Even if you haven’t heard the term “learned helplessness” I guarantee you’ve seen it in action. I have noticed it time and time again in people with and without disabilities. It’s one of the most frustrating habits to witness because it’s totally preventable.
To illustrate learned helplessness, let me use my nieces as an example. They are 4 and 2 and each have their own little plastic car that they can sit in and use their feet to push around like Fred Flintstone. They love to roll down this concrete path connecting the two patios in the back yard. The problem is that once they get to the bottom, they can’t push back up the hill because it’s just steep enough to make it too difficult.
Initially, they would struggle to try and get back up the path, usually getting stuck several feet from the bottom. Then their dad would come and either push them or carry them each up the hill. Of course then they’d want to roll back down the path and subsequently the pattern started where they’d roll down, then not even bother trying to going back up because they knew their dad would come down and get them. They’d just yell for him.
Learned helplessness at its finest, or worst, depending on how you look at it.
This afternoon, however, it became clear that this whole process was getting annoying. So my sister decided that the girls needed to figure out how to get back up to the top of the path on their own. She told them, “If you can’t push yourself up from inside the car, get out of the car and push the car up!” Within minutes, the girls were back to the top of the path, now able to execute this entire cycle all by themselves. They were totally self-sufficient.
Problem solved, learned helplessness averted.
Until I lived by alone, I was guilty of learned helplessness myself. It mostly had to do with household chores like laundry or cleaning. Although physically more difficult, these chores were never impossible for me. My mom did all of it for me, however. On the surface it made my life easier but had it continued, it might have made me totally dependent on her for the rest of my life.
Thankfully, dealing with household chores was the extent of my learned helplessness. Instead of learning to be helpless, I’ve had to learn how to do many things to help myself as time has gone on — from chores to getting out of bed to getting dressed to driving — you name it. Had someone assisted with all of these things I might never have learned to do them myself. It is much easier, mentally, to just let someone else do something than it is to try it, particularly if the task requires a struggle.
Struggling is okay in my book, however, as long as there’s no physical harm involved. Struggling is a way of learning to do something — whether physical or mental. Accomplishing something after a struggle is empowering. If I can feel empowered every day just by getting out of bed in the morning, imagine what the rest of my day will be like?