Unlearned Helplessness

Fifty years ago, American psychologist Martin Seligman developed a theory that would become foundational in many aspects of psychology. Building on previous observations, Seligman (with another psychologist, Steven Maier) tested how rats responded to a negative stimulus (an electrical shock) under three different conditions. The first group could escape the shocks by pressing a lever. The second group had a lever but it didn’t do anything. The third group also had a functioning lever but received no shock. After some time, the rats were individually relocated to an environment matching that of the first group, where the negative stimulus could be escaped by pressing a lever.

The first group, as expected, were quick to act by pressing the lever to escape the shock. The third group, the group that had a functioning lever yet never received a shock, also learned they could escape the shock by pressing the lever. The second group, however, made no attempt to press the lever at all, and just tolerated the negative stimulus. Their previous experience, with the non-functioning lever, taught them that nothing could be done to escape the shock. Faced with a similar situation, this time along with a viable solution, their response was to default to previous experience. Seligman called this phenomenon learned helplessness.

Another example involves elephants. I didn’t know this, but when a trainer begins working with a baby elephant, they tie the elephant’s foot to a secure post. The young elephant will try to escape for some time, straining against the length of rope. Inevitably they settle down, however, accepting that they are held to a certain area. As it grows, the elephant is strong enough to easily snap the rope or post, but it doesn’t even try. Previous experience has taught it that nothing can be done to escape the rope – and it stays put.

If brain damage can be described as anything, calling it a negative stimulus is a generously euphemistic place to start. Living with brain damage is not unlike being one of the rats in the second group – it is an inescapable reality. Looking back on the early years post-accident, I recognize that much of my time and energy was spent grasping for a lever I could press that would free me. I was the baby elephant back then, straining against the limitations of my freshly damaged brain, and I quickly learned that I was confined to a very limited space. And it’s not just the cognitive deficits that are limiting, chronic physical ailments are equally confining. Ongoing neck issues are a concern when being seated (or lying on Emergency Room stretchers) for extended periods. Problems with visual-search and acuity increases the workload of locating things, maintaining focus, and even reading. These are all inescapable and, like my cohorts in the second group of rats, I’ve resigned myself to this reality. Is this learned helplessness or learned pragmatism?

The challenge when faced with what seems to be inescapable difficulty, as simple as it sounds, is to keep trying to make the best of it. Keep trying to move the needle even a little, to tune things a little closer to something more manageable. It’s not the result that’s important, it’s the effort. This distinction was brought to my attention by a friend some time ago. I was venting about the skin cancer diagnosis I had just received, lamenting the fact that everything I tried to do to enhance my way of life was either physically unsustainable or cut short by some fresh trauma. “Things just don’t seem to work out for very long.” I concluded. “Yeah,” my friend responded, “but you keep trying.” Where I saw repeated failure, he saw resilience. Instead of depressing outcomes, he saw optimistic hope for better results. Ironically, his perspective was a more natural fit with my general disposition, so I went with it.

Acting on this perspective, I guess, puts me in a fourth group of rats – those with a non-functioning lever, and keep pushing it anyway. This group, I assume, would do much better in the experiment than the second group. Instead of lying down and ignoring the potential solution within reach, we would rush over and try the lever because, who knows? Maybe it’ll work this time. Despite all previous experience that told us it was pointless, we’d give it whirl because we have to at least try to change our current reality. If we rally one more time, maybe we can get the break we’re looking for.

The truth is I’m used to things happening to me, things I have no control over and just have to accept; car accident, brain damage, spinal issues, divorce, skin cancer. I’m used to responding to things. In fact, I came to see this as something of a positive character trait; I’m able to roll with the flurry of punches that have come knocking over the years. But in the midst of taking all these hits, I never considered that maybe I could throw some punches too, that I could actually score some points. I’ve been in response mode for so long, I’ve come to accept that rolling around the ring was the best I could do. Surviving, but not thriving had become my calling card. For a certain time, for a certain while, surviving is an accomplishment in itself, to be sure. But that time is behind me, however, and that passive mindset keeps from trying levers that could change my reality.

And so it is with this resolution that I went about trying to get a job at Royal Jubilee Hospital. I always thought that once I had a goal clearly defined, like working at RJH, for example, that the path toward that goal would crystallize just as clearly. In reality, I had no idea how to go about getting a job at RJH. I looked online and even applied for a patient porter job opening on their employment system. What I came to see, however, was that I couldn’t afford to just apply online, anonymously, with all the others and passively hope that my application would stand out. So I threw my first punch.

Instead of scouring job openings online, I decided I would just hang out at the hospital (and write or play with graphic design stuff). I didn’t really have any idea beyond that, but I figured I might be able to soak up something helpful just by being in that environment. I had some encouraging experiences early on so I kept going. Randomly striking up a conversation with a guy waiting for the elevator, I learned about the position of material porter which appealed to me. Over the next couple months, I nervously struck up conversations with whomever I thought might be able to help me. With each tidbit of useful information, I felt like I had landed a hard jab, slowly working my way off the ropes.

Steadily, I scored more and more points until finally I had an appointment to meet with the Head of Logistics, the one in charge of hiring for the porter positions. We had a very promising meeting, scheduled an official interview for later, and I couldn’t believe that I had actually bent my fate to my will. I was shaping my life instead of being shaped by it, and it looked like I might walk away with the title.

Life, however, is relentless and three days before my official job interview, I developed a bowel obstruction. In an ironic twist of fate, I found myself in the Emergency department of the very hospital I was interviewing for. Lying there with a nasogastric tube draining fluid from my stomach, I had the same knee-jerk response that’s been honed for years. “Classic,” I thought. “Of course another health issue messes things up. It always goes this way, why should this time be any different?” Perhaps it was the tube in my throat, or maybe it was a deeper resignation altogether, but I didn’t feel like I was rolling with the punches of life. I felt like life didn’t want this fight to be decided on points, and it was going for the KO.

By this time, however, I could see that my strategy was working. I discovered I could actually make things happen and change my fortune.  I was released from the hospital on Saturday and puked as soon as I got home. I slept most of Sunday, and had the interview on Monday. As I walked through the hospital halls, this time under my own power, I felt oddly confident. I had taken the final desperate blows life could throw, and was still standing.

Thirty minutes later I had a job offer.

With that job offer, I gained a new view of myself.  I discovered how to fight for what I wanted.

I learned I wasn’t helpless.

I unlearned helplessness.

About jaybrandsma

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4 Responses to Unlearned Helplessness

  1. Jane says:

    Congratulations, Jay, you deserve this. Look forward to hearing about your new gig. Your lucky portees will benefit from your wise and witty presence at RJH. I’m sure of it!

  2. Nick says:

    Congrats dude! Psyched to hear a bit more about it over un café.

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