Learned Helplessness

We live in a crowded world, where everything involves a lot of people with a lot of opinions and lots of toes to step on. Where ever you go, what ever you do, there will be people with the ability to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do, and it’s easy to get used to that. Especially when going into a new situation, it’s tempting to let things be decided for you and focus on following the rules and regulations laid out for you, so that whatever it is you’re doing, it won’t be the wrong thing.

Learned Helplessness is that tendency, that pushes you to ask things you already know. It’s a monkey wrench in the machinery of your decision taking, stopping you dead until you have the green light to move. If you would ever pay attention to it, you might start noticing how often you go out of your way to ask a question that you already know the answer to. Small problems pop up, and your immediate reaction is to find the person responsible for the obvious answer, lest you could be the one to blame when shit hits the fan.


It is taught to you at a very early age- in fact, it’s one of the first lesson we teach our kids. And from then on, it is reinforced repeatedly, from managers and bosses answering stupid questions with a sagely nod to scoldings that completely overlook that anyone would have gone for this obvious option, and forgetting to commend you for quick-and-easy decision taking.

Women in particular are shoved in this role, because assertiveness is a leadership skill and women are subconsciously (or not) assumed to be poorer leaders. They are encouraged to ask for help if anything is the matter, and treated nicer when assuming this position.
Basically, anyone in a socially vulnerable situation will feel more pressure to behave helplessly, because everyone presumes that they lack the skill or knowledge to do the right thing.

But what if, one day, you might decide to stick it to the man? You might know the solution to a problem as much as anyone else, why not actually solve the problem, then? If it is information you lack, why not step forward when that information is being tossed around? Our herd mentality often keeps us from representing the group when it is addressed, and just go with whatever is being said. But what if following the herd is getting old?

Lately I’ve been feeling like this herd is holding me back, and I’ve begun paying attention to this behavior. Luckily I work in an environment where independent thinking is tolerated, which is ironic considering how low down the hierarchal ladder we really are, and how much being a stagehand is about following orders to the letter. It starts with changing the age-old question “what do I do now” to “is this solution good for you”, and before you know it, you’re appointed crew chief.

It involves many things beyond work, of course. Recently I was put in charge of my little son while mommy was in the dark room developing photos, and for the first few hours I was pretty clueless. Since I visit on a monthly basis, his mother usually fills me in on what he needs and wants, as they change every time I see him. So I was used to following orders, and it took me long enough to realize that I was capable of calling the shots, too. He was tired and annoyed with me, and for some time I didn’t know what to do- this had always been the time when his mother suggested putting him to bed. It seemed so logical that she would decide this now too, and I was waiting to be ordered around.
After I realized that this too is typical learned helplessness, I managed to decide what to do and moments later, he was asleep. It was such a simple thing to happen that I wondered what took me so long.
Training and conditioning to behave stupidly, is what. Not by her, but by society.

Of course, you have to know what to do before you can decide on it. You can’t just go around calling things you shouldn’t, stupid decisions have caused many a global disaster. But it helps to ask questions about the how and why of things, and reflect on the results achieved. Armed with that knowledge, perhaps next time you can join the thinking process.
It’s hard to explain people about learned helplessness without looking like an asshole. You can’t just bring it up when you notice it, because then people will think you’re just telling them in the nicest way possible (and thus, all the more insulting) that their question was a dumb one. Most of them believe you’re trying to explain why they’re stupid and you aren’t.

It’s not at all a matter of intelligence, although learned helplessness is a very effective method of keeping people docile. They can’t learn from their mistakes or accomplishments, and alienates them from any feeling of success or failure.
This isn’t just a thing, it’s an important thing. Recognising the symptoms in yourself gives you the chance to escape that feeling of being one of the masses, which I know you must experience now and then.

You are conditioned to behave like a drone. Breaing the cycle will open you up to learning, to growth, to accomplishment, and of course, to failure.
It’s an easy thing to get better at because it reinforces itself. Basically, you catch up on the person you would be if they didn’t tell you to ask others to think for you, all the time. It lets your awesomeness out. And you are an awesome person, you’re possibly just not showing it enough. You might surprise yourself, like I did. You can text me the results!

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