1995: Learned Helplessness

From my journal for December 16, 1995

Dana got me a book, The Optimistic Child.  It was written by a man who worked with “learned helplessness” and put together a team to figure out how to help kids who are at risk for depression.  He talks about “explanatory style” which is how we explain to ourselves the meaning of success of failure.  An optimistic style is specific and behavior based, a pessimistic style is global and shame-based.  Falling into depression seems to be very much related to whether or not one can see/think/feel that there is something they can do that will make a difference.  If you find that no matter what you do, it doesn’t have any effect, you will give up, like the dogs subjected to electric shock in the experiments.  In order to develop persistence and resilience in the face of setbacks, a child needs to be allowed, or helped, to learn by increments that are not too challenging.  I can see how growing up in an alcoholic family would create a depressed child, because no matter what I do, how hard I try, sooner or later I see that nothing makes any difference, and there is no one there to tell me that it’s because the situation has nothing to do with me.  I also see that in my family, neither parent took the time and trouble to help talk me through a difficulty.  I was expected to “just know” what to do, and made wrong for not knowing.  I remember how much I suffered in social situations because no one had ever bothered to teach me the forms — I think of that embarrassing dinner party when I was “hostess” and didn’t know that I had to be the one to start eating.  I had always just waited for someone else.

The author says that self-esteem (real, not spurious) is not based on feeling good about oneself, but on doing something well.  Learning to do something well can be a difficult process, needing support, helpful feedback, practice of basic moves or easier versions.  I think none of this happened consistently (I was shamed, abandoned, and then praised inappropriately) until I was in school, where my natural intelligence had a chance to function.  But I see that now, as I try to move into realms that are unfamiliar, like learning to do creative projects, that my intellectual skills don’t help, and I don’t have any persistence or resilience in the face of setbacks.

Once my father said to me, when I was having trouble with a project: “If you didn’t know how to do it, why did you even try?”

I can also see how my constant struggles with my health are also conducive to depression (besides the component that comes from toxins affecting the brain) because it’s a situation where mostly the things I do don’t make much difference.  I know that I have to do certain things, like yoga and walking, just to maintain some degree of health, but when I’m feeling sick, and there’s nothing I can do to make it better, I have no sense of efficacy or mastery with respect to my health.  A shame-based, trauma-based, pessimistic world-view doesn’t help either.  In fact the author says that pessimistic children have more health problems than optimistic ones, which doesn’t surprise me.

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