Learned Helplessness

Conversation I

“I can’t do it,” he said.

“What prevents you?” I asked.

Long silence.

“Do you know how to do it?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied, “but I can’t.”

“‘Can’t’ or ‘won’t’,” I asked, pushing a bit.

Another long silence.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “Everything you say makes sense. I understand how to do it. But I can’t.”

“So what prevents you?”

“A lot of different things. I mean, I was brought up to be a nice person, you know, someone who treats people decently, who doesn’t push, gives people a fair deal and expects to given a fair deal in return. I can’t believe what has happened. I feel totally betrayed. I feel like I’m a victim of my own naiveté. I feel helpless. Yes, I understand what you’ve suggested and, intellectually, I understand that I can take those actions, but internally, I’m very confused. I feel I’m being violent is I say, ‘No, I’m not going to accept that and here are the consequences.’ But the alternatives are terrible. I don’t want to give up my job and have to move. Decent people shouldn’t be in this position. I feel I’ve done something terribly wrong, but I haven’t, have I?”

Conversation II

“You’re kidding?! You’re not serious?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m serious. You said that you wanted to be clear and present. Being clear and present means that you serve what is true,” I replied.

“But what will my family think? What about my friends? They won’t understand,” she said.

“Yes, there are consequences. You have to make a choice. Do you continue to live the life defined for you by others or do you act on what you know to be true?”

Both these conversations are fictional. I made them up for this article. Yet I’ve had many similar conversations with different students (and with myself).

The common theme is an internal pattern called “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness results from being trained to be locked into a system. The system may be a family, a community, a culture, a tradition, a profession or an institution.

Initially, a system develops for a specific purpose. But as a system evolves, it increasingly tends to organize around beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos that serve the continuation of the system. Awareness of the original purpose fades and the system starts to function automatically. It calcifies. The beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos shift in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways, to ensure continuation. And those beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos are trained into the people that comprise the system.

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