When Helplessness Is Learned

A mother is sitting in her favorite chair. With a faint whimper in her voice, she asks her child, “Please go get a glass of water for Mommy.” She may or may not offer a reason why she can’t get up and get it herself. Perhaps she’s tired. Perhaps her back hurts. Perhaps she simply isn’t in the mood to get up. Still, the tone and delivery of her plea cause her to sound as if she is helpless in the situation. As a result, the child learns that when one desperately needs something, someone else is there to oblige. If the mother offers reason like a bad back, being tired, being affected in some way, the mother teaches her child that it is possible to be completely controlled by external circumstances. Since children learn from what is demonstrated to them, they absorb the information about helplessness the mother is giving off. It is not uncommon that the next time a mother asks a child to do something the child might respond, “I can’t Mommy, my back hurts.” How this repeated situation has framed the child’s mind can last a lifetime until the child realizes they are no longer helpless.

David McRaney explains the relationship between learned helplessness and trauma quite succinctly in his blog “Learned Helplessness”. He confronts the reader telling them, “If, over the course of your life, you have experienced crushing defeat or pummeling abuse or loss of control, you learn over time there is no escape, and if escape is offered, you will not act- you become a nihilist who trusts futility above optimism.” Though a mother excusing her bad back isn’t necessarily trauma, neglect, abandonment, and abuse in the mother-child relationship might be. A bad back- that is, the helplessness of uncontrollable physical pain- becomes the metaphor of learned helplessness. As McRaney points out, the theme is loss of control from which there is no escape and no optimism left. That mother can’t get up and can’t find a way to heal her hurting back. For the rest of that child’s life, the child may not be able to get up for their own lives as well, and choose to stay helpless in the situations they create to feel helpless in.

Overcoming learned helplessness is possible with a dedication to hard work which includes facing past traumas, confronting current behaviors, and reprogramming those behaviors. Learned helplessness is considered a form of pessimism. The opposite of pessimism is optimism. There is so much to be optimistic about in this world, starting with the very fact that you are capable of changing your life and capable of healing from trauma and all of its effects.

Trauma is most often the root cause of many emotional, behavioral, and mood disorders. Until you can heal your trauma, you will find great difficulty finding the healing you need to live a life of recovery, health, and wellness. At Khiron House, we provide effective residential treatment and cutting edge therapies which seek to transform mind, body, and spirit from the effects of trauma. Call us today for information. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours) USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).