My Life and Learned Helplessness

Note: What follows is merely an opinion piece, the author is in no way a qualified mental health professional and if you are experiencing difficulties you should contact your local mental health service.

An image based upon Seligman and Maier’s experiments to figure out when a dog would move from an area of floor delivering shocks to one without shocks. Initially the dogs were restrained in some way, and, akin to Pavlovian conditioning, a signal or cue would let the dog know it would be shocked. The thinking was that when the restraint was removed a dog receiving the cue, knowing it was about to be shocked, would find a means to escape. It was the psychologists who were shocked, however, when the dogs just took their shocks and made no effort to escape them. It was a helplessness response, but not an innate one. Thus, learned helplessness was coined. You can read a paper about it here (credit: Psychology OpenStax)

“If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again…” I am sure all of us in the English speaking world have heard that, time and again, throughout our youths and beyond. It is, to an extent, an educational maxim that many people carry through their lives with them.

But let me intervene for a moment, if I may, to shatter your fantasy. A boxer who consistently, repeatedly loses by knockout but is determined to one day be champion.

Is this someone who should be trying and trying again? Or is this someone for who repeated attempts at trying are likely to cause significant, long-term, damage.

No, at some point other people have to intervene and say to this person “I don’t think you’ll ever be a champion boxer. You might want to consider calling it quits before you do some real damage to yourself.”

We’re good at that part, the negative part, the telling people determined to do something that they probably shouldn’t because, you know, life’s a piece of shit and you’ll kill yourself trying part. Our families, our best friends, strangers on the street, the press, they’re really good at that being negative part.

For some reason we applaud persistence but only in the people who do, one day, succeed and I can guarantee those people had scores of people telling them to give up, to stop, that they’ll never make it. It’s a strange duality, especially here in the UK, where we love nothing more than to see people fail lest we consider them better than us.

For some of us the loudest voice telling us to give up is ourselves.

A persistent pattern of failure, with no support, no encouragement, no understanding and no reward, especially if these patterns begin in childhood, is liable to lead to what is known as ‘learned helplessness’. Simply put it’s the state whereby a person has, rightly or wrongly, learned through experience that they will inevitably fail so why should they bother trying?

Why am I taking time out of my Lear-writing schedule to talk about this now? Well one because it’s an academic topic, falling under the topic of ‘psychology’ which, like so many other things, I’m not qualified to talk about but I know a little summin-summin about. Mainly, though, it is because it’s how I feel right now.

But also the other reason is, iconoclast that I am I want to tear this entire fucking concept down and rebuild it anew with few more of the bricks of cold reality and the mortar of sense. The notion of ‘learned helplessness’ like so many fucking wishy-washy psychological concepts, makes it all about the individual. They learned their helplessness, so they can unlearn it.

The problem I have with that is…NO! They were TAUGHT their helplessness, by the myriad ‘failures’ they have experienced, by the fucking voices, before they even developed an internal one, telling them they are doing something wrong, not praising them for having done right, always highlighting their faults, rarely celebrating their victories and basically making them feel like a waste of nutrients and oxygen. A six week course of CB-Fucking-T with a woman named ‘Sandra’ who speaks in a sympathetically patronising tone is not, instantly, going to undo years of undermining the value of the efforts, and eroding the ego of a human being and – funnily enough, research shows that like all the best drugs, therapy, especially CBT, eventually wears off. Learned helplessness, then, is a long term problem with only short term fixes.

The whole model we have of mental illness does this; it diagnoses an individual, for an individual problem that the individual can fix. It prescribes them a therapy only demonstrably effective in the longer term, but on a short term basis and then blames the patient for ‘not trying’ or ‘not wanting to get better’ when they inevitably backslide. It is, for want of a more scientific term, fucking bollocks – Intercoursing testicles? Is that a more scientific term?

I’m writing a script at the moment for what I want to be an animated comedy show about my experiences with mental health ‘culture’ in the UK. It’s about a man named Dan (author stand-in, hi!) and his therapist Lisa. Lisa has recently accompanied Dan to a ‘Work Related Activity Programme’ which is basically like a no-kill shelter for disabled people in the UK. After having gone through the ‘Work Capability Assessment’ a supposedly impartial look at how your disability affects you, whether you are fit to work or not (it’s actually an algorithmic disability denial factory – lots of other people have written about it, google it), you could be sent to one of these ungodly things if they believe you could go back to working, but with support.

Anyway it’s the therapy session following that experience and Dan and Lisa are talking and Lisa is incensed that people with disabilities can be treated this way and the dialogue follows;

                Lisa:
                                How are you so at ease with this?

                Dan:

                                I’m not.

                Lisa:
                                Then why are you smiling?

                Dan:
                                Because I think my therapy might change a little now.

                Lisa:

                                Why’s that? What makes you think my approach will change?

                Dan:
                                Sometimes you go therapy and it’s like you’re busted furniture. You’re a chair with a leg snapped, a table split down the middle, a door off its hinges. Every fucking therapist is the world’s best handyman at that point. They tell you to whip out ya drill, get your wood glue – here’s how you fix a broken lamp, here’s how you patch up a hole in your plaster – It’s easy, the furniture’s broken, so you fix it.

                Lisa:
                                Well, we give it the tools it needs to fix itself.

                Dan:
                                But how the fuck did it break in the first place?

                Lisa:
                                Well there are many reasons…

                Dan:
                                There’re always many reasons, but you take that furniture that came from a place where it got broken, you teach it to patch itself back up but then you put it right back where it got broken in the first fucking place!

If I had to pin-point one of my biggest gripes with psychology, this is it. The responsibility is always placed upon the individual to ‘get better’ and ‘fix themselves’ but what if you’re the door getting punched (sorry my doors!) or the lamp getting thrown against the wall? What if you keep putting yourself back together but you’ve no option but to go back to the environment which broke you in the first place. ‘The Environment’ – Literally one of the biggest topics in all biological sciences, a broad category into which psychology should be included – is so often conveniently ignored in psychology because it’s the hardest thing to fix.

I’m diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. The environment which broke me in the first place is THE ENTIRE FUCKING WORLD. I can’t escape this, and I don’t know how many times I can keep putting myself back together.

In the case of learned helplessness, the topic we are discussing, what if in your new found confidence you try – and fail. You put into practice what you learned in your therapy and try again – and fail. So you really grit your teeth and knuckle down and try again – and fail. Then people start talking about how you’re failing. People start telling you you’re wasting your time. People start telling you how much you’re doing wrong and not giving you any kudos for the things you are doing right? How long, how many failures before old habits will set in? What even constitutes a ‘failure’!? I know people who have their whole lives laid out before them like a rainbow leading to a pot of gold who think they’re ‘failing’.

The only true counter to learned helplessness is taught empowerment and when the whole world is a race-to-the-bottom competition to see who can be the biggest Billy-Big-Bollocks then, frankly, we’re fucking doomed. It’ll take a seismic shift in culture before learned helplessness is a rarity.

Why am I talking about this now?

Because my life has fallen apart. I’m in the position of having to ‘try again’ and because I’m terrified. I’m waiting for the inevitable failure. I’m waiting for the fall. I’m not waiting for all the critical voices because to have critical voices you have to have voices and I am surrounded by a cacophony of silence. My social media accounts are dead, what few actual friends I have I keep losing for various reasons some in my control some outside of it and even if I did have plenty of friends there’s a global pandemic that’s got me cooped up dreaming of different, better days. I feel so alone that the only voice I have is the one in my head telling me everything I want is stupid, I’m not good enough to deserve any of it and I am destined to die stupid, unsuccessful and alone.

And do you know what? I’m still going to try.

It’s not because I’m a superman, or I’ve learned some crazy mental-health secret that doctors don’t want you to know about. As much as I’d love that to be the case just for clickbait marketability.

The fact is I spend the majority of my time face down in the mud with other people’s feet stomping on my back as they march ahead of me. I started out at the back of the pack and I’ve been lapped several times since then. When I have a brief moment where I can raise my muddy face to the sun, drag myself to my feet, and keep moving – I do it. Not because I have to. Not for any profound reasons of motivation. I wish I could give you a pep talk and really make you feel warm inside. I wish I could TED the shit out of this here and come up with some profound reason why I feel compelled to keep standing, and keep going and keep trying – but I can’t.

No, I do it because it’s what I do. It is, in and of itself, a learned helplessness. I don’t know any other way to be. I’m helpless.

The things I want to be successful at are thinking, and writing about what I think about. That’s what I do. Maybe, one day, it’ll go somewhere. My brain, my learned helplessness, tells me it won’t. But telling me not to do it is like telling me to stop breathing.

And funnily enough my response to someone asking me to stop writing about what I think about, and someone asking me to stop breathing would be the same.  

“Make me.”

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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