate action, requiring courage, support and adequate resources. For change to create new habits (comfort zones), we must mindfully attend to the new behaviors, evaluating progressions, failures and successes. We can’t force new action with a lazy mind. If we divert attention away from the desired new behaviors too early, we drift back to the past.
Human growth isn’t a singular event. Small changes impact many areas, exposing other weaknesses to address. Past behaviors are often incompatible with new paths and new choices. The simple fix becomes a complex make-over. But if we continue, fumbling through the newness with patience, adjusting other areas in need, we adapt to the newness—the better life. Our efforts become habits, opening opportunities, trimming anxieties, and blessing our futures. We’ve learned self-efficacy, building confidence in our resilience and empowerment. We set a new trajectory for our lives. The once awkward behaviors fuse with our character, fully integrating healthy action, creating a better person and a promising future.