Dustin LindenSmith

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On learned helplessness and other related issues to depression and low self-esteem

I observed these terms discussed in a post and related comments by grammardog. These passages don't resonate with me personally, so much as they remind me of a close friend of ours (not grammardog) who suffers from depression and from these factors. She has created a lot of suffering in her life due to excessively high expectations of herself and others around her, and she exacerbates this suffering through her apparent lack of insight into it. I believe it's a bona fide mental illness, this. But I doubt it would help to share these passages with her.

I'm interested to know more about this Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy, though. At first blush, it sounds a bit quacky, but after a careful reading, it makes a fair bit of sense to me. The treatment tenet of learning to accept things as they are is profound, and in a nutshell, would really resolve most human suffering of a psychological nature in one blow, I think. And what about this statement: ideas and feelings about self-worth are largely definitional and are not empirically confirmable or falsifiable. Like, wow! Imagine if we all really believed that one!

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a human being or an animal has learned to believe that it is helpless in a particular situation. It has come to believe that it has no control over its situation and that whatever it does is futile. As a result, the human being or the animal will stay passive in the face of an unpleasant, harmful or damaging situation, even when it does actually have the power to change its circumstances. Learned helplessness theory is the view that depression results from a perceived lack of control over the events in one's life, which may result from prior exposure to (actually or apparently) uncontrollable negative events.

Learned helplessness is a well-established principle in psychology. It can be observed in the effect of inescapable punishment (such as electrical shock) on animal (and human) behaviour. Learned helplessness may also occur outside the laboratory, in everyday situations or environments in which people perceive (rightly or wrongly) that they have no control over what happens to them. Such environments may include repeated failures, dysfunctional childrearing, repeated mental, emotional and/or physical abuse, prison, school, war, disability, famine, and drought. A similar example is that of those concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust who refused to care or fend for themselves (so-called Muselmänner). Present-day examples can be found in schools, mental institutions, orphanages, or long-term care facilities where the patients have failed or been stripped of agency for long enough to cause their feelings of inadequacy to persist.

Not all people become depressed as a result of being in a situation where they appear not to have control. In what learned-helplessness pioneer Martin Seligman called "explanatory style ," people in a state of learned helplessness view problems as personal, pervasive, or permanent. That is,

* Personal - They may see themselves as the problem; that is, they have internalized the problem.
* Pervasive - They may see the problem as affecting all aspects of life.
* Permanent - They may see the problem as unchangeable.


Explanatory style is a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative. Psychologists have identified three components in explanatory style:

* Personal. People experiencing events may see themselves as the cause; that is, they have internalized the cause for the event. Example: "I always forget to make that turn" (internal) as opposed to "That turn can sure sneak up on you" (external).
* Permanent. People may see the situation as unchangeable, e.g., "I always lose my keys" or "I never forget a face".
* Pervasive. People may see the situation as affecting all aspects of life, e.g., "I can't do anything right" or "Everything I touch seems to turn to gold".


One of the main pillars of REBT is that irrational patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving are the cause of much, though hardly all, human disturbance. REBT teaches that when people turn flexible preferences, desires and wishes into grandiose absolutistic jehovian demands and commands, they disturb and upset themselves. Albert Ellis has suggested three core beliefs that humans disturb themselves through (Ellis, 2001):

* "I absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, perform well (or outstandingly well) and win the approval (or complete love) of significant others. If I fail in these important—and sacred—respects, that is awful and I am a bad, incompetent, unworthy person, who will probably always fail and deserves to suffer." This belief usually contributes to feelings of anxiety, panic, depression, despair, and worthlessness.

* "Other people with whom I relate or associate, absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, treat me nicely, considerately and fairly. Otherwise, it is terrible and they are rotten, bad, unworthy people who will always treat me badly and do not deserve a good life and should be severely punished for acting so abominably to me." This belief usually contributes to feelings of anger, rage, fury, and vindictiveness and lead to actions like fights, feuds, wars, genocide, and perhaps ultimately an atomic holocaust.

* "The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at practically all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not that way it's awful and horrible and I can't bear it. I can't ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living." This beliefs usually contributes to frustration and discomfort, intolerance, self-pity, anger, depression, and to behaviors such as procrastination, avoidance, and inaction.

REBT teaches that:

* Unconditional self-acceptance, other-acceptance, life-acceptance are of prime importance in achieving mental wellness.
* People and the world are inherently fallible and people had better accept themselves, life's hassles, and unfairness and others "as is".
* People had better consider themselves valuable simply because they are alive and kicking, and are better off not measuring their entire self or their "being," or giving themselves any global rating, because all people are continually evolving and are therefore far too complex to rate, and all humans do both good and bad deeds and have both good and bad attributes and traits. REBT holds that ideas and feelings about self-worth are largely definitional and are not empirically confirmable or falsifiable (Ellis, 2003).

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blorky December 22nd, 2007
The other useful concept related to REBT and explanatory styles is locus-of-control - that is, whether internal or external forces have the greatest effect on outcomes. This is easiest to see with people that are so called "control freaks". Somewhat counterintuitively, they believe that outcomes are determined by events external to them, so in an attempt to retain control, they have to ensure that Everything is Done Correctly (tm).

At it's most graceful, an internal locus of control says that there will be circumstances out of your control, but you have sufficient resources to deal with whatever comes up. It's the kind of serenity that comes when you GET equanimity. I'm sure there's a mathematical formula that can express explanatory styles in units of equanimity. :)

Be well,

iamom December 23rd, 2007
I've heard of that term before but never got what it meant. Thanks for a lucid description of it.

hai_kah_uhk December 22nd, 2007
Grandiose absolutistic jehovian demands?


Ludicrous (and occasionally insulting) language aside, it seems pretty reasonable to me. Basically it boils down to "get people with tightly wound views of reality to lighten up."

iamom December 23rd, 2007
That exact phrase bugged me, too. It's cool that you noticed it, also. But like the note at the outset of that article states, it contains excessive jargon and hasn't been wikified yet. The article does need some adjustments.

starskin December 22nd, 2007
While I agree with a great deal of what this theory is saying, I always balk at things that tell us to have unconditional acceptance of anything, especially ourselves. I'm not saying that we should harshly judge and criticize everything, but I also think that it can be taken too far and mean that you never analyze or question anything because you feel you should unconditionally accept how things are.

Or have I misunderstood what this is getting at?

iamom December 23rd, 2007
Yeah, I think you're right to question an unconditional acceptance of everything, but I also believe that most of us spend a lot of emotional energy on beating ourselves up for not being good enough. In other words, I don't think that many of us are too overfilled with unconditional acceptance of ourselves; for most of us, it's the contrary. We're usually the most harshly judgmental of our own selves most of the time. And that negative self-judgment isn't helpful to us in the long term; it usually just makes us feel worse about ourselves and doesn't help us to improve our situation any (if our situation needs improvement). And usually the judgment isn't really of a sound basis anyway -- i.e. the judgements we make of ourselves are overly subjective and not backed up by the facts -- so we create a lot of suffering for ourselves based on really subjective, unhelpful opinions of ourselves that aren't based of factual observations of our situations or behaviours at the time.

Cool Post

healingdrysuits December 22nd, 2007
I like how we need new things with new labels even though inside the packaging they are the same old thing. Thanks for posting it Dustin, it does look like it could speak to a lot of people who are looking for something new---even though it's something old.

Happy Holidays


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