learned helplessness

English: Broken glass, off Queen's Road, Titan...

Each man takes care that his neighbor shall not cheat him. But a day comes when he begins to care that he does not cheat his neighbor. Then all goes well — he has changed his market-cart into a chariot of the sun.

                                                                                            ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Recently I’ve moved into a home in Boone that is beyond perfect.  Bamboo floors, deck aerie, lots of garden space, a stained-glass yoga/meditation sanctuary, a shower with TWO massaging nozzles (!), set way up in the mountains amidst ravines and gorges and soaring trees.  I wake each morning to the sun dancing on the floor, filtered through layer upon layer of mountains and leafy trees. I am so blessed.

The previous inhabitants of this house had, ooh, different methods of appreciating it.  The landlord did a lot of work, but signs remain–broken glass scattered throughout the lawn, piles of beer cans in the woods, and most obvious of all, the remains of a huge bonfire in the backyard into which had been put (if I hazard a forensic guess) most of a bed, several semesters’ worth of textbooks, and a lawn chair.  Plus at least three quarters of the contents of an ABC store.

This morning, preparing my tea in the kitchen, I looked out at the ugly heap of twisted metal and ash and knew it was time to start a garden.

Once I dove in, I wished I hadn’t.  There was broken glass everywhere, and hundreds of beer cans melted into Dali-esque contortions with rusted and dangerous points.  I took my time, gingerly sifting through, carting away seven full buckets of charred metal and molten glass. Several hours later I’d uncovered the original fire ring, and used its stones to demarcate the curves of the new garden bed.  I sprinkled the remaining ashes over the ground—tomorrow I’ll cover them with cardboard, backfill with soil, and plant rye as a cover crop for the winter.  In spring we’ll sow native wildflowers, medicinal plants, edibles, aromatics.

At first, as I worked, I thought about how irresponsible these previous tenants had been to leave such a mess behind.  I wondered how anyone could be so thoughtless as to seed a yard with broken glass.  And then I began to wonder about the times in my life when I’ve left messes for unknown others to clean up.  Every time I use something that doesn’t biodegrade, for instance.  Or when I’ve walked away from messy relationships and cut off contact.  Or when I’ve pursued some glittery new path, leaving the old one to sort itself out.  Who were the ones, who will be the ones, to clean up those messes?

I’ve been thinking a lot about accountability, actually.  I’m reading a phenomenal book: Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man (this is what happens to a facilitator of women’s circles when she quits facilitating women’s circles to attend graduate school.  I mean, really, is anybody surprised?).  Sam Keen, the author, describes the process of gaining authority over your own life. To do so, he argues, you must first identify the prevailing myth of your culture and then demythologize it, choosing to accept your internal authority over the “official” view of things.  And what, exactly, is the “official” view of things? It’s whatever is universally, uncritically accepted as “the way things really are.” War as an intrinsic part of humanity, for example.  The scientific method.  Urbanization, progress, empirical research. How many times have I known something, I mean really known it, and denied my own truth because it flew in the face of the “way things really are”?  Who has authority over me?

This is a loaded question, I know.  Much of the philosophy that guides and inspires me talks of being a conscious servant rather than an unconscious slave.  The idea being, of course, that you have an internal lodestone to which you can refer in your every decision; or, by default, you can allow your habits and unconscious fears and external criticisms to decide for you.  But this talk of servitude/slavery turns me off nonetheless.  Through hard experience I have learned the vital necessity of being one’s own authority, of having absolutely no higher power to cede blame or responsibility to.

Have you heard of learned helplessness?  This term is what crystallized my intention to dive into the field of psychology and counseling.  Learned helplessness is a condition that ensues when one has tried every method at her disposal to obtain a result and failed.  A child with a depressed parent tries first laughter, then tears.  She tries bringing home straight A’s.  She tries shouting, acting out, retreating into her own shell.  Nothing incites a response, and eventually, the child gives up.  She has learned that she is ineffectual, that nothing she does makes a difference.  She will sink into herself. She will not try again.

It is my belief that most of us suffer from this condition.  To some degree, all of us have beaten ourselves bloody on the walls of non-responsive circumstance. All of us have felt defeated by the immensity of, say, global warming or world hunger, personal poverty or a fatalistic friend. We have learned that we can’t make a difference.  Yes, yes, there’s that Margaret Mead quote, but deep inside we know—our culture tells us—that these problems are just too big for the likes of us.  Maybe Nikola Tesla could’ve done something, or Gandhi, but our efforts are totally useless.

But wait!  There’s a cure for learned helplessness!  You’ll never guess what it is!

You have to blame yourself.  You have to take on full responsibility for your situation.

Let me explain. When I was married to an emotionally abusive man, I had learned helplessness out the wazoo.  Nothing I tried would please him.  Something that made him laugh one day would make him lash out the next.  Slowly I withdrew from my friendships, from my activism, from my writing, from my music.  I was the victim of an angry, isolating abuser.  Okay.

What does a victim do?  Pretty much just get victimized.  There’s not a lot of leeway in the description.

Then one day a true friend told me that all of this was my fault.  I had gotten myself in and I could get myself out.  That really pissed me off.

But I tried it. I tried thinking:  I chose this.  This is all my fault.  And it was EMPOWERING.  Because if I chose it, I could damn well un-choose it.  And that’s exactly what I proceeded to do.

I am not saying that an abused person ‘asked for it’.  I am not saying that starving children need to realize that it’s all their fault they’re starving and just fix it already.  I am saying that you can take a look at your life and figure out where you’ve made yourself powerless.  You can choose your internal authority over any external one.

I am saying that the broken glass in that bonfire is just as much my problem as anyone else’s.  Just because I didn’t put it there doesn’t mean it isn’t mine.

Which authorizes me to pick it up, and plant a garden.

Clouds breaking up after a rainy morning in th...



August 21, 2013 · 3:48 am

6 responses to “learned helplessness

  1. Oh… my… goodness! You are really speaking to me on this post, Lissa. I knew this (about owning responsibility for my decisions and choices in life), but sometimes we need to hear it again and again. Our ego continually takes us to learned helplessness. Thank you for redirecting me this very morning… as I set out to tackle chores for the day. This post came at just the right time for me! Thank you!

  2. paradisoarts

    This was exactly what I was trying to figure out last night! Thank you, True Beauty! xo

    Laura Alvarez, MFA Paradiso Arts 310-592-5879 http://www.paradisoarts.com http://www.lauraalvarez.net

  3. It might just get me out into the garden to tackle the blackberries…

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