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September 3, 2013
About fifty years ago, an experiment was conducted on a dog. This poor dog was placed in an enclosure and fitted with a harness which sent routine electrical shocks to the animal. No matter what the dog did, he was shocked repeatedly. The following day, the dog was placed again in the same enclosure, this time with no harness that delivered painful electrical shocks, and the dog’s response? He became so paralyzed by fear, that he refused to move, convinced that like the last time no matter what he did, he would still be shocked. This cruel phenomenon is known as learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is also a reoccurring phenomenon in the human experience. A term coined by Martin Seligman, it occurs when people adopt a sense of helplessness after experiencing a major traumatic event, or reoccurring failure to influence negative outcomes in their lives for the better. In short, people simply give up (in varying degrees) in their pursuit of their goals and dreams.

Does this mean that we are all doomed to experience learned helplessness when we fail to achieve success? Not at all, after all, people experience failures everyday, and most of them pick themselves back up and continue trying. If we were genetically programmed by default to experience learned helplessness in response to failure, babies and subsequently adults, would never learn to walk.
Learned helplessness is a symptom that results from a combination of faulty social programming and experiences with failures. By faulty social programming, I mean when people buy into a singular message regarding how they can go about getting their needs met. With an unawareness of other alternatives, regarding how a person can get his or her basic and emotional needs met, people experience a state of helplessness when they experience failure with the singular message.

One of my favorite stories, is the story of a MBA graduate, who couldn’t find a job, despite having graduated from a prestigious university. During an interview with a reporter, he spoke about how he had removed the names of certain associations he was affiliated with from his resume, in order to not reveal his ethnicity, as he suspected that this was a factor in his inability to get employed. To make matters worse, the reporter who wrote on his story, portrayed this intelligent man as a victim, simply because biased employers had refused to give him a chance. There were actually about two more examples used by the reporter in the same story.

I mean, how could this be possible? Why couldn’t this man with his formal training in Business Administration become his own employer? Or even better, collaborate in a start up with his peers? (One of the men featured in the article was actually attempting this route). You would think this crossed his mind, maybe it did. However I am certain of one thing, continuous and prolonged exposure to the singular message that he could only practice his craft by being employed by some establishment or entity, lead to his feelings of inferiority and defectiveness when he routinely experienced rejection in his adherence to this singular message. Heck, even the reporter made matters worse by writing an article featuring this man and proclaiming his hardship. I bet even his family members, probably strong believers of the singular message, wondered if he was trying hard enough in finding a job in his field. I believe he was.

Are you getting where I am going with this? Unlike the dog in that cruel experiment, human beings have the unique advantage of imagination. Our imagination affords us the ability to consider other alternatives to the singular messages we have been exposed to, even if we have not been formally trained in taking actions based on other alternative messages.

Life’s hardship are brought on by a multitude of changing variables, this calls for the embrace of an open mind towards thinking outside of box, when traditional approaches no longer work. Learned helplessness can be overcome, through the power of imagination or by having a vision of what could be, people can develop emotional resiliency in response to any ordeal they are experiencing

Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC, a professional counseling and life coaching practice.

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