One of the hardest things to learn is how to get back on your feet when you’ve been knocked on your ass. Especially when it happens over and over again.
In fact, constant failure and crushing disappointment are two of the biggest demotivating factors you can find in life. When you’ve been hurt enough times, suffered enough times, eventually you begin to believe that you have no other options. Even when they’re pointed out to you.
If you’ve spent much time online, then you’ll have seen many, many people who have, essentially, given up, especially when it comes to dating and romance. In the dating sphere, it often splits in two directions – either in nihilistic despair of the Forever Alone subreddits and the “involuntary celibacy” or “incel” community or in misdirected anger and frustration from the “Men Going Their Own Way” types. In both variations, they have thrown their hands up and given in to the feeling that there is no point; all of life is pain and frustration and there’s nothing to be done about it. Some externalize their anger: the system is rigged against them, society is inherently biased against them or towards others. Some internalize it and blame themselves. Some, especially those dealing with depression issues, will take it as confirmation that they are worthless, ugly and quintessentially unlovable.
This is known as “learned helplessness”; you have been conditioned through negative stimuli to believe that you are powerless, impotent and there is nothing you can do about it.
Except… you’re wrong.
Today it’s time to take back control of your life. It’s time to remember the power that you contain.
It’s time to unlearn everything you’ve been taught.
Learning To Be Helpless
The idea of learned helplessness came from the experiments of one Dr. Martin Seligman, trying to elaborate on Pavlov and BF Skinner’s theories of conditioning and behavioralism – only using negative stimuli (in this case, electric shocks) rather than positive stimuli (food). Three groups of dogs were conditioned via electrical shocks. One group, the control, was suspended in harnesses for a period of time. A second group would be suspended in the harness, then subjected to electrical shocks that they could stop by pressing a lever. A third group were suspended in the harness at the same time as the second, but had no control over the shocks; in fact, to them, the shocks would seem to be entirely random, only stopping when the second group would figure out to press the lever.
The dogs in group two would quickly recover from the experiment while the dogs from group three… didn’t. In fact, they seemingly became depressed, showing signs of lack of energy or motivation and continually exhibiting cowering behavior.
The second stage, following the conditioning, had the dogs placed in a small crate which was divided in half by a low partition. When the scientists would ring a bell, they would apply an electrical shock; the dogs could easily escape the shock by leaping over the partition to the other side. The dogs in groups one and two were quick to learn that reaching the other side of the crate meant relief from the shocks; soon they were leaping the partition at the sound of the bell even without the shocks.
The dogs in group three however, did not. Instead, they would simply lie down and cry. Even when the shocks had ceased, the ringing of the bell would cause them to brace themselves against the pain. Despite the fact that immediate relief was easily within reach, the dogs in group three simply didn’t move. Even varying up the experiment – zapping them before ringing the bell, not ringing the bell at all – produced no changes; the dogs would lie there and whine.
The dogs in group three had learned that there was no escape from the shocks; nothing they did had any effect on whether or not they got shocked… so they quite simply gave up. They had, in essence, embraced the futility of even trying and, instead, attempted to just endure the pain as best they could because as far as they knew, there were no other options. Life was nothing but inescapable pain and so there was no point to even trying.
Accentuate The Negative
It’s surprisingly easy to fall into a state of learned helplessness… and remarkably difficult to pull yourself out of it. Extended periods of negative emotion inevitably lead to feelings of despair and futility – often turning the blame inwards. What starts out as anguish and frustration quickly becomes nihilism and self-hatred; you start to internalize the negativity and assume that it’s somehow your fault. You begin to believe that there is no escape from your problems. Instead, it simply becomes part of the background radiation of your life, a fact as inexorable and inescapable as gravity and entropy. When you’ve been single for a long time, experiencing rejection after rejection, you begin to assume that this is just how life is; life is pain and loneliness and anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
When you have people, especially your peers, continually shitting on you and telling you that you’re ugly and worthless, then you start to believe them… even when you have evidence to the contrary. That negativity becomes a self-reinforcing, self-fulfilling prophecy. You end up with a form of cognitive blindness known as confirmation bias: you automatically disregard evidence to the contrary as being wrong, impossible or otherwise not applying to you, while giving full credence to any evidence that conforms to your beliefs, no matter how flimsy. It’s a self-limiting belief; Much like the dogs from Seligman’s experiments, you’ve become so conditioned to believe in your own helplessness and impotence that you can’t begin to see how you could rescue yourself.
Take people who are socially inexperienced or somewhat awkward or shy. The lack of experience often means unpleasant social interactions, which disinclines them from trying again. Even worse, studies have found that admitting to having social problems, to feeling helpless in social situations, inspires others see them in a negative light… reinforcing that sense of helplessness.
Men and women in abusive relationships are a classic example of learned helplessness. Victims of abuse – whether physical or emotional – have had control taken away from them. Everything they do is wrong somehow; they inevitably upset their abuser and as a result are punished, seemingly arbitrarily. They’ve been conditioned by their abusers that anything they do will result in them being punished – emotionally or physically – and so they are left believing that there are no other options except to do what their abuser wants. This is often why it’s so damned hard to get out of an abusive relationship; frequently they have been ground down and taught that escape is futile or they have a hard time seeing that the relationship is toxic in the first place. Instead, they put the blame on themselves – “It’s my fault; I know I shouldn’t make her mad.” “He doesn’t mean to hurt me, but I just keep doing things wrong…”
It’s the constant lack of authority or power that leads to a state of learned helplessness – when nothing you do seems to work and all you get is negative reinforcement, you eventually come to believe that you have no control and there is no point to trying. Hell, it doesn’t even have to happen to you directly; thanks to our ability to empathize and build external associations, we can develop learned helplessness vicariously by seeing it happen to other people.
Watch a group of nerdy friends; when one of them has failure after failure trying to meet women, his friends will almost inevitably also start to decide that it’s hopeless for all of them. Witness any incel or ForeverAlone community; they all reinforce the narrative that they’re collectively fucked and there’s nothing that can be done about it.
Except there is. And it can be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.
You have to take the control back.
Standing In The Way of Control
Pardon me while I go off into a seemingly random digression for a moment.
There’s a phrase in computer and console gaming circles: “Nintendo Hard”1 . Back in the glory days of arcades, most video games didn’t have anything even vaguely resembling plot or narrative. The whole point of the game was to keep you engaged enough that pumping quarters into it for as long as humanly possible. As a result, games were designed to be utter bastards; after all, if it’s too easy, you end up playing for hours on just one token and costing the arcade money. Therefore, there’s a financial incentive for games to be as difficult as possible. The Nintendo Entertainment System – the first console to give something approximating the arcade experience in terms of graphics and gameplay – continued that same system of game design: shoddy hitboxes, limited continues, fixed lives and an absolutely punishing challenge level, even though there was no financial reason to do so. Now in fairness, much of this was the result of ignorance and sloppy design but the fact remained that the games on the NES were obscenely, brainmeltingly difficult.
And as a result: many – if not most – people never got to the end of a large number of their games.
Even the most die-hard aficionado is willing to pound his or her head against the wall only so many times before they give up for good and move on to something else.
Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you as to what the hell I’m talking about, let me drag it back around to the topic. In game design, as in life, when you are continually being punished for seemingly innocent mistakes (or even for doing everything right) then eventually you’re going to give up trying to play it at all. You may decide that the game is cheating or just impossible. You may decide that you’re just not any good and you’ll never beat it. You may even get insanely depressed because it’s the only game you’re going to get until your birthday or the holidays… if then.
As time marched on, game developers quickly began to realize that a key to keeping players engaged was to allow them some success in the beginning and gradually ramp up the difficulty; the more success the player feels early on, the more likely she is to continue trying to tackle the more difficult parts of the game. Even minor, seemingly easy victories were enough to motivate players to persevere – they gave players a feeling of agency and control that they wouldn’t have if they kept losing all of their lives on the first or second level.
As in games, so too in real life. The key to breaking the hold of learned helplessness comes from finding even small victories – simply talking to someone, for instance – and building upon them. Those small successes reinforce your feeling of having agency and power even if it’s just over this one little thing. It’s concrete proof that you have more power than you realized. Every little victory, every reassertion of your power reminds you that you can take things back.
You Won’t Fool The Children of The Micro-Revolution
I’ve had a lot of experience with learned helplessness. As I’ve said before, for a very large portion of my life, I was The One Who Wasn’t Good With Girls. The closest I came to a “girlfriend” before I got to college was a drug-addicted manipulator I met online – back in the days when “online” meant Prodigy, CompuServe or your local BBS. In college, when I was already dealing with chronic depression, my first serious relationship was profoundly toxic and led to my having a minor breakdown. Following that epic break-up, I had a four year dry spell that only ended when I met someone I thought was “The One”. That breakup was so bad it took me years to get over it. Love, it seemed, was for other people; for me, it was a continuing string of pain and heartbreak as I was continually getting dumped seemingly out of the blue.
It was only after I had my Batman moment that I came to realize that dating was a skill, not an inborn talent. I could be just as good as my naturally gifted friends… if I was willing to put the time into it.
But before I could progress, I had to break the power that this feeling of helplessness wielded over me. And that meant I had to prove to myself that I could improve. If I could fix one thing, one little thing I didn’t believe I could do, then it would be a sign that I could get better. And so each day became a micro-revolution against my own entrenched belief system. If I was able to go up to a woman and start a conversation – nothing complicated, just asking for a recommendation for a restaurant – then it was a victory. It was one more way I was able to break the beliefs that held me back for all those years. Each little victory was another crack in the foundation, another chink in the wall. And while those cracks and flaws may have been small, over time they added up… and brought the entire structure down.
It’s those little micro-revolutions – getting a new flattering haircut when you think you’re ugly, joining a gym when you think you’re weak, talking to a stranger when you think you’re too shy – that form the foundation of the change you’re hoping for. But you can’t stop there. You have to be willing to build on them, even in the face of failure. In fact, learning to recontextualize and embrace failure will become one of the most important parts of your progress.
I’m not saying that it will be as easy as just doing little things; most of the time, learned helplessness brings very deep scars. You may very well need to seek out a therapist or try a self-directed cognitive behavioral therapy course like MoodGym to help undo some of the damage.
But it can be done. One little victory. One small success. One minor assertion of your power.
You can do it.
You can unlearn helplessness.
And you’ll be amazed at how much better your life can be.
- I’m just going to apologize for the TVTropes link now… [↩]