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This article was written by a practitioner who is
a member of an online hypnosis group.
Why is it important to learn about learned helplessness?
(Please note that I make no claim to any kind of psychological
qualifications. I’m merely sharing my opinions about a commonly used term through the lens of my modest knowledge of
the mind and my experiences with NLP).
not really a term that you hear used in NLP or hypnosis, rather it’s from the realm of psychology, and like so many
psychological terms, bastardized versions have found their way into common everyday conversations. Still, it’s a very
important mechanism, and understanding learned helplessness will go far towards understanding what makes people behave in
the ways they do. In everyday use, you might hear phrases like: “my room-mate is such a slob. He won’t do a bit
of housework unless I really push him—he’s a real case of learned helplessness.” Well, it’s certain
he’s a slob, and while the person doing the talking is referring to his inability towards independent housework, whether
or not it’s the result of “learned helplessness” is arguable.
does not refer to someone behaving helplessly in order to get sympathy or to pressure other people into doing chores and favors.
Colloquially, that’s referred to as a “martyr complex.” So, what is learned helplessness? Starting in 1967,
Martin Seligman, doing research into the causes of depression in humans at the University of Pennsylvania, did a defining
psychological experiment that went like this: dogs were held in harnesses and given electric shocks at regular intervals.
One group of dogs could stop the shocks by pressing a bar with their paws, but the other group, also receiving shocks, had
a bar that did nothing to stop the shocks. They had no control over the pain they were receiving. Later, they were released
into a small enclosed area whose floor was covered with an electric grid that delivered a mild shock at regular intervals,
but they could escape it by jumping over a small barrier into another enclosure. Dogs that had been in the group that had
control over their shocks during the first part of the experiment quickly escaped, but the majority of those dogs that had
no way to control the shocks they received in the first part of the experiment simply curled up in the corner of the electrified
enclosure and whimpered. They had “learned” that there was no way to avoid suffering the shocks. They resigned
themselves to suffering, and the state they resigned themselves to was similar to clinical depression in humans.
What’s going on
here? The dogs, when faced with a seemingly inescapable situation in the first part of the experiment, built a “belief
structure,” as we say in NLP, in which painful electric shocks were inescapable. When an exit was offered, that exit
violated the dogs’ “reality,” so they did nothing to take advantage of the exit. Very likely, it was either
not considered real, or might have seemed more dangerous and uncertain than the place the dogs were in, since one of the cardinal
rules of instinctive motivation is that “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” or, wherever
you are is safer at that moment than any place else.
Can you think of real-life
examples of this? Look at how many people spend their lives in a rotten job, relationship or community. Once a person establishes
a certain acceptance of any situation, it becomes difficult for them to go anywhere else. No matter how bad the situation
makes them feel, the odds that they escape it are slim. They may rationalize, as our dogs might have, that any change will
be for the worse, or they may believe they aren’t fit or good enough for anything better.
It’s important to
be aware that, in people anyway, the thoughts they came up with to rationalize the helplessness are generated by their behavior,
rather than the behavior resulting from the thoughts. The great hypnosis pioneer George Estabrooks observed that when he gave
people post-hypnotic suggestions to do crazy, peculiar, even destructive behaviors, they were able to immediately and unconsciously
rationalize an explanation. The explanations were frequently ridiculous and implausible, but they always were able to spontaneously
come up with something, and feel satisfied by it. In his book Hypnotism, Estabrooks relates the story of giving the hostess
at a party a post-hypnotic suggestion to take off her shoe and fill it with flowers from a vase when a certain signal was
given. She did so without hesitation, and when asked why she did it, told them plainly that it just looked better that way.
She never thought twice about the implausibility of what she said.
The mind is also employing
a kind of prioritizing function; one that exists at all levels. In learning about any new situation, one is initially confronted
with a jumble of information about one’s surroundings and how one fits into it all. At first we give every bit of data
the same priority. We rapidly learn what we believe to be important and what isn’t, what’s safe and what isn’t,
and what’s possible and what isn’t. In NLP, we say that everyone has a unique map of his world based on how they
fit into it, and that map is built up of these beliefs. And we might learn to believe that in some situations, we are powerless.
This mechanism teaches us we are powerless to touch fire and not be burned, it tells us we can’t jump off of high places
or eat foods that make us sick. It teaches us what we should do, based on our experiences of what does and does not work for
us. These are lessons that the mind accepts fast, since survival may depend on them. And it all occurs in the subconscious
part of the mind.
Consider the situation
of people held hostage for long periods of time. While it may seem common sense that they’d never stop trying to escape,
in fact after a time, they frequently do stop, and even when their captors loosen their confinement to the point that they
could easily escape, they no longer even try. The futility of escape has been “wired in.” This is the effect of
learned helplessness, and it’s very powerful.
You can see it’s only when a situation changes, usually for the worse—not better, that
the hold it has on the individual might lessen enough for them to consider getting free of it. At this point, this may be
bringing to mind dead-end jobs, abusive relationships, maybe drug addictions, and all of these situations do have a big degree
of learned helplessness in them, too. So, just as the dog’s perceptions had been modified to believe that there was
no real way to escape painful shocks, so too, can a person’s beliefs be trained to perceive that there’s no way
out of a situation. If someone were to tell you as an adult that you could now put your hands into fire without injury, or
jump from the top of a tall tree, or eat a poison mushroom, you simply wouldn’t believe it. And the power of those correct
beliefs are exactly as strong as incorrect beliefs that might say you can never be happy, or never lose weight or never get
a better job. These are things that you’ve learned from action and experience.
You can see examples of
how persistent this can be. Look at anyone who’s gone on a diet and lost, say, 30 pounds, only to gain them back as
soon as the diet was over. Or people who came from poverty and gotten large amounts of wealth, only to find themselves back
in poverty a few years later. This is very common with sports figures and lottery winners.
At the same time, there are wealthy people who’ve lost it all, and rebounded back to their old level of wealth
surprisingly easily. For them, it was within the belief structure of these people that such wealth was not only possible but
easily achievable for them. Just as there is learned helplessness, there is learned resourcefulness, too.
People who look at situations like poverty, ignorance, imprisonment or addiction and think that the people who stay
in those situations are weak, or want to be that way, are speaking out of sheer, blind ignorance. Belief structures literally
define an individual’s reality, and since an individual normally can’t consciously perceive their own beliefs,
they are not even aware of them. Until the Wright brothers flew, many believed that human flight was impossible even to consider.
And until they saw it for themselves, many still didn’t believe the news. You can probably think of similar examples
from more current events, and maybe even from people you know.
In order to escape the hold that learned helplessness has, a major change has to occur in
the environment and/or the beliefs of the individual. Beliefs are often linked to an individual’s environment and so
changes in the environment can provide an opportunity to the individual to see the possibility of a new way out, if it’s
strong enough. In the case of the dogs in the shock box, merely offering the dogs a way out in the second part of the experiment
wasn’t a strong enough change to the dogs’ perception of the environment. The very existence of the shocks was
proof to the dogs that they were still helpless. In the same way, merely offering aid to someone in a helpless condition may
not be sufficient, since their belief structure will negate any value that the aid may have. There has to be a real change
to the environment itself.
Learned helplessness in
your life What’s it like? While the official definition of learned helplessness has to do with clinical depression,
you can certainly find the learned-helplessness effect in varying degrees in everyday life. What we in NLP refer to as a “limiting
belief” is certainly a kind of learned helplessness, as we discussed previously. Little learned helplessnesses are often
taken for granted, since they occur so spontaneously that they fly totally under the radar. I think nearly everybody has had
the experienced something that they now like but that they resisted trying for a long time, because of one initial bad experience.
It could be a food, a travel destination, or it could be a sport or other activity. When presented with the option, how many
times does one immediately say “no” without a second thought, or any thought at all.
On the other side of the
scale, there is learned helplessness in a very big way. A person is faced with a certain situation and they feel unable to
cope or to respond, because somewhere, somehow, something “taught” them it was a hopeless situation. There’s
often an “Oh, no, not again!” kind of feeling, and a sinking or a weakening sensation, and the person
in question feels helpless and hopeless. They may feel a sense of frustration, wanting to take action, but feeling bound by
circumstance or surroundings. They may even feel completely incapacitated. Struggling against it can, ironically, cause the
individual to feel like they’re sinking deeper into the helplessness, and that cycles around and around in their head.
Do you remember our earlier discussion of Estabrooks, and the way his subjects spontaneously came up with rationalizations
for their actions? A person stuck in this helpless swamp will find their subconscious mind presenting them seemingly logical
reasons to justify their helplessness, thereby closing the door on the possibility of any future modes of escape.
A very frustrating variation
occurs somewhere between the two aforementioned extremes. It happens when someone isn’t inhibited from doing a thing,
at all. Rather, they go ahead and begin to do something they want to do, but they do it with a conscious or unconscious anticipation
of failure. They go ahead, they try, they fail, and it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. We know that what a person
rehearses consciously or unconsciously is much more likely to actually occur. It’s all the more frustrating because
the person keeps trying and they keep failing, and the outcome reinforces the belief that escape is out of their control.
Imagine someone looking for a job who keeps going on job interviews, but goes to them with the anticipation of failure. Every
rejection builds the “Oh, no, not again!” expectation for the next job interview, and, even though the
individual is really consciously trying to succeed, the odds of failure for future interviews increases. A similar kind of
effect is not uncommon with athletes or performers who are successful up to a point, maybe even to the brink of stardom, but
they get blocked and can’t go any further. This can be insidious and especially frustrating, because the person is able
to keep trying and doing what they’re doing up to a degree, but no further. One might think that the person just isn’t
working hard enough, but no matter how hard they try, they can’t get over the block.
My first experience of
learned helplessness came playing baseball as a kid. I had undiagnosed bad eyesight in second grade, and always had difficulty
seeing or catching a ball, and baseball is all about seeing the ball coming at you from pretty far away. I couldn’t
see the ball coming to swing at it, and I couldn’t catch the ball in the field for the same reason. All the other kids
loved playing the game. I tried, and had a little fun at first, but the kids were very competitive and since never seeing
the ball was a foregone conclusion, every game was worse than the one before. Every time they announced in school that we’d
be playing the game, I felt that characteristic sinking feeling. It got worse and worse with every game, and I finally settled
on playing a position way in the outfield where I was far enough away from the action to watch the dandelions grow without
the risk of the ball ever coming near me. It was there I waited out every game in a bored, helpless fugue, wishing I were
anywhere else, a fugue broken only by the occasional chance to take the bat and humiliate myself by trying to hit the ball.
My arms and legs felt like wet noodles, and I was barely able to drag myself across the grass while the game was on. I just
stood there, in the farthest perimeter of the playing field.
The next year, I got glasses
and the world was suddenly crystal clear. I could do things that the other kids all took for granted--like play baseball.
Or so you might think. I could do everything else, but every time the word “baseball,” let alone a game of baseball,
came up, I immediately had that sinking feeling, felt the steam going out of my arms and legs, and that vaguely headachy feeling
of tedium compounded by spending so much time way out amongst the dandelions. “Oh, no, not again!” The
glasses didn’t matter. Eyesight didn’t matter. In my heart, baseball was a room with no escape.
You can see that with
the insidious ability to fly under the radar, as in the case of a food we believe we don’t like but haven’t tried
in 30 years, and the ability to compound itself and to create incapacitation, the way the very idea of baseball did for me,
how difficult this can become if it occurs in an area of life that is more central to the individual.
One more thing I’d
like to state which is very important for helping anyone to deal with issues like this: While definitions may be static, their
manifestations in the individual are not static. Learned helplessness, like many other things, is a process occurring within
the person, a process that the individual is going through. While it may seem like a timeless curse to the individual suffering
from it, it is a dynamic thing that is happening through a span of time. It has a starting point somewhere in the history
of the individual, but with the right intervention or a change in circumstances, it can also have a satisfactory ending.