The concept of learned helplessness comes from an American psychologist, Martin Seligman, and his experiments with dogs in 1967. Put in a cage, one group was given a lever in which they could stop the shocks. One group did not have that lever, and the shock ended on its own. In the second part of this experiment, all the dogs could escape the shock by simply jumping over a partition, just the second group did not. They did not believe they could escape.
Learned helplessness feels awful. It feels hopeless. You’ve given up. You’re lying on the tracks while the train is coming and you don’t see that you can move. It’s this feeling in the pit of your stomach that you are stuck. My Mom always told me, “You have options.” You have the power. You can make choices. But often there are so many choices that you are frozen, immobile, right where you were when you felt hopeless. The more of these situations you find yourself in, the more apt you are to stay still. You have learned to be helpless. You have resigned that you are powerless. You have affirmed that you are not in control.
How do you get off the tracks? Oftentimes, you need someone to pull you out. But sometimes, while you’re lying there, you think of something so compelling that you get up and take a step towards trying. If you fail, you go right back to your spot on that railway, but you had the potential. You had the power to make a choice. You had options. The dogs in Seligman’s experiment resigned themselves to being powerless. They gave up, even when their escape was obvious and easy. However, these dogs never learned to be helped in the first place.
I have to believe that we can learn again. We can move. We can let our own power bubble up from within. We will struggle, but we can be helped. There are seasons to our lives. Chapters. Nothing is permanent. Like a train passing, this can pass too. And we can be standing on the solid ground when it does.