Dr. Paul Meier, psychiatrist, best selling author, and founder of The Meier Clinics joins Melanie Vann and Kristin Sunanta Walker to discuss Learned Helplessness.
Learned helplessness is behavior typical of a human or an animal and occurs where the subject endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn or accept “escape” or “avoidance” in new situations where such behavior would likely be effective. In other words, the organism learned that it is helpless in situations where there is a presence of aversive stimuli, has accepted that it has lost control, and thus gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.
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Round Table Discussions with Dr. Paul Meier: Learned Helplessness
KRISTIN: Hey everyone. This is Kristin Sunanta-Walker, host of Mental Health News Radio. I am here with our program director, Melanie Vann. Hey, Melanie.
MELANIE: Hey, Kristin. How are you?
KRISTIN: Of course, this is our Round Table Discussion with Dr. Paul Meier. Paul, thank you so much for coming back on.
PAUL: Thank you, Kristin. Hi, Melanie.
MELANIE: Hi, Paul. How are you doing?
KRISTIN: So tonight, we’re going to talk about helplessness, and another definition that is widely read out there is learned helplessness: what that means, how you can fall into that trap, and how you can get out of it. Let’s start with you, Paul, in terms of your work with people when you see them in that helplessness mode.
PAUL: I see some people who don’t want to be helpless. They’d like to be independent, think for themselves, and be self-supporting, but they keep failing at it for a variety of reasons (mostly because they haven’t had an opportunity to learn it or be forced to do it.) So, there are some people who don’t want to be that way who are. There are some people who want to be that way because they love being dependent on others. We’ve talked about different personality types on our program before – like perfectionists. We did a whole program or more than one – I think we did a couple of them. Perfectionists are usually very independent. In fact, a perfectionist, if he falls in an eight-foot-deep ditch and someone comes walking by, he will hide. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there because he wants to figure his own way out. But if a helpless person falls into a three-foot-ditch, he’ll lay there crying until somebody pulls him up – or her. Some people like being helpless. The more emotional a person is … There is what we call in psychiatry a histrionic personality. That’s the person who’s real emotional; they’re dependent; they’re attention seeking; and they’re seductive. We used to call it hysterical personality. I think Aristotle called it that 2500 years ago because he thought that women who had that had a wandering uterus. They used to think that, so they called it hyst – like the hysterectomy – hysteria.
KRISTIN: Right. There’s a movie with Maggie Gyllenhaal about that. It was a good movie.
PAUL: People who are real histrionic (a lot of movie stars are real histrionic) tend to be more dependent and want to be helpless because they want to be taken care of. You mentioned learned helplessness. I’m not sure what you mean by that, Kristin, so why don’t you define that.
KRISTIN: Sure. Learned helplessness is – let’s say you have a parent who has been helpless, so you’ve learned how to be that way. There’s a study that was done – and this is awful! I’ll read what Wikipedia says first. “Learned helplessness occurs when people or animals feel helpless to avoid negative situations. Martin Seligman first observed learned helplessness when he was doing experiments on dogs. He noticed that the dogs didn’t try to escape shocks in a cage if they had been conditioned to believe they couldn’t escape. “
PAUL: Yeah, I’ve heard of that.
KRISTIN: So, we hear about this mother and father in California that are in jail right now because, what was it Melanie, seven people – not just children – but seven or thirteen?
PAUL: Thirteen kids were locked up.
MELANIE: Yes, thirteen from ages two to twenty-nine. They actually weren’t all children, but because they were so emaciated, they thought they were all children.
PAUL: They thought they couldn’t get out.
KRISTIN: Yeah, exactly. They thought they couldn’t get out, so they didn’t try until the one teenager did. In the history of my family, there is always this one person in each generation. It’s always been a female that is deemed the “crazy one”. They are usually the scapegoated child in the family. They are the crazy one. They are the one who will scream and yell and cause problems for everyone because they won’t shut up. That’s the kid that makes it out of our generational abuse and actually goes out and has a more successful happy existence and doesn’t repeat the pattern of abuse because they didn’t keep that learned helplessness going.
PAUL: Yeah, kids that rebel actually turn out healthier than … As psychiatrists, we worry about the kids that are totally compliant their whole lives. They get straight A’s. They never break a rule. They are more likely to commit suicide than the kids who rebel somewhat when they are growing up; because when they rebel, they are individuating and become individuals. When you reminded me what learned helplessness was, I remember hearing (and some kids have done this) if you take a big jar, put dirt and leaves in the bottom, and put a bunch of grasshoppers in the jar, they will jump back out of the jar. But if you put them in the jar, put a lid on it, punch holes in it so they can breathe, and give them water and food, they will try to jump out but will hit their heads on the jar lid. They’ll try that for a day or two. But after a few days, you can take the lid off and they will spend the rest of their lives in there because they don’t know that they can jump out. So, they have learned helplessness. The Apostle Paul said in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” So Biblically, for those of you in our listening family who believe the Bible like I do – and I love you whether you do or don’t – but Biblically there is no such thing as “can’t”. One thing my brother did that really helped me … I’ve got an older brother who is eight years older than me who passed away a few years ago. He was real nice to me. He got me my first basketball and taught me different things. But any time I used the word “can’t”, he’d punch me on the shoulder ten times. Anytime! I mean, it doesn’t matter what the conversation was, if he heard me use the word “can’t”, he’d say, “That’s the worst four letter word that you can use; so, don’t cuss.” That’s the worst cuss word you can say. There’s nothing that you can’t do, especially if God wants you to do it. (Of course, I can’t jump over the moon – there’s the absurd.) But – okay. That’s what I wanted to say.
KRISTIN: What do you think, Mel?
MELANIE: Well, one thing that immediately came to mind are third world countries that are stuck in poverty. It just sticks around in these countries where no matter what they do, no matter how hard they try, they just don’t have the motivation to make things different. A lot of times that can be learned helplessness, or it can be that they don’t have the resources. But another situation that immediately comes to mind is a child that grows up in a dysfunctional home. As a child, you really don’t have any freedom to be able to remove yourself from a really bad situation in the home. If mom and dad are fighting or if you are being abused; as a child, you really don’t have any way to get out of it unless you are lucky enough for a family member or someone else to step in and help you. You just learn to live in the pain. You feel like you have no control over what is going on. It’s just like that grasshopper – you learn to live in the constant stress of what you’re in. I think learned helplessness is a powerful, powerful mind alteration in people’s minds. It can lead to depression, anxiety, and all sorts of other mental health issues so that you just don’t have the confidence in yourself to move out and past. You basically let life happen to you. If you know someone in your life who just let’s life happen to them and they don’t go out and make life happen, that person may be dealing with some learned helplessness in their own lives.
PAUL: I’m going to say something here, and I’m going to be really careful not to be too politically incorrect. The people that are on welfare right now – I’m not being derogatory or complementary right now or being critical of anyone … There’s an old saying – if someone is hungry, do you bring them fish every day so they won’t be hungry, or do you bring them a fishing pole and teach them how to fish? I think the healthy thing to do is to lovingly make sure they’re not starving to death – you love people and want to help them – but you are really being unkind if you get people dependent on the government. They get learned helplessness in government support. Some just need it temporarily until they get on their feet, or they are going through a crisis or a bankruptcy. But there are some people who learn that as a lifestyle. If we keep giving people handouts without teaching them skills, then we aren’t really being kind to that person. We are teaching them helplessness. There was a Gallup Poll on 700,000 people, and for some reason they did it here in the United States and also in China. They polled people to see what made them happy and what made them depressed. They found out that people who believe they “can”: if they are broke, they get an extra job; if they are lonely, they call someone up; if they have a need, they figure out a way to get it taken care of. Of the people that are independent, 75% are consistently happy and 25% will have some depression off and on. People who are helpless, dependent, and feel like they “can’t”: if they are lonely, it’s someone else’s fault – someone from the church isn’t calling them up to take care of them; if they’re broke, it’s because there are people earning a lot of money and there is income inequality – some people are working hard and earning a good income, and they aren’t sharing it with me even though I don’t work – I ought to get half. Of the people who are dependent, 75% are depressed and 25% make it okay. So, helplessness causes depression. It’s really a severe thing.
KRISTIN: There’s something about stretching those muscles. Did I want to go on a walk with Melanie today when I’ve done no exercise all through the holidays? No, I did not. But I did. I thought, “Maybe she’ll forget, and I can take a nap.” But we took a walk anyway, went up a few hills; because I’ve done this before, I know it’s only going to take a couple of walks before I’m saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” But when you stay in that mode, you just keep staying there. It’s that fight in you that wants to get you out of where you are at. For me, coming from a family of learned helplessness, that’s a hard default. I know what that feels like and looks like, and I have to fight against that. My fight … I think sometimes the reason I became an entrepreneur was because I need to be teeter-tottering on an edge of excitement about things in order fiercely combat the ingrained helplessness that is part of my family’s culture.
PAUL: I didn’t know that about you because you seem so independent. Ever since I’ve known you, you’re extremely independent.
KRISTIN: I am.
PAUL: You used to be helpless when you were young? Or think you were?
KRISTIN: No, see that’s the thing, I never was. I came out feet first, Paul. Literally! But I watched it, and I watched this sort of general malaise and abuses happening all around, and no one was doing anything or saying anything. They were all upset at me. I became that crazy scapegoat in the family that goes throughout the generations. I see rampant co-dependency and the need of my elders to find their identity through their mate, and then being angry when their mate doesn’t measure up (because no one will ever measure up – you need to find it within you.) I’ve had my own parents think that I was supposed to fill a partnership role for them, me making parent decisions for them even when I was a young kid, and then the guilt and anger with me when I don’t comply, because I was constantly trying to individuate. I feel the suck of neediness, the “I want you to just be here for me” because I’m really strong, and then their anger at me when I say “no” – because I will say “no.” Even though I’m very strong, I have a heart. So, when a parent gets upset with me, it hurts. It hurts like no pain ever, almost as much as when my son is upset. My fierce independence was out of the contrast of seeing family members having absolutely no idea of who they are and not stretch those muscles to make themselves have their own identity.
PAUL: So, you decided at a young age, probably two, three, or four years of age?
KRISTIN: Probably – when I first started getting into trouble, yes.
PAUL: People can change. Therapy or marriage can change somebody. We learn in residency that there are three things that can change a man dramatically: falling in love with a woman, therapy, and God. I think that most helplessness that people have in life today was probably there by their sixth birthday. Some parents are so controlling that they want to think for the child. They want the child to be dependent on them. It makes them feel powerful. If the child thinks for himself, it upsets the parent and makes them angry because they want to be in control. Without mentioning any names, I’ve got a patient who is a young adult. (I’ll say she, but I’m not letting anyone know if it’s a guy or a gal, so I’ll say she because I don’t want them to recognize who I’m talking about.) This person’s mother comes with her for all her meetings with me. Whenever I ask her a question, the mother answers. Finally, last week I politely said, “Would you mind not answering for so-and-so? I really want to learn how so-and-so feels about that…
KRISTIN: … really thinks, yeah.
PAUL: … and what symptoms that person is having.” A lot of times it is learned.
KRISTIN: I’ll say this, and then Melanie, I’ll pass it to you. I learned this when I was actively with my therapy dog. We went to hospitals, psych wards and behavioral health places. I didn’t learn about learned helplessness there. I wasn’t paying attention to that. But I saw this – and in no way am I saying that stuttering is learned helplessness at all – but here’s an interesting thing that reminds me of what we’re talking about. I would take Miles to the library with me, and kids that had some kind of a speech impediment or reading issue would come in and read to him. It was fascinating because some of the parents would not – because there was so much pressure in the room that I could feel, Myles could feel and obviously their child could feel, about them not being able to read or having a stutter or whatever – a couple of the parents complained to the library and said, “She is such a b-i-t-c-h. Look at her. She’s kicking us out of the room.” But their kids actually read, and they ended up calling back and saying, “Thank you. She was great.” I didn’t care either way. But I got to a point where I would say, “When you leave, let’s record your child reading. It takes about ten minutes to get them calmed down from your presence in the room. But when you leave and it’s just me – sitting behind the child so that they can’t see me – and Myles in front of them while they read, magically either their problem disappears, or they are severely lessened. Every. Single. Time.” But when the parents were there, what I would notice is that they’d look to mom, dad or siblings to help them. I’d say, “Don’t look at them. You need to do this.” So, Melanie, what do you think about that? Or whatever you want to say.
MELANIE: I’ve definitely seen that kind of dynamic work out too, Kristin, with parents. And Paul, too, I’ve definitely had to ask parents to leave sessions with their kids, so they have a chance to express themselves. I’ve definitely had that narcissistic or histrionic parent or mother that, every time you ask a question, the mother answers the question and the child is just sitting there limp on the couch. That is a view of what learned helplessness must feel like, because no matter how much the child might try to individuate, they are never allowed to. They learn a couple of things. They don’t learn how to make decisions. They learn that they can’t trust themselves, and they learn that they have no power. These are things you try to teach your children as they are growing up because eventually they have to go out into the world and make their own decisions, and hopefully make wise decisions. When you aren’t allowing your children to make decisions, it really is a disservice to them. The stuttering piece, Kristin, I’ve seen that several times. Kids so want to please their parents, and there is so much pressure to please, even if it is unintentional by a parent, that when the parent steps out of the room it is definitely easier to read more clearly.
PAUL: Sometimes it is neurological too.
PAUL: I don’t want people to feel guilty if they have that problem.
MELANIE: I think most of the time it is neurological, but just that act…
PAUL: But relaxing can make it better. They can sing. People who stutter can sing without stuttering.
KRISTIN: Yeah, Bruce Willis – you know the famous Bruce Willis with all the Die Hard movies. He was a big-time stutterer, and he got into acting because on stage he didn’t have a stutter when he was doing a performance.
PAUL: Yeah, there was a singer too, I think it was Mel Tillis, that stuttered all the time when he talked, but he could sing without stuttering. It was really neat.
KRISTIN: It was cool when we did a show with a therapist, who treats people who have a stutter, and she stutters. We just did the show as-is. I told my editor, “Don’t speed anything up. Don’t fix anything. I want this to be heard exactly as-is, because there’s enough stigma about this out there. Let’s just hear exactly how someone talks and how they learn to – again, building that muscle of, “This is something that I have that is part of me. It makes society uncomfortable, often; but I’m going to show my ways of coping and dealing with this …” I don’t even want to call it a problem because we’re the ones that call it a problem – with the way that they talk that’s different from ours. Let’s show what that really looks like and feels like, and let’s show a seasoned professional navigate her way through a conversation successfully with a few hiccups here and there. I thought it was important to just lay it out there like that. We still get downloads of that show and emails about it.
MELANIE: Interesting. I agree with Paul, but I do think learned helplessness is probably learned before your sixth birthday – maybe even before your third birthday. But then I do think there are situations where I think learned helplessness has a huge part in why people stay with abusive partners. I think you stay in those relationships because you keep trying and no matter what it doesn’t make a difference. Then you have no desire to fight and try to get out of the relationship. Just to speak a little bit to what Paul was talking about, with subsidizing or poverty in general, I’ve worked – not frequently but some – in low income situations. I used to make visits into the projects here in Richmond, VA. I’ll tell you, to me there are either two ways. There were parents who knew they weren’t going to be there forever, and they were fighting and trying to make a better life for their children. Then there were parents who had no desire whatsoever to get out and that was just where they were going to be. They were thankful for it and had no desire to move forward past anything. Then you had the other folks who knew it was totally temporary for them. The other thing, too, and I loved this dynamic. When I used to volunteer for Crossover Clinic in downtown Richmond, they had a policy where it was a free clinic, but if you could pay, you were asked to pay what you could. Every single time when patients would come in and pay: they were more adherent to their visits; they would show up more often; they would take their medicines more often; and it gave them some pride. So instead of taking their pride and just seeing them for free … Sometimes when I wouldn’t have clients I would stand in the back office and greet people. Those people that would come up with two dollars, and that was all they had to pay for their visit, they just seemed so proud to be paying something. Those seemed to be the patients that would be able to stick to a treatment plan and move forward. There is some psychological something that goes on there. I’m not quite sure what it is. If we could figure it out, the world would probably change. But I did want to speak to that. Even in a situation like where a child has a learning disability, stuttering, ADHD or dyslexia. You try so hard, even harder than the other children do, yet you still don’t do as well. I think a child would get to a point where they just stop trying. “Well, I can’t do anything right, so why should I? I still can’t do it. I studied all night and I still only got a D.” So, they just give up. There are many avenues to learned helplessness. But again, it’s powerful. Then it doesn’t give you the will to fight, and when you don’t have that fighting spirit what do you really have to look forward to? Then you lose hope. When you lose hope, that’s when things really start to take a turn south and can get really dark for people.
PAUL: I used to be active. I lived in California for four years and I was on the plans. I also did that in Dallas for a couple of years with the homeless association that is in charge of reaching out to the homeless populations. In both cities, they said that when people were out on the corner begging, you shouldn’t give them any money. It’s better not to give them money. People will go out there and make $50,000 a year and they use it for drugs and things like that. If people are homeless, in whatever city they are in, they can go to the homeless association and they will help them. They will help them find food. They will help them find a job. They will help them get free medications and things like that. So, if you want to give money to help the homeless, give it to your local homeless association and don’t give it to beggars on the street. That’s just my opinion. I’m going to get some nasty emails for that one probably.
KRISTIN: We have all kinds of opinions on this show and from our audience. I think that there’s a degree. I think sometimes there may be someone who is homeless and when you give them something, it restores their faith in humanity. Then they can pull themselves out of where they are at. Then there are situations, like you said, Paul, where there is someone, in any situation, where they are continually given to and they never learn to build those tools, to have that grit we all must have to make it through this very difficult thing called life. It speaks to me about how destructive being an enabler is. I want to delve into what it looks like to be someone who has been raised amongst very controlling people who try to create learned helplessness (because that’s how they try to get love), and also what it’s like to be someone who is very strong but has people with learned helplessness coming in to try to get them to take care of them. It’s an interesting dynamic either way. Let’s start with what does it look like to have a parent, husband, wife – whatever the scenario might be (a parent with an adult child where the parent is still trying to create or foster extreme neediness with their adult child in order to stay in control of them) – what does that look like, Melanie?
MELANIE: I’m going to talk about homelessness for one second and then I’ll address that, because I think the control piece is a huge part of learned helplessness and how it gets started in families. I think one thing you can always do for someone who is homeless is make eye contact and speak. If you have the time, sit down and talk to them for a few minutes. I used to do that when I was at NC State a lot. I would look people in the eye and shake their hand or sit down and talk with them for a while. I felt like they appreciated it. It humanizes them again. I never had money to give them – I was a poor college student. But that is one way you can make a difference in their life and maybe even encourage them to go get help. I know that looking people in the eye is sometimes all they need to know that they may be in this horrible spot (and I think most people that are homeless have mental health problems that are not being addressed – period!)
PAUL: A lot of them do. About twenty-five percent are schizophrenic.
MELANIE: Exactly, and that’s a big piece of it. So, I just wanted to speak to that. But control …
PAUL: A majority of them are addicts too.
MELANIE: Yes, I think a lot of them are addicts; but I think a lot of times they are just self-medicating. So, homelessness is a complicated situation for sure. There are a lot of good programs out there. Kristin, you were speaking of a parent trying to control an adult child and still trying to foster a learned helplessness relationship with them. When a parent treats a child so that the child has learned helplessness, then the child never individuates. That brings the parent safety because the parent probably doesn’t have enough of their own personality or strength to make it through life on their own. The child is an appendage of the parent. As long as the parent has financial or emotional control – maybe they don’t let the child move out of the house without feeling incredibly guilty – then really it disables the adult child from ever being able to move out of the house and move on with their own lives. It can be detrimental because this seeps over into every area of your life. It’s the self-confidence that is never built. If you always tie your child’s shoe, they are never going to learn how to tie their own shoe. If you are always doing things for your kids, then they never learn how to do those things on their own. That’s what builds self-efficacy; and that is so important to individuating and being able to live and create in their own lives. That need for control is obviously a sign of pathology within the parent. My advice to an adult child in that situation is to start doing little things in your life to start building self-confidence within yourself. If you are constantly correcting a child’s paper before they turn it in at school, then they are going to get to college and not be able to write a good paper.
PAUL: Some parent’s do it all for them.
MELANIE: Exactly! If you are standing over their back constantly and checking – helicopter parenting! It’s that whole concept of checking everything behind them, then they aren’t learning to trust themselves.
PAUL: When we’re treating a dependent client, they will say something like, “Dr. Meier, what should I do about this?” The worst thing I can do – and I may have a really good idea that may help them – but the worst thing I could do is tell them what that idea is. Instead, what I’d do is say, “Well, what are your options?” They’d say, “I want you to tell me.” I’d say, “No, I want you to tell me some options. Let’s talk about it. What are some things that you could do? What’s your plan?” They’ll say, “I don’t have a plan.” “Well, then think of one. There’s probably fifty of them that would work. If you ask Jesus if there’s a solution, I’m sure He could think of a million of them. So, what are some things you could do?” They will start thinking of a few things, and I’ve got this best answer in the back of my mind that I think will work best, but I’ll keep asking and maybe give them a few little hints. When they come up with what I think would be best, or something else that is totally not what I thought would be best but sounds good, I’ll say, “That sounds like a really good plan that you came up with. You came up with that plan. Why don’t you try your plan that you came up with this week, and next week when you come back we’ll discuss what happened.” They may try it and fail because they are so used to failing that they set themselves up for it. They will come back and say, “Dr. Meier, your plan didn’t work.” I’ll say, “Wait, it wasn’t my plan. It was your plan.” They’ll say, “It didn’t work.” I’ll respond, “That’s okay. You learn from failure. Failure is good for you. Plan A didn’t work, so let’s come up with another plan.” Then if they call you on the phone for an emergency call, I’ll say, “What do you think you ought to do about it?” I’ll make them think. (At least I used to do this when I did therapy. Now I just do meds most of the time.) After a while, they will come to their session and say, “I almost called you this week because I had an emergency, but I knew you’d just make me decide for myself what to do. So, I just figured it out on my own.” I think as far as parents that are controlling, a lot of them are real narcissistic – not all of them – but a lot are. It gives them a feeling of power to be totally in control of a child and to have that child be totally dependent on them. Some are paranoid. Paranoid people want to be in control of every little detail. If they run an organization, they have to control where the janitor puts the chairs. They have to control everything. Some are just extreme perfectionistic parents who mean well, but they want everything to be perfect. They make sure everything their child does at school is perfect. They help them too much. I think there are different kinds of parents who can be overly controlling, but I think most of them are narcissistic.
KRISTIN: Yeah, I think we could slip a different title in there too. It could be your spouse who is that way. Your spouse is acting like a parent and not really your equal – your mate. It can be like that too. I’ve seen the other side of this and I’ve experienced this because I have always been so independent, I’ve been the bread winner, and I take care of other people financially in some ways. I have in the past had people sort of latch on to me. After a while in the relationship, I realize, “Oh my gosh, they are angling to be my dependent.” It could be a friend of mine or a love interest. Instead of getting angry, I said to the last one, “I’m not responsible for you and your child. I’m not looking for another set of dependents. You’ve never not lived with your parents. You need to go have that. I have for many, many years not lived with my parents. You never have. You need to go stretch those muscles. It’s scary! If you have to work at Burger King to make that happen – do it. There’s no shame in whatever work you can get. It’s a disservice that you haven’t been allowed to do that, and that you haven’t done that for yourself. But no – this is not going to happen!” Later I thought, “Good for me,” and also, “I need to get into therapy, because why did I even let it go that far.” There was some part of me being co-dependent that I needed to look at, clean up and shore up. I didn’t just blame it on them, I looked at what did I do to attract that and let it go on as long as it did.
PAUL: In a marriage, one way you can tell who’s the most controlling is whoever uses the words “you should” or “you shouldn’t” the most. “You should do this; you should do that.” Or, “You shouldn’t do this; you shouldn’t do that.” That’s being a parent to the mate instead of being a mate to the mate. You are acting like a parent when you say you should or you shouldn’t. It’s healthier to say, “Here’s how I feel when you do that. Whether you do that or not is your business, but I feel sad or angry or happy (whatever you feel) when you do that.” That way you are giving the person the freedom to decide whether to change or not. They are a lot more likely to change. If my wife told me I should or shouldn’t do something, I am going to almost automatically argue. It irritates me to have anyone tell me, “You shouldn’t do this or that”, because that implies I’m doing something wrong – even if they are totally right. But if my wife says, “Here’s how I feel when you come home late and don’t call me first to let me know because I have dinner ready,” then that makes me really want to be responsible in the future and not make the same mistake again. Also, when I’m doing therapy with people, if someone uses the word, “I can’t”, then like my brother did (I won’t beat them on the shoulder ten times like he did with me) I ask them to change that sentence to either “I will” or “I won’t”. If they say, “I just can’t get along with my mate.” Or, “I can’t get myself to discipline my child.” Then I will say, “I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on you, but either say, ‘I won’t discipline my child’ or ‘I will discipline my child’, because there is no such thing as can’t.” It helps them to see the truth. When people use the words “I’ll try”, they usually mean, “I’ll make a half-hearted effort, but I won’t quite succeed.” If they use the words “I’ll try”, I will say, “Change it to either ‘I will’ or ‘I won’t’. I don’t care which one you pick. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. Say either, “I will” or “I won’t” – but don’t say “I can’t” and don’t say “I’ll try”. Those are lies.
KRISTIN: Right. Melanie, what are your thoughts?
MELANIE: I like the “I can’t” piece. I think for a clinician that might be an indication that you might be dealing with someone that may have learned helplessness. I know we’re getting close to close, but I think about, if you think you suffer from learned helplessness, what might be some ways that you could try to step out of that. What I was going to say is just do small things. Do small things to start building your self-confidence, because everyone has the capacity to help themselves. The reality is that you are the only person who is going to do that in your life. This would be a whole other topic, but I honestly think that sometimes as Christians we can create this learned helplessness with God where we just sit back and say, “I’m not going to do anything. I’m going to let God take care of it.” Yes, that is true to an extent; but we don’t just sit around and not try to get a job because we think God is going to pay our rent the next month. There has to be some type of moving forward so that we can continue on in our lives. (That would be a whole other discussion for us.)
PAUL: Hey Melanie, at the beginning of our talk I mentioned what the Apostle Paul said in Philippians 4:13. It doesn’t say, “God will do everything for me.” It says, “I can do – I can do all things through Christ who strengths me.” So, God’s job isn’t to do things for us, although sometimes I know He does. His job is to help us do things for ourselves.
MELANIE: Yes! Agreed, agreed. Everyone has that capacity. Sometimes you just have to, if you know someone has pushed you into learned helplessness – like a parent, mate, sibling, or co-worker – sometimes you just have to get yourself out of those relationships.
PAUL: Or politicians.
MELANIE: Yes, exactly. Sometimes you just have to make a boundary.
KRISTIN: Absolutely. I’d say do that hard thing – move out, live on your own, get a second job, whatever it is – to prove to yourself that you can do it. It is so scary, and you don’t feel safe in the world because you’ve been coddled into this unreal, fearful existence because that is where this person lives – in fear. That’s why they are trying to control you. The only way for you to break out of that is to do those things that you are fearful of. Go be around a lot of other people that live their own lives. Hang with them. Dip into their lives and see what they can do. You have lots of examples around you of people who are not helpless. That will start to charge you up and help you realize that you can do the things that they do. You are looking for models. Those are great ways to stretch you wings and get out of a state of either your own learned helplessness or someone who is trying to make you become that out of their own need to control their own fear.
PAUL: It’s important to realize also that when you are working very hard at becoming more independent and less helpless in a certain area, if you fail – don’t say, “See, I can’t do it!” Learn from the failure! Grow from it! Failure is good for you. It helps you grow. If you don’t give up, the you learn from failure. Just keep working at it and work at more than one area. When you fail, learn from it and the next time you won’t. If Plan A doesn’t work, that’s fine. Go to Plan B.
KRISTIN: Exactly. Well this was great! Thank you both for coming on and talking this subject – another last-minute pick.
MELANIE: Thank you, guys. It was a good one.
KRISTIN: And thanks to our listeners for another edition of Mental Health News Radio.