If you were trapped inside a house your entire life and suddenly given the chance to run free, wouldn't you take it? Not my cat, Holly. Granted, my 5-year-old indoor cat has a very cushy life: eating way too much, sleeping whenever, and being petted and hugged more frequently than she likes.
Recently, my daughter and I decided to test whether Holly might have some latent animal instinctual desire to venture outdoors in the wild suburbs of Boson (or at least onto the front porch). In truth, we were motivated by our neighbor who swaggers around the outside of his house with his cat, Wally, on a leash. He often (kind of braggingly) hollers to us across the street as we stare in envious amazement, "It's easy!"
So, feeling encouraged by Wally's achievements, we tried a small behavioral experiment with Holly, which involved standing outside our wide-open front door and enthusiastically calling to her, "Come out, you're free!" To our amazement, she stood right next to the open door dumbfounded, staring at the outdoors like it was something out of a horror film. After about 30 seconds of indulging us in our ridiculous antics, she anticlimactically flicked her tail and turned her back on us. Huh…I guess freedom is overrated.
We're more like Holly than we think:
Holly's behavior is actually not so unusual. It corresponds with the concept of learned helplessness, which has do with a cognitive sense of control. She has not been allowed outside and has comfortably lived inside the house for so long that venturing outside doesn't occur to her—even if presented with the option. In essence, she has learned to be helpless.
The concept of learned helplessness was first identified by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier through their animal research. They observed that when animals are continually subjected to shock and have no power to change or leave the situation, the animals will develop this sense of helplessness.
Eventually, animals won't even attempt to stop the shock even when they are given the option. These animals have developed a cognitive expectation that there is nothing they can do to stop the negative experience, so they can't see the point of trying.
People can learn helplessness as well. Just like animals, people can develop this inherent belief in their own powerlessness when they are repeatedly faced with unsafe or uncomfortable situations over which they have no control.
Learned helplessness is common in children whose parents are overly involved in their decision-making process—parents who try to protect their children from failure, otherwise known as "helicopter" parent. Helicopter parents have the propensity to make most of the decisions for their child far past the age that it's appropriate—even when their child is mature and competent enough to make these decisions on their own.
Deciding what a young adult child should order at a restaurant or what topic the child should cover for a college paper are just some examples. Parents making most, if not all, of the decisions for their children ultimately hurt their child's ability to make decisions on their own. The child may struggle with even the simplest of decisions because they have never been allowed or empowered to trust themselves.
Listed below are some of the common patterns of behavior exhibited by individuals with learned helplessness:
1. You feel you must call your parents first in order to make a decision on most issues.
2. You rely on others to make decisions for you.
3. You believe you have no control over certain outcomes.
4. You have symptoms of anxiety and or depression when making decisions.
5. You believe you are incompetent.
6. You constantly fear making the wrong decision.
7. You feel you must make the perfect decision even on the most insignificant matters.
8. You feel paralyzed by having to make a decision and often make no decision at all.
9. You give up easily.
But this is not a life sentence. You can take your power back.
If your reaction to the list is, "OMG, that is totally me," no need to start freaking out. It is a learned behavior that can be unlearned. The way to begin breaking this pattern is to start tracking your decision-making process.
1. How difficult do you find decision-making?
Is it a struggle or relatively easy?
2. What emotions do you experience when you're trying to make a decision?
Do you feel anxious, depressed, or incompetent, or do you feel confident?
3. Can you encourage yourself during the decision-making process, or is your self-talk mostly (or entirely) negative?
Do you irrationally beat yourself up over your struggle to make the perfect decision, or can you gently talk yourself through the decision-making process?
Once you have tracked the process, this information will help you begin to mindfully challenge and reframe your feelings and thoughts around decision-making, hopefully replacing an unhealthy perspective with a more independent, confident view. Doing the work to change these tendencies takes time, but it will allow you to replace your sense of powerlessness with mastery, optimism, and resilience.