Learned Helplessness- Learned helplessness is when a person begins to believe that they have no control over a situation, even when they do.
The mantra of the person who suffers from Learned Helplessness is: "What's the point in trying?"
Learned Helplessness was discovered in 1965 by psychologist Martin Seligman while he was studying the behavior of dogs. In the experiment, which was designed to be a variation of Pavlov's famous "classical conditioning" experiment, Seligman restrained the dogs for some time in a hammock. Every time a sound was heard, the dog would receive an electrical shock. Later, the dogs were put in a confined box which they could easily jump out of. Seligman wanted to see if the dogs would have learned to jump out of the box when they heard the sound to escape the shocks. What surprised him was that the dogs just lay there and did not try to escape.
What Seligman had discovered was that the dogs had "learned" from the early part of the experiment that the shocks occurred at random, were unavoidable and didn't depend on their own behavior. The dogs could, in fact, just jump out of the box to escape the shock but they had learned otherwise.
This kind of behavior pattern has since been demonstrated in humans if they have been exposed to punishments or discomforts which seem random and unavoidable. A feeling of helplessness and no power to improve one's circumstances is one of the key factors in depression.
Learned Helplessness can lead a person to falsely believe that they are more powerlessness than they really are. This can lead to them making poor choices, resulting in a worse situation and a vicious cycle of depression sets in.
The Connection Between Learned Helplessness and Personality Disorders
If you are in a relationship with a person who suffers from a personality disorder, chances are that you have been exposed to repeated disappointments and discomforts which appear to occur at random. The actions and attitudes of a person with a personality disorder often do not make logical sense to others and it is common for those close to them to look for answers with little success.
Some people search for causes and correlations to explain the behaviors of a personality disordered person. Sometimes correlations are identified - but often these discoveries break down as the behavior of the PD really can't be controlled that easily. In most cases the Non-PD will experience further disappointments and over time begin to feel that the situation is helpless.
The reality is that the person with the personality disorder is the one who is in control of their own behavior. While people with personality disorders usually do not have direct control over the way they feel, they do have control of the way they behave.
So what's the problem here?
Non-PD's often struggle with how to deal with behavior of a loved one which they deem unacceptable. It's very common for the Non-PD to try to figure out ways to try to change that behavior. However, changing someone else's behavior is a bit like trying to control the weather. You can try and you will have good days some of the time and bad days some of the time. You really have no control.
Armed with this disappointing realization and facing possible further abuse, it's common for the Non to begin to feel that they themselves are helpless - in other words, they begin to apply the lesson learned about their loved-one with a PD into other areas of their own life. Instead of thinking. "I have been unsuccessful in getting my loved one to change" they may begin to think "I can't get anything to change" or even "I am unsuccessful".
Like Seligman's dogs, they have decided to lie down.
Examples of Learned Helplessness
Learned helplessness occurs when a person has experienced a specific series of negative events over which they have no control, despite their best efforts to improve the situation. Over time the person may begin to believe that no matter what they do, bad things will happen from time to time in a random fashion. Dysfunction arises when a person's negative experiences are generalized to their broader situation or outlook.
Let's say that a man with a spouse who has a personality disorder notices that on the last few occasions that he returned home from work punctually and complemented her appearance that she treated him very well, fussed over him and paid attention to his needs. He tells himself that coming home early "seems to be working".
The next day he decides to surprise her by coming home an extra 2 hours early. Excited at his plan, he arrives home only to discover her with another man. His model for how his world works is devastated. He no longer has a sense of control over his wellbeing and personal security. He may tell himself "I'm so stupid!"
In reality his wife's unfaithfulness had nothing to do with him. It was rooted in her need for attention and her low self-worth. An opportunity arose when a stranger showed an interest in her and she succumbed. Along with the thrill, she has been feeling some guilt over her behavior and fear of getting caught and has sub-consciously over-compensated by being extra nice to her husband when he comes home.
In this example, the husband's behavior had no influence or control over the situation. However, in an attempt to rationalize what happened, he may begin to review all the things he has done to motivate his wife to hurt him so much. He is making the mistake of looking at himself to explain the random actions of his wife. He is learning to be helpless.
In another example, a woman fears her father's angry outbursts. Sometimes he becomes violent but usually his weapon of choice is a verbal torrent of criticism. The woman tries to avoid her father as much as possible, and tries to be quiet when he is present, hoping he will not notice her. She may begin to feel shame and avoid talking to others because she does not want them to know what is happening.
This situation is more complex because the Non in an unchosen relationship (in this example, with a parent) may have a history where they didn't have the same power of independence as an adult. However, when she tries to become invisible, a cycle of depression and shame has begun. This cycle may then be carried outside of the home and into other areas of her life, where she is not being abused. This may contribute to feelings of depression, isolation and helplessness. In reality, she can do nothing to control her parent. She can, however, work on her own safety and protection.
How to Deal with Learned Helplessness
If you have lived for a long time with a person who suffers from a personality disorder, your self-esteem may have taken a hammering. You may have spent a lot of your energy and focus on the other person, trying to change their behavior. You may be feeling powerless, hopeless and helpless.
However, it is important to remember that while you may have almost no control or influence over the other person, you still have complete control and influence over your own behaviors. You need to try to get the focus off of the other person's "stuff" and onto your own "stuff". Otherwise you are likely to lie down and become depressed.
This means that in order to stay mentally healthy yourself, you will have to begin to act more independently of the person with the mental illness. Perhaps you need to stop seeking their approval for your decisions, stop asking for their permission to take care of yourself, stop letting them take the lead in your relationship. After all - if you are the one who is mentally healthy, you need to be the one who is making the decisions about what is best for you.
This may sound selfish. Many Non-PD's express discomfort or resistance at first to doing this. They may feel guilt or shame at "abandoning" or "neglecting" a PD partner or parent. Even worse, the person with the PD may react negatively to any independent thought and begin to accuse them of not caring, abandoning them or worse.
If you feel reluctance, guilt or fear it is important to remember that by taking care of yourself you are not acting selfishly. On the contrary, you are doing the most loving thing possible for the person with the PD. After all, no mentally healthy person would want a loved one to neglect themselves or make themselves sick or powerless. That just leads to two people being sick.
Jumping out of the box takes some effort on your part.
For More Information & Support...
If you suspect you may have a family member or loved-one who suffers from a personality disorder, we encourage you to learn all you can and surround yourself with support as you learn how to cope.
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