Learned Helplessness

For example, the purpose of a family is to provide a nurturing environment that protects the children from the vicissitudes of the world while they are developing the physical, emotional and intellectually abilities to function on their own. Love, compassion, joy and equanimity are vital: love so that the child opens to the world; compassion so that the child learns not to fear suffering; joy so that the child feels confident in his or her own abilities; and equanimity so that the child can be free to go when he or she has matured.

All too often one or more of these aspects is distorted by the family system. Instead of love, the child experiences a demand for affection; instead of compassion, a fear of suffering; instead of joy, derision of his or her abilities; instead of equanimity, judgement.

And whenever the child says, “Hold on, there’s something wrong here,” the power of the family system comes into play:

“What? You don’t love your mother! Shame on you.”

“You can’t do that, you might get hurt.”

“You think you’re hot stuff, huh? Let me show you a thing or two.”

“”You must be evil to even think that.”

Similar conditioning mechanisms operate in most systems. The system uses shame and the withdrawal of attention to instill a fear of survival. Simultaneously, the system presents the view that power resides in the system, not the individual. The combination creates a dependence on the system for survival. Gradually, the system is internalized and the person identifies with it — he sees himself the way the system sees him. His sense of who he is is defined by the system. (We see this tendency very clearly in the professions — “I’m a doctor, so I do x, y and z” or “I’m an attorney, so I do x, y and z.”)

One of the primary characteristics of learned helplessness is that the person feels passive with respect to the system. The passivity, however, is only half the story.

Whenever we are subjected to abuse, physical, emotional or spiritual, two patterns form inside us: the victim and the abuser. Our experience of being abused lays the basis for the victim pattern. Our experience of how abuse can be meted out lays the basis for the abuser pattern. Both give rise to learned helplessness, though the learned helplessness manifests differently. In the case of the abuser, learned helplessness might manifest as “Something just took over; I didn’t mean to say or do that.” In the case of the victim, it might manifest as “I don’t know why I put up with it but I can’t seem to do anything about it.” In both cases, we are expressing passivity with respect to the patterns operating in us. In both cases, we are confessing helplessness.

Can learned helplessness be undone? Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? The answer is “Yes.” The cost, however, is high. We can only undo learned helplessness by severing our internal connection with the system that gave rise to it.

Our motivation must be clear and strong. We must really want to hear and respond to our own questions about life. We must really want to live our own life and not one prescribed by our family, society, culture, profession or tradition. Metaphorically, we must be willing to go north, the direction that takes us out of society. We must be willing to endure pain, know from direct experience, act on what we see and receive what happens. We must yearn to experience what is without relying on anything to confirm our existence.

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