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Don’t let learned helplessness defeat your politics

By Anne Bradley, Founder, Fat Fit Punk

The world sucks and we feel helpless to change it.

Here’s why.

Explanation of learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is believing no matter what we do, we cannot impact the result. It often develops after we are exposed to stressful situations repeatedly in which we have little to no control over the outcomes.

Martin Seligman changed the game with this research (which you can read about in depth here. If you’re subjected to abuse, suffer loss and/or defeat, loss of control, over and over again, you learn there is no escape possible. Even if circumstances change, we do not try to change our actions because we have already learned we can’t escape.

Think about Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones – he was subjected to horrific physical and psychological abuse, and learned there was not only no escape possible, there was no relief or conceivable end in sight. When confronted with opportunity to escape, he instead cowered in his cell and fought his rescuers.

Theon is extreme, but learned helplessness exists in all sorts of situations – from a kid deciding they’re “bad at math” and not studying at all, to a person staying in an abusive relationship to tossing your recycling in the trash because “it doesn’t matter anyways.” It is a pervasive and frustrating reality.

Learned helplessness interacts with stress: it affects our cognition and explanations of events, and is associated with a host of mental health concerns, including both depression and anxiety.

For example, a “normal” person might attribute a negative event, like getting stood up for a date, to outside factors such as traffic or miscommunication. In contrast, a depressed person would probably blame their [perceived] unworthiness and undesirability. And the helplessness from feeling worthless and gross? That shit LASTS.

Why does this matter now?

You may be asking yourself why I’m talking so much about psychology that’s been around since the fifties. I would encourage you to take a look at our world as it stands today. The climate is fucked, people’s bodies are under state control, prisons are overcrowded and hugely abusive, political participation is in the toilet, cops keep murdering people, kids are getting shot in schools. You can see why it’s easy to feel hopeless and helpless.

Helplessness via the media:

us learners – meaning we can learn from another person’s experience without having to personally experience it ourselves: this means that learned helplessness can be transmitted from one person to another, often widely and quickly.

Research first completed in early 2012 shows that between 15-35% of people exposed to news content via the mass media develop learned helplessness around politics, especially when such content is focused on aggression.

And this was pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook News, pre-Fox News taking over the world.

Helplessness from bureaucracy and oppression:

Long term oppression and oppressive systems being seen as legitimate result in systems where everyone feels helpless. Additionally, participants feel that these situations are unavoidable and that nothing will ever change. It’s also been hypothesized that the more bureaucratic a system, the more helpless we feel. (Think: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

This understanding also explains the decrease in political participation in the US. Learned helplessness outranks political affiliation, political trust, and political interest. In the past 60 years, both civic and political engagement have dropped like a stone – and why wouldn’t they if we feel nothing we do makes a difference?

The Munich Security Conference just released a report warning about learned helplessness in politics.

To quote the report:

“Sensing that they have no control over global events, many people seem to conclude that it will not be possible to solve humanity’s most challenging problems. This poses the risk that, even though there are resources, strategies, and instruments available to address the key challenges facing humanity, the world will not be able to do so.”

Most frightening is the sense of helplessness worldwide– between 50-78% of people reported feeling helpless in the face of global events. HALF. At least half. At least half of people feel helpless when shit happens.

Why do I care?

The key takeaway from learned helplessness and why it’s so important to recognize is the inability of those struggling to recognize and use tools available to change situations. We are not Theon Greyjoy. We are not the elephant tied to the stake. But it requires near constant cognitive work to develop learned optimism which is the antidote.

A quote from Mathias Sager on

When citizens accept they have no control over their environment, their politics, or their government, not only are they becoming more passive – they are also becoming easier to manipulate and control.

We start to identify with the powerful and avoid the weak. We lose our individualism. We see freedom as a luxury and our mindset is focused on survival. Fear becomes a habit instead of a life-saving reaction. We start to feel like anything challenging that fear is unsafe, and to be safe is to survive – so we shut down.

We accept the status quo when we feel we have no choices and no efficacy. We have learned we are helpless, so we give up without even trying.

When we feel more disconnected from our political system, we remove ourselves from the “political arena”, but this disconnect is also tied to increased rates of depression. As Martin Seligman said, our “fundamental sense of well-being crucially depends on our having the ability to exert control over our environment and recognizing that we do.” Decreased control results in decreased well-being. More depression results in increased helplessness, less motivation and energy to resist, and increased nihilism.

What the hell do we do then?

Importantly, learned helplessness is not our fault. However, it is our responsibility. And it can be changed using awareness about existing systems and power differentials. Information is power. After all, we can’t fight what we don’t know exists.

  1. Remember: learned helplessness is LEARNED. And it can be un-learned.

    1. People in power are counting on the shock, the despair, and the helplessness to keep you exhausted. They intentionally make choices away from public view, apply spin to media stories nonstop, and shift blame to keep us tired and angry. They want you to think this is how it’s always been. They want you to believe the world’s ending so that you care less. They want you to think that what you do doesn’t matter because that’s when we’re easily controlled.

  2. Change your mindset:

    1. Look at learned optimism. Read about it. Practice self-care, go to therapy, and use your affirmations…but also, look at good news. Look at progress and improvements. If you can learn helplessness, you can learn optimism.

    2. Then, look at learned control. Seligman found learned helplessness was the norm, rather than an anomaly, and the most effective countermeasure was learned control – that you can take steps to produce a better outcome in the future, and your expectations can be modified to make poor or small outcomes less distressing.

  3. Then change your actions

    1. Most importantly is to act “as if.” Act as if your behavior has value, that you can affect outcomes, and it becomes a positive feedback loop. Create some alternative explanations and start re-framing that shit!

    2. Start small. No, you likely can’t burn down the Supreme Court, but you can give $5 to an abortion fund. You can share your salary in your office to support pay equity. You can ask HR directly why they’re not recruiting BIPOC. You can even write a blog, or do some tweeting, or provide emotional support for family or friends who are also engaging in progressive work. We don’t need one person doing things perfectly, we need thousands of people doing things imperfectly. After all, every avalanche is made up of millions of tiny snowflakes just doing their own thing.

So, in conclusion, keep on. Create an alternate explanation in your mind, and let it guide your actions. Continue circling back to your core and remember – learned helplessness is learned, and it can be un-learned. We owe it to ourselves, to our communities, and to our world to not let defeat be the last word.

Anne Bradley

Founder, Fat Fit Punk


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