Self-Esteem & Learned Helplessness

Alfonzo was a talented young Brazilian. We worked together on Cape Cod. Tattooed and wild in his younger days, he had grown to be a dependable family man in his mid-thirties. A jack of all trades, there were few things he couldn’t do. Though not bookish, the guy was no dummy. There was no construction equipment that he couldn’t operate, and do so expertly. He was sort of our unofficial foreman, because whenever there was a problem, we usually went to Alfonzo.

Handsome, witty and big-hearted, he was born with a fiery side, and could be short-tempered. He had a bad habit of blowing things out of proportion. Little slights that the rest of us could shrug off would gnaw at him unremittingly. It got so bad that one day he took a swing at the boss, and was fired on the spot. We had mixed emotions seeing him go. Although we genuinely liked Alfonzo, we were relieved that we didn’t have to work with a ticking time-bomb any more.

Crossed paths with him a few months later, and he was a changed man. Gone was that almost cartoonish thundercloud that had always hung above his head. Now there were clear skies and rainbows. He smiled brightly when he saw me.

After some small talk, he confided that he was seeing a therapist. Turns out he was suffering from a sever case of low self-esteem. That was why he kept blowing things out of proportion. He said when the doctor told him that, it was as if someone had turned on a light.

Low self-esteem has many manifestations. Some people express it with over-exaggeration, or by over-reacting to problems. Others compensate by being manipulative, or domineering, or deceitful. Regardless, each behavioral abnormality is rooted in a person’s low opinion of themselves, be it conscious or subconscious.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 20% of Americans experience mental illness. While I have no reason to doubt that, I can’t help but think the figure is far higher.

In addition to low self-esteem, I think a large number of us suffer from another behavioral malady that’s not so obvious at first glance, a condition known as “learned helplessness.”

When Dr. Martin Seligman began his career back in the 1960’s, he did what most psych students did at the time, which was to perform behavioral experiments on lab animals. Behavioral conditioning. Think Pavlov with his bell and a salivating dog.

In one experiment, the dogs were given a slight shock to see if they’d learn to jump over a little barrier. Seligman noticed that about a third of the dogs refused to respond, and just sat in their cages enduring the shocks. They had been subjected to experimentation for so long that they felt like nothing they did would make any difference, so they just stopped trying.

Presciently, Seligman realized that the condition probably existed in humans as well, and after some experimentation and data gathering, he found that he was right.

“Learned helplessness” causes despairing pessimism, which leads to long-term depression, which in extreme cases ends in suicide. The condition basically has three parts: 1) we feel like everything’s our fault, 2) we feel like our problems will never end, and 3) we feel like everything is bad.

Thankfully, Seligman developed a methodology of “learned optimism” to remedy the problem. Best of all, after some clinical studies, he found that the solution worked.

It boils down to what Seligman calls our “explanatory style.” If we constantly describe our lives in negative ways, it creates a defeatist feedback loop that further acerbates the problem. Describing our lives in positive ways creates an encouraging, affirmative feedback loop.

These are the solutions in a nutshell: 1) stop making it personal; it’s not always your fault, 2) nothing is permanent; your problems are usually temporary, and 3) just because there’s a problem in one part of your life, that doesn’t mean your entire life is a failure.

Clinical studies show that these three simple changes in our way of thinking can often alleviate our sense of helplessness. Once we realize that things can change, our minds are opened to new opportunities. Optimism inspires us to act, and change, and grow.

“Learned helplessness” is real. It’s so real that two psychologists were recently sued for turning it into a method of torture for the CIA. But just as it is learned, it can be unlearned. Studies prove that.

As the great Marcus Aurelius said, over 2100 years ago, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” How true. “When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love….”

“Everything is what you judge it to be.”

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