Learned Helplessness

“And what do you think happens when people do not have access to transportation or mobility……psychologically speaking,” I asked, my phone pressed against my ear.

“Learned helplessness,” my psychology professor replied. “It’s the state psychologists term as ‘learned helplessness.’ When people can’t get to the experiences or places they want, they become depressed and feel trapped and confined in their circumstances.”

I had heard the term before, back in my introductory psychology course freshman year. There, this state was exemplified by a dog; the dog was subject to repeated electric shocks within a confined box, and after a long duration of time, the dog no longer attempted to escape. Learned helplessness seemed like such a unique condition then, yet now I could see its applicability to everyday happenings, everywhere. This is the moment that keeps on replaying in my head, the moment when I interviewed an old psychology professor for insight on a project – only the insight I had gleaned was much more far-reaching.

Learned helplessness. It is common knowledge that if you are stuck in a poor situation, you will attempt to escape it. Of course, the underlying premise is that you must feel that you are capable and you have the power to escape your current circumstances. If like the dog, your attempts to escape are thwarted each and every time, naturally, you may become crestfallen and accept your misfortune. And this is a loss in confidence, a loss in strength, a loss in yourself. It is rare to persevere beyond repeated failures. It is rare to remain resilient despite facing repeated defeat, for from this continual draining of your spirit and drive, you may be conditioned to eventually fall into a state of learned helplessness. And with learned helplessness, the flame within your soul will dwindle into darkness.

Yet we are not caged dogs, destined to be zapped by an outside force; our lives are not experiments. The tribulations within life are inevitable, and the storms are many; throughout all, we must guard the flame within our souls with vigilance, for this flame carries our hopes and aspirations. In the darkest of hours, this flame is your guiding light.

So add timber to the flame when the winds are rough, and let those winds carry your flame into a blazing fire.

The only cage you live in is the one you build yourself.


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