Learned Helplessness

This page relates well to safe experiments that falter.

Often things do not happen because we do not make them happen. Sometimes we struggle to know what we can control and what is beyond our control. This may arise from our inability to do something. Other times, it arises because we think we can do nothing. This, in its turn, can arise from our learning in previous years – learning in the family, at school and in our training, in our community and from the simple absorption of ‘messages’ from other people.

Transactional Analysis (TA) has much to say about these messages. They are subtle, persistent and come in under our radar. They are powerful and shape our view of our world in a way that is easily under-estimated.

So what is Learned Helplessness?

Martin Seligman, an American psychologist at work in the mid-twentieth century, is best known as a founder of the Positive School of Psychology. More can be found out about this ‘school’ at: https://tools.positivepsychology.com/

Seligman wrote many self-help books. Some include:

There are other, more recent books, you might want to explore.

He was involved in forming Learned Helplessness

This feature of behaviour emerged from experiments with dogs. There is a modern article that revisits the topic on Learned Helplessness. Placed in an uncontrollably bad place from which they could not escape, the dogs in the experiment went on to refuse to escape when the opportunity to do so was made available.

Seligman and Maier (1967) theorized that animals learned outcomes were independent of their own actions—that nothing they did mattered. This learning undermined the will to escape. Since that time, research into the biology of learned helplessness has reversed their conclusions and suggested this non-response is not learned. It is the default, unlearned response to prolonged aversive events.

It is helped along by serotonin in our body acting on our neural pathways.

In actual fact, the non-response can be overcome by learning. Animals, like humans, an learn how to control events, happy or unhappy. The failure to respond is an unlearned reaction to prolonged loss of that control.

Three areas in which to do small, safe experiments

So how might small, safe experiments assist that process of ‘learning’? What follows are just examples; there are as many combinations you go on to imagine and develop.

Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness used three components to analyse the phenomenon. I am using Seligman’s categories to divide up potential safe experiments.

1.Once a result has been just noticed; the outcome of the actions become clear. Seligman called this ‘contingency’ as we cannot always know the result until an event has been played out. In the meanwhile, there is uncertainty around and planners often make ‘contingencies’ to meet a range of outcomes, e.g. if this, then that. This ability was ‘lost’ on the dogs as they reverted to an old defence response. Non-action.

A typical safe experiment might be: acceptance work to move ourselves beyond denial. Acceptance of the result, as it is and however disturbing, can be a first step toward knowing what to do next. This implies that Action is not a first port of call.

2. Once our thoughts about that bad situation, and the outcome, have been considered – thought about. Seligman call this the cognition element. In brief, this suggests thinking about it is the first step, as mentioned above.

A typical safe experiment might be to record something: making a note of the event – the date, the time, the place and the people involved. Once the outcome is known, it should be possible to say who was impacted by the incident, and in what way.

3. Once the actions associated with the bad situation can be described, the alternative actions can be unpacked. Seligman referred to this stage as the behaviour. Items two and three, here, are akin to the safe experiment on Think-Judge-Act.

A typical safe experiment might be: finding that something just a little bit different. The outcome is a defeat after all, so treat it as such. Please keep in mind the ‘little bit’ as large actions can play into learned helplessness by highlighting any steep mountain yet to be climbed. I may help to visit Rudyard Kipling’s view on small victories and defeats.

I would add a fourth dimension relating to time taken to reflect on the event, and its outcome. I understand that ‘reflection’ is a thought process but the manner of the ‘reflecting’ is important and it can vary a great deal. Reflection needs us to pay attention to detail. It is something we can do in our head, and yet it can be something we do with others. It can be done on own using visualisation or using, hard analytical thinking, e.g. putting things down on paper, carefully recorded.

A typical safe experiment might be: rehearsal. This is described at the bottom of the hyper-linked page on my website.

If it helps, I offer a personal example of my own struggle with learned helplessness.

Finally, affirmation work has its place in several of Seligman’s categories. It involves an action taken after thought; an action likely to promote feelings, often uncomfortable ones, that help me reflect on what to do next.

So can I leave you will the small, safe experiment that enables you to seek out ways in which he display learned helplessness in order to explore alternative ways of responding to the small defeats you will to meet (not may, it is will meet). Starting with the ones you have met might be one beginning.

Some leads to follow

This page offers a number of hyper-linked pages offering examples of relevant small, safe experiments. What follows are some additional background pages that might be of interest:

Who is kidding whom? Lies we tell ourselves

Do it yourself Making My Own Meaning

How compassionate are you to yourself and others? It’s the context: compassion-focused therapy in practice

Telling stories can help Why Lions? A Personal View in story form

An overall picture The Scenic Route: how it might help you change direction

…. and here is a page to tell me about any results you generate.

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