Hopeful or Helpless

*By Deb Anderson, Conservative Ladies of Washington Education Lead


When I think about the next blog I need to write, I wait for an idea to come to me (of course).  This week, for some reason, I can’t get a lab experiment out of my mind.  It was done in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier.  I’ve always hated these guys because they use animals in their experiments.  It makes me cringe.  So, read the next bit as fast as you can, maybe, if you’re like me, you can read it with your eyes closed.

            Seligman and Maier were working with dogs and testing their responses to electrical shocks.  Some of the dogs received electrical shocks that they could not predict or control.  The dogs were placed in a box with two chambers divided by a low barrier.  One chamber had an electrified floor and the other was not.  When the dogs were placed in the box and the electrified floor was turned on, a strange thing happened.  Some dogs didn’t even attempt to jump over the low barrier to the other side.  Further, the dogs who didn’t attempt to jump the barrier were generally the dogs who had previously been given shocks with no way to escape them, and the dogs who jumped the barrier tended to be those who had not received such treatment.

To further investigate this phenomenon, Seligman and Maier gathered a new batch of dogs and divided them into three groups:

  1. Dogs in Group One were strapped into harnesses for a period of time and were not administered any shocks;
  2. Dogs in Group Two were strapped into the same harnesses but were administered electrical shocks that they could avoid by pressing a panel with their noses;
  3. Dogs in Group Three were placed in the same harnesses and also administered electrical shocks, but were given no way to avoid them.

Once these three groups had completed this first experimental manipulation, all dogs were placed (one at a time) in the box with two chambers. Dogs from Group One and Group Two were quick to figure out that they only needed to jump over the barrier to avoid the shocks, but most of the dogs from Group Three didn’t even attempt to avoid them.  Based on their previous experience, these dogs concluded that there was nothing they could do to avoid being shocked (Seligman & Groves, 1970).

            Seligman called this discovery “learned helplessness.”  That’s what I couldn’t get out of mind.  It struck me how that could describe what a lot of us are feeling right now.  As I read the posts from such discouraged parents about the school situation, from business owners about the vax situation, from employees who are facing loss of income, they seem so full of despair and helplessness.   Watch the progression of the vax mandate.  It is a clear study of learned helplessness.  Every step, we thought we found a way to get around it.  Three different vaccines were offered for us to take voluntarily.  Many of us chose not to take them.  Case closed.  Then, it was decided if you work in the government, you need the vax (unless, of course, you are in Congress—Congress is exempt from the mandate).  You can avoid the vax if you have a medical or religious reason.  Phew!  We have a way out.  Then, all businesses with 100 employees or more must have the vax.  But you can still have the exemptions.  Then, the medical exemption is taken away.  But you can still have the religious exemption.  Then, if you don’t get the vax, you will lose your job.  And, the religious exemption is now being reversed.  With each phase, we found the unelectric floor and landed there.  We kept jumping over the net to get away from the new shock only to find the floor on the other side was electric.  Soon, like the Seligman dogs, we are so numb and believe there is no way out.  We collapse and refuse to keep trying.  We have learned we are helpless. 

            The government could teach a course on how to cause learned helplessness.  They have known what they were doing all along.  Now, with each post of our despair or discouragement, we tell them their work has been successful.  We have learned.  We are helpless.


            With any theory, there is a discussion of how to overcome the situation.  Medical News Today wrote an article about how to win over learned helplessness.  I’ve adjusted it a bit to fit our situation.

  1. Find a place of support and encouragement.  Whether it is Conservative Ladies, a book study, a church, or a neighborhood group, find that place where you are encouraged, where you are told, “This too will pass.” 
  2. Explore the origins of learned helplessness.  Maybe just knowing there was an evil plan from the very first will make you MAD enough to get up.  I gave a brief idea of how it happened with the vax, but you can follow it with the other issues.  How did we get to aborting a healthy newborn?  How did we get to teaching sex to kindergartners?  How did we get to losing control of our 13 year old children?  There’s always path.
  3. Develop ways to decrease feelings of helplessness.  Prisoners of War always say, they could have everything taken away from them, but they still could control their attitude.  Your attitude can control your feelings.  Your feelings can control your actions.
  4. Identify negative thoughts that contribute to learned helplessness.  When we are inundated with such discouraging posts, decide whether you want to read all of them at one time.  They are legitimate so we don’t want to ignore them.  Maybe, find a way to say something positive in your response to that post.
  5. Identify behaviors that reinforce learned helplessness.  Did you choose not to fight in the early stage before the vax was mandated, before CRT entered our schools.  Did we let the little things go by without a fight?  Did we compromise our own standards with the smaller changes?
  6. Replace thoughts and behaviors with positive and beneficial ones.    Kudos to those who post the encouraging news that some school boards are backing down, some businesses are standing their ground and refusing to fire people.   Choose to find the good that is still happening in America.  Cheer for those who are standing in the front lines.  And, especially this week, VOTE for those who are going to bring about good changes.
  7. Improve self-esteem.  I know for me, your remarks on my blogs help keep me encouraged.  It’s stressful to write these things.  Why would anyone want to read something I’ve written.  Thank you for your steady encouragement.
  8. Work through challenging emotions.  Talk about it with each other.  “I feel hopeless.  Help me see some hope.”  Surround yourself with people who understand and who can find positive things going on.
  9. Set goals and tasks.  Get involved.  What can you do to turn learned helplessness into learned hopefulness.   Set your mind on other things.  Set up an exercise regime.  Go outside and breathe deeply.  Go dance in the rain.  Take a walk during a thunderstorm.  Turn the music on and DANCE.  Go for a long drive alone or with others.  Buy a dog.  Do something you’ve been putting off.

Now is not the time to lay like a dog (excuse the crass analogy) who feels there is no way out.  It is the time to get up and kick learned helplessness in the butt.


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