I talked with a man some time ago who had a doctorate and a business. He told me that he thought everyone should get an income from the government so that no one would have to work. Never mind that there would be no money to give if no one worked. He felt helpless about his floundering business and felt resentful toward others who were successful while he was not. Psychological research has much to teach us about this kind of attitude and how to recognize and overcome it.
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For Further Consideration
More about Dr. Seeligman and his work on learned helplessness can be found here.
To consider more about the kind of work God wants us to do check out The Law in Our Hearts.
No one ever wants to be considered a pitiful helpless person. Consequently, when we hear topics like this, we always think of others rather than ourselves. So to benefit, the question to ask here is: How often do I think that God and others should do things for me that I can do for myself?
To start out, there was a man named Martin Seligman, a psychologist who did some experiments which revealed a tendency that human have. He called this tendency learned helplessness. It turns out that some people will give up trying to solve their own problems if they fail at it enough. They come to believe that they can’t do anything about the issue. Then, even when an opportunity to escape the problem presents itself, they don’t try to escape it. He also observed that no one is born this way. It’s a learned behavior. Let me give you an example.
One of my favorite movies is A Christmas Story. I know, I know. I don’t observe Christmas. But the story really isn’t about Christmas. It’s about growing up. It’s about a little boy and his family and I think it was probably post War US. The cars they drove and kind of things they had in the movie reminded me a lot of when I was growing up. I think it might have been a little bit before my time, but right in there. There is a scene in this movie when some early elementary school boys are walking home from school, down an alley, when the local bullies appear. And they all run away except for Schwartz. And, as the bullies approach, Schwartz sighs, turns around and puts his hand up behind his back, presenting himself to be hammer-locked. He doesn’t even try to get away. He’s been bullied so much that he just expects it’s going to happen again, though all his other friends have successfully fled the situation. That’s an example of learned helplessness – or at least, in the movie, it’s implied that it is.
Another example would be some people that have addictions. I made a friend years ago, while I was doing my Master’s degree, who was blind. He had to do a practicum, so he chose to do his at an addiction clinic. Some weeks later, one day I asked him how it was going, and he told me that he had changed his practicum. He was now working with disabled people. And I said, “That makes sense, since you probably can relate to them easily – since you, yourself, have this disability.” And he said that was true, but that was not why he changed. He said that the addicts he encountered all believed their problems were caused by other people – they were helpless victims. The word helpless comes to mind. He observed that this way of thinking made it impossible to overcome their addictions, because it allowed them to make no effort on their own to resolve the problems they had. They had learned to be helpless. He also observed that most of the disabled people he met – who were truly helpless in some way – yet most of the time carried on, tried to do things for themselves, relied on others as little as possible, and were living productive lives in spite of their disabilities. My friend, by the way, was the most inspiring example of this himself. He mowed his own lawn. He told me he rebuilt his own lawn mower motor when it quit working. He did his own homework on a computer. He could text on his phone, make calls, use his iPad, use the computer, fixed his own food, cleaned his own home. He was married, but he could still do all these things. So he didn’t let the fact that it was more difficult to do these things slow him down. He didn’t consider himself to be helpless.
Another example: I saw a client some time back, and when she came in was depressed. She was a Reiki master with quite a bit of experience. She was good at pain resolution and life coaching and things like that. The reason she was there was that she had PTSD. She’d been threatened by her husband with a gun to her head. This case was really bad. She wasn’t working. She had become morbidly obese. She had a bad case of hyper-vigilance – so much so that she was homeschooling her son for fear of kidnapping. She was also discouraged and isolated. She also talked a lot about how lonely she was, because of the isolation. Isolation is often a part of PTSD, so I was expecting that to resolve as we worked through the symptoms. She explored forming some kind of peer group with other Reiki people. She also said she could not do Reiki until she had a private place in her home to do the work. And I learned that installing one interior door would have remedied that problem. She also discussed her weight gain, and she noted that she binge ate when her mother, who lived with her, would belittle her. At some point in all this, her EMDR hit, what I call, critical mass, and her symptoms started to crumble and fall. Not long after that, she announced that she had enrolled her son in school again. That meant, to me, that she was less anxious about that and less hyper-vigilant. Sometime after that, she said she was getting out of the house to get away from her mother’s demeaning harangues, instead of just sitting there and taking it, and then binge eating. She was getting out of the house. She would take her laptop to go to someplace and work away from her mother. And, instead of eating, like she used to do, she would have a cup of tea. She then told me she found a carpenter who would work for a reasonable price and he was almost finished installing the door, so that she would have a private place to work. Not long after that, she came in all excited because she came across a local Reiki practitioners group on the Internet, and also a small business group, and had gleaned a lot of good ideas for her business and had some really encouraging interactions with the people, and even had made plans to meet some people in person and have lunch together. Finally, she told me she was no longer anxious about her ex-husband killing her and her son, nor was she hateful toward her hateful mother. It wasn’t just one-sided apparently. And – I think it was that very same day – she told me that she got on the scale before coming to her session only to learn that she had lost twenty pounds without even trying. Since she was getting away from the anxiety of dealing with her mother, she wasn’t as inclined to binge eat. So, once she got past her emotional wounds, she started looking outward and found help for every one of her roadblocks. All she had to do was start trying, and things that she felt helpless about started to become realities in her life. She wasn’t helpless after all. She just believed that she was. So, one of the thing I did to help her along the way was, every time she would complain about one of these issues, I would ask her what could she do about it, and then we would brainstorm about it. And sometimes, we would use EMDR to process the brainstorming session to kind of imbed it a little bit more. When she started feeling better, she started an action plan for each one of these things. And most interesting of all to me was, the carpenter she hired to work on her door, he asked her out on a date. So, people with weight problems and other addictions, health issues, people who were taught to be helpless as children, people who have trouble being employed, etcetera, try and fail – even though others could accomplish these things – they believe that they can’t, and they give up and feel helpless in the face of their problems. I find people who are in this state usually have been wounded so much, they have given up. EMDR seems to help people get up and get moving again.
Guess what else the learned helplessness researchers discovered. They learned that learned helplessness causes depression and depression causes learned helplessness. It takes me back to my mentor, Ken Wells, who provided a practicum for me at his mental health clinic. When he had clients who were depressed – though all their basic needs had been met – in other words, he didn’t believe they had any real reason to be depressed that they couldn’t handle themselves – he would take them out to the street with two trash bags, and they would pick up trash together. And when they were done, he would say, “Now doesn’t that feel better? We made a difference in the neighborhood.” One of the things I encourage depressed people to do – following his lead there – is to ask, when they tell me about a troubling issue, “What can be done about that? What plan could you employ? What strategy? What action?” And when combined with the EMDR, most of them start to get up and get moving again.
Now, before we leave depression, I want to mention that not all depression responds to that approach – only about 99% of it. You know, that should be a heads up for people that want to get away from depression.
Now, I haven’t seen anything in the learned helplessness literature about this, but it seems obvious that this state would also create anxiety in people as well. If depression is about past losses, and anxiety is anticipation of future losses, when a person feels unable to meet their own needs, that would make them anxious, would it not? So focusing on what we can do to help ourselves is a vital key to mental health and ridding ourselves of the two major mental health issues – depression and anxiety.
Let’s think a little bit, too, about working with children to avoid learned helplessness. Here are five points that you can employ, if you have children:
We need to point out to our children what they’re good at. “I can tell that you have a knack for math.” No one ever said that to me. And that was because I was good at other things, not that. I was good at reading. My mother pointed that out to me and helped me learn that. So that’s one thing: point out to our kids what they’re good at. I’m not talking about building them up and telling them they’re good at things they’re not good at, because that only leads to disappointment. But, if you know what they’re good at, go with it.
I was talking to a minister once who had a lot of children. He had a little boy that was in the middle, and he kind of felt like he was looked over. He wasn’t the oldest and he wasn’t the little ones that needed all the care. So his father noticed one day that he would like to come out by his father when he was at his workbench and hand tools to him. So he told his son, “You’re good at helping me, and you are a helper.” And, if I remember right, that boy actually makes his living being a professional care giver. So, point there.
The second one: We can point out how our children’s efforts benefit them. I told the Reiki woman, that I mentioned earlier, when she mentioned to me that she was feeling better, I said, “All your hard work and courage are now paying off for you.” And she nodded her head and smiled. So try to make the connection between the effort our kids put out and the benefits that they receive them – positive consequences for putting forth effort.
Third: We can help our kids develop smart, goal-oriented plans so that they learn that connection between effort and benefit. I don’t know how many children have said to me, “I tried it like we talked about, and it worked.” And they always have a big beaming smile on their faces when they say that. I’ve been doing that for years with kids in therapy as one of the main tools to help them get past the problems they’re dealing with.
Fourth: Stop giving kids the answers to their homework questions, but instead, help them discover their own ways of figuring things out and learning. Each of us has a slightly unique way doing that, and it’s good when parents help us learn what those ways are.
And lastly: Allow children to fail with support, so they can see how they continued effort eventually pays off. I was talking to a – I think he was – a seventh-grader the other day, and he was telling me about his father helping him with his math. And he said, “He never tells me the answer, but he shows me how to figure it out.” So I asked him if he let him struggle with it sometimes. He said, “Yes, so that I can figure it out for myself.” So there’s a good father who really knows how to help his son. You know, doing your kids’ homework for them, or providing the answers, just makes them soft mentally, and they don’t know how to use their minds. So, when we teach our children this way, it promotes a very important quality – resilience and the belief that effort works.
By the way, that word resilience…we’re getting ready to do a series on that soon. So everything we’ve said so far, really, is a primer on this issue about being resilient, even though we started out with the negative side of it – to be helpless.
So how does all this fit into Christian life? Well, let’s take some time with that – think a little bit about it. There’s a famous prayer called The Serenity Prayer. It was developed by a minister back in the 1800s – I think it was 1800s – late 1800s, maybe early 1900s. And the first verse of it says, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” So there are three elements there – working to change – you know, we’re not helpless – and yet in other things, we are truly helpless, and big problems occur when we can’t tell the difference. I see that a lot in my work.
So working hard to do what we can. Some Christians think that they no longer have to obey God, or do anything to attain salvation – that Jesus did all that. They’re saved once and for all time. So they’re sort of in a state of Christian learned helplessness and enjoy being in it. They think they don’t need to do any work. But, referring back to the prayer, those are people that can’t tell the difference between what they can change and what they can’t. God has enough perfection for all of us, that’s true. He doesn’t need us to be perfect in the flesh, but that doesn’t mean that we are not supposed to make an effort to be Christ-like. If we put forth effort there – make an effort – God, through the Spirit, will change us. If we make no effort, nothing happens.
I once heard an analogy about the Holy Spirit. It’s like power steering. Will power steering steer a car? No! It just makes steering easier. So we have to make the effort to make the turns to go the right way, and God’s Spirit makes it possible for us to accomplish those things. So, God is looking for people who are willing to work at being like God. He will make up the difference, but we still have to work at it, commit to it, and be faithful in it. How do I know that? Well, there are lots of scriptures that say that. Here’s one that sort of fits in with this message today. It’s in John 5:17.
John 5:17 – My Father is working until now, and I am working.
So if you’re to be God-like, which is sort of a given, then God wants us to be workers. He doesn’t want us to sit down and just think God’s going to do everything for us or feel like we’re helpless in doing what God wants. Jesus and God do not suffer from learned helplessness and neither should we. There’s no reason we need to.
So the next thing in the prayer is to accept that we are weak and do not have control over much more than ourselves. It truly is foolish to try and do things we can’t do. Nevertheless, I often find myself trying to do just that. And I’ve had to come to learn that I can’t make other people make good choices. I can’t make other people be well. I spend a lot of time trying to help people accept the fact that they can’t make their mate stop drinking too much, or spending too much money, or that they can be faithful to them. I try to help them to realize that they can’t stop their children from shooting heroin, if they really want to, or drop their toxic boyfriend or girlfriend. When we find ourselves faced with we want, but cannot do, how are we supposed to respond? Well, there are some things we’re helpless about, and then there are other things that, sometimes, we feel helpless about, but we’re really not. But when we run into the things that we truly can’t do anything about, how should a Christian act? Well, here’s what Paul said in Philippians 4:5 – a very famous scripture.
Philippians 4:5 – Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand. He’s here. He’s present. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your request be make known to God. So supplication is repeated requesting in prayer and putting it in the context of being thankful for the things that He’s already given us. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
So we trust God to take care of the stuff that we can’t do anything about. And, if we do that, then we will be at peace.
So what does it mean if we’re not at peace? Well, yeah, it means that we don’t yet have the wisdom to know the difference in our hearts, or we don’t trust God enough, or maybe that we’re still wounded and need to have some healing in our own lives.
Okay, wisdom to know the difference. We’ve already covered part of this, but I want to pass on one more thought on this. I think that this is a boundary issue – at least, for me, it is. And I have to keep this in mind all the time, as I work. I know that when people come to my office, I sometimes see that I have been given – if I can make this quote – a particular set of skills, and, if people let me use these skills and work hard themselves, I can reasonably be assured they will be better off for it. But can I make them do that? No, I can’t. God has a boundary around each person. It’s called free will. I can offer to help, but I can’t make anyone use the help I have to offer. Some people agree to start down that healing path, but, like Lot’s wife, sometimes they look back and stop following. And I have certain strategies I employ to try to help them get back on track, but, in the end, they get to decide whether it’s forward or backward. So, when someone chooses to go back into the way they were, I always feel bad for them. And I kind of run through a history of what’s occurred to see if there is something I might have done – a mistake I might have made. But, most of the time, no, and I wind up knowing that I did all I could, so I have to let that go. I focus on helping the ones who are willing to go forward who do not feel helpless, but are willing to do the work, and I give the others to God to take care of. And He will. It’s a promise.
So what can we say about all this? Well, Dr. Seligman discovered that people’s suffering causes them to believe they are helpless. Well, we know where the suffering in this world comes from ultimately, don’t we? It comes from our adversary. We know that. He tries to strip away from us the desire to go forward. He does this by causing us to suffer, and get discouraged and not believe that we can be successful – that we’re helpless. And then we ask that terrible question, “What’s the use?” and we give up. God, on the other hand, 365 times in the Bible, tells us, “Do not be afraid!” He tells us to endure suffering as a good soldier for Christ. He tells us that in the end, if we don’t give up, we will win out. We are not helpless. He tells us, even, that death will be swallowed up in victory!
So none of us are helpless to control ourselves. And, with even a little effort, God can do miraculous things in any Christian life. Now what we’re talking about there is the word is used earlier – resilience. So stay tuned for a new series called The Resilient Christian. And I can’t wait to get into that one.
Don’t forget to comment on the Website. Also, this coming week, we’re starting up our blog for real. We floated a couple of trial balloons out there, but now we’re on target to go forward with it. So look for it next Friday in your email. Now, if you’re not on our email list, you can sign up for that at liferesource.org. If you don’t like it, you can quit anytime. We’re not going to bomb you with topics and stuff like that – just one every two weeks.
So, until next time, this is Bill Jacobs for LifeResource Ministries, serving children, families and the Church of God.