Learned Helpfulness

Learned helplessness is an interesting idea, and Wikipedia sums up current thinking well:

Learned helplessness is the behavior exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control. It was initially thought to be caused by the subject’s acceptance of their powerlessness: discontinuing attempts to escape or avoid the aversive stimulus, even when such alternatives are unambiguously presented. Upon exhibiting such behaviour, the subject was said to have acquired learned helplessness. Over the past few decades, neuroscience has provided insight into learned helplessness and shown that the original theory had it backward: the brain’s default state is to assume that control is not present, and the presence of “helpfulness” is what is learned first. However, it is unlearned when a subject is faced with prolonged aversive stimulation.

In other words: we learn that we’ve got control, and when things go sideways, over and over again, we unlearn it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’ve been finding myself perplexingly incapable of late. I’m a smart guy with enormous privilege, financial resources, and I’ve been known to have moxie by times. And yet problems that, in theory, are solvable have been slaying me, and I’ve been grasping for reasons why.

Driving downtown this morning after dropping off Olivia, I was thinking about how this might relate to Catherine’s death and the grief surrounding it.

From her incurable cancer diagnosis in 2014 until her death in 2020 Catherine accepted her fate: she did not rail against the darkness, and accepted that she was going to die. I followed her into that, and while I generally regarded it as the right attitude, the only reasonable attitude, I’m wondering now whether that also constituted “enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond my control.”

What is the long-term effect on the psyche from waking up every morning to be reminded of the everpresence of impending doom?

I notice my disability most when it comes to confronting gnarly problems with many interlinked aspects (aspects that often lead down blind alleys or into brick walls). These are the types of problems that I’ve always excelled at, earned my living from, and I’ve loved solving them. But not so much of late.

What describes the process of caring for someone living with incurable cancer better than “confronting gnarly problems with many interlinked aspects.”

I’ve lost my taste for the challenge; I’m exhausted by the gnarly.

I want things to be simple.

And yet they are not.

And so I need a new plan, one that lets me rebuild my sense of helpfulness. I need a way to route around the brick walls. To not get flummoxed and debilitated by a feeling of how-can-this-possibly-be-so-hard. To break down things into bite-sized chunks. To make maps of things that, at one time, I might have been able to hold in my head. To ask for help, over and over and over again. To release my attachment to completeness, perfection.

My brain has been changed by what I’ve been through, in ways I’m only just beginning to understand; it’s time that I accept that, and work to adapt.


elmine's picture
elmine on October 12, 2022 - 04:58 Permalink

This resonates with me. Thanks for sharing. And don't forget how much we're all impacted by living through a pandemic.

Jarek's picture
Jarek on October 12, 2022 - 23:25 Permalink

Yeah, I was going to say, between pandemic and climate crisis there's a lot of repeated aversive stimuli beyond our control coming our way.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on October 14, 2022 - 14:50 Permalink

I read and commented about the sectional before I read your thoughts about learned helplessness, but I might have made the same comment if I’d read them in the opposite order. Learned helplessness is I think a natural peril of a purchase and a decision like that sectional, with respect to whether to return it. So for someone tending to succumbing to LH it looks like progress to decide and go through with it. Also I suppose by trial and error you’ve refined your sense of what kind of sectional or couch you want. So that’s progress toward getting what will make you happy

Dan's picture
Dan on February 15, 2023 - 21:21 Permalink

Very insightful and helpful. I'm glad your writing finally made it to me by accident, as it does when things are working well. Thank you for your contributions to sanity. :-)