It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Unlearning your Learned Helplessness

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the subject of Learned Helplessness that applies to many of us. One of the things that struck me most was the idea that you can be fully competent and even confident of yourself in some areas of your life, but exhibit learned helplessness in others. I reproduce excerpts of the article below and, as usual, my comments are shown in violet:
TRIGGER WARNING: The article makes reference to animal testing which involved the injury (via electric shock) and emotional abuse of dogs.

Learned helplessness is a mental state in which an organism, forced to endure aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are escapable, presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation. Organisms that have been ineffective and less sensitive in determining the consequences of their behaviour are defined as having acquired learned helplessness. 

In learned helplessness studies, an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action.

Have you ever been to a zoo and saw an elephant restrained only by an iron cuff around one leg and a length of chain connected to an iron stake in the ground? I remember seeing that and wondering how, considering how strong an elephant is, that flimsy chain didn’t snap the moment the elephant gave a yank. Well, the answer is childhood conditioning, just as you and I were conditioned by our narcissistic parents.

You see, the trainer places a cuff and chain around the baby elephant’s leg and attaches the other end of the chain to something too big for the baby to move, like a tree. At first the baby will fight the chain but eventually it will decide that it is stronger than he is and stop fighting. From that day forward, the elephant will believe the chain is stronger than he is and he will not challenge it. The chain restrains an adult elephant not because of its intrinsic strength, but because of the strength of the elephant’s belief.

In [an] experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of “yoked pairs.” A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in series with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever did not stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently “inescapable.” Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.

I have been suicidally depressed several times in my life. In all cases I was trapped in an untenable situation from which I could see no viable way out. The first time I was only nine years old, the last time I was in my mid-thirties. In each case, I believed myself to be helpless to change the situation and that the situation could only be resolved in a way that would make matters even worse for me. In hindsight, there actually were other resolutions available, but I either could not see them or, if I could see them, I was unable to take advantage of them. For example, I was trapped in a terribly emotionally abusive marriage with a narcissist. I was unemployed and too depressed to find and hold down a job. I was very clear on the fact that he was emotionally abusing me…I even pointed it out to him in one of our many rows. His response was to increase the abuse. I refused to consider divorce as an option: I was in my late 20s when I became clear on his abusiveness and I had already been married and divorced twice…I could not bear the humiliation of three divorces at such a young age and so I stayed, becoming more depressed with each passing day. A feeling of helplessness, whether actual or learned, leads to depression.

There seems to be only one cure for the helplessness in dogs. …the dogs do not try to escape because they expect that no instrumental response [nothing that they can do] will produce shock termination. To change their expectation and to recover the dogs from helplessness, experimenters had to physically pick up the dogs and move the legs in a close replication of the physical actions the dogs needed to take to remove themselves from the electrified grid. This had to be replicated at least 2 times before the dogs would exhibit the functional response of jumping over the barrier to get away from the electrified grid. Threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no observed effect in helping the dogs to independently move away from the shocks. (Emphasis mine.)

This is really important…no amount of threats, rewards, or observed demonstrations helped with the recovery: the animals had to actually take the steps...they had to make an effort, even though the initial efforts were guided…before they could begin recovery. Those of us who sit back and read the books and the websites and join support and discussion groups are just spinning our wheels because until we actually make an effort…and make the effort more than once…we don’t even have a shot at recovery. In practical terms, this means that you can read, write, and talk all you want about your situation, but until you actually do something…and keep doing it…you will remain stuck right where you are.

Other experiments were performed with different animals with similar results. In all cases, the strongest predictor of a depressive response was lack of control over the aversive stimulus. So, basically, if you are depressed, it is because there is something negative in your life over which you feel you have no power. So how do you become UNdepressed? You find a way to empower yourself and use it to regain not only your own personal power, but to overcome the situation that is depressing you.

There is a strong caveat in that, however: we must not empower ourselves at the expense of the well-being of others. Our GCs are people who found a way to feel empowered by joining forces with and even adopting the personas of our Ns, giving themselves permission to hurt others en route to getting what they want. Aileen Wuornos was an abused child who grew into a woman who believed herself powerless and who tried to take control of her life in the most devastatingly negative way possible: she became a serial killer. We have to recognize that we must take control of our lives and empower ourselves without exploiting other people in the process. 

Does that mean it is not ok to hurt our Ns and GCs and their flying monkeys in the process? No. Your Ns and GCs and their Flying Monkeys have no right to hurt you in the first place, no right to impose their wants over your needs, no right to dictate your life, violate your boundaries, or hurt or shame you. The law does not allow you to steal from others, nor does it allow you to keep that which has been stolen by another…even if you did not steal it. The law will not come into your house and take from you legal items that you acquired legitimately…they do not have the right to do that. But they do have the right to reclaim, over your objections, property to which you have no right. And so it is with Ns, GCs, and Flying Monkeys: whatever parts of you they have laid claim to, you have every right to take back, over their objections if necessary. And I doesn’t matter if those objections are framed as anger, hurt, outrage, or defensiveness, your right to reclaim the stolen and co-opted parts of your Self is absolute and the only rights they have over you are those you allow them to take.
Fighting with the humans, biting, attacking, might have felt good to the dogs but it would do nothing to heal them. The only path to healing was to go through the guided motions of the right way to escape the electrified grid and then to do it on their own.

In 2011, an animal study found that animals with control over stress exhibited changes in the excitability of specific neurons within the prefrontal cortex…Animals that lacked control failed to exhibit an increase in excitability and showed signs consistent with learned helplessness and social anxiety. In other words, it is a physiological response…your brain synapses and your brain chemistry are altered by being in a situation of forced helplessness. But when you take control of those things that stress you, your synapses and brain chemistry alter again. You can fix it…but you can’t do it by sitting around thinking, reading, and talking about it.

Later research discovered that the original theory of learned helplessness failed to account for people's varying reactions to situations that can cause learned helplessness. Learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation, but at other times generalizes across situations. This is what I found most interesting: your learned helplessness you may not even recognize because it is confined to one area of your life, one situation. Or, it can be pervasive and your entire life is an exercise in learned helplessness of which you may or may not be aware. 

An individual's attributional style [attributional style: a person's characteristic tendencies when inferring the cause of behavior or events, that may be based on three dimensions: the internal-external dimension (whether they tend to attribute events to the self or to other factors), the stable-unstable dimension (whether they tend to attribute events to enduring or transient causes), and the global-specific dimension (whether they tend to attribute events to causes that affect many events or just a single event)] or explanatory style is the key to understanding why people respond differently to adverse events. Although a group of people may experience the same or similar negative events, how each person privately interprets or explains the event will affect the likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression.

So, if your tendency is to blame yourself, see negative events as long-term (rather than of brief duration) and view negative events as having an over-arching cause, such as bad karma, an evil government, a punishing god, cursed with bad luck, or an evil, controlling person in your life rather than discreet, individual events with equally discreet, individual causes, you will have what is known as a “negative attributional style” or “pessimistic explanatory style.” 

People with pessimistic explanatory style—which sees negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it's my fault”), and pervasive (“I can't do anything correctly”)—are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy…can often help people to learn more realistic explanatory styles, and can help ease depression.

Apart from the shared depression symptoms between human and other animals such as passivity, introjected hostility [to turn against oneself the hostility felt toward another…in other words, the unacknowledged hostility you feel towards your parents or other abusers you turn onto yourself], weight loss, appetite loss, [I believe weight gain and comfort eating should be included here] social and sexual deficits, some of the diagnostic symptoms of learned helplessness—including depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation—can be found and observed in human beings but not necessarily in other animals. In non-human animal models, control over stress conveys resilience to future uncontrolled stressors and induces changes in the function of specific neurons within the prefrontal cortex. 

Regardless of origin, people who see uncontrollable events…who see events as uncontrollable by themselves…reliably suffer disruption of emotions, aggressions, physiology, and have difficulties with problem-solving tasks. These helpless experiences can associate with passivity, uncontrollability and poor cognition in people, ultimately threatening their physical and mental well-being.

Learned helplessness can contribute to poor health when people neglect diet, exercise, and medical treatment, falsely believing they have no power to change. The more people perceive events as uncontrollable and unpredictable, the more stress they experience, and the less hope they feel about making changes in their lives. 

Stressor controllability is one factor that contributes to physical health when it comes to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness occurs when an animal or human is exposed to stressors that they cannot control. If these stressors are controlled, the phenomenon of learned helplessness does not occur. [Emphasis mine.]

Too often we who grew up in rigidly controlled environments go to the extreme other end of things: where we were controlled too much by our parents, we control our own children too little, making them feel adrift, unanchored, and entitled. My mother bought my clothes for me until I took a summer job while living with my grandparents and spent the entire proceeds on school clothes before NM could get her hands on it…I took control. I was 16 and entering my senior year and up to that point, I had no control over my wardrobe whatsoever. But rather than turn me loose in town with a fist full of cash, my grandmother took me shopping and had the knowledgeable sales clerks select a variety of suitable outfits, giving me choices. And when my own daughter needed school clothes, I would choose half a dozen suitable dresses (that were within my budget) and let her choose two or three…and started this with her from the first grade. I have never felt helpless or incompetent when it came to fashion…I took control of my own wardrobe at 16 and had competent help those first few forays, then passed the skill on to my own daughter. But this was not true of all aspects of my life…in fact, until therapy, it wasn’t even true of much of my life.

Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style are often more likely to suffer from depression. People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Those with a pessimistic explanatory style also tend to have weakened immune systems, and not only have increased vulnerability to minor ailments (e.g., cold, fever) and major illness (e.g., heart attack, cancers), but also have a less effective recovery from health problems. 

…helplessness is a key factor in depression that is caused by prejudice (i.e., “deprejudice”). In this context, I do not believe the author is referring exclusively to the kind of prejudice addressed by the Civil Rights Act. Prejudice, after all, means “bias,” and a narcissistic parent can develop a bias against one of her own children without race, gender, ethnic origin or any other Title V conditions coming into play. Your parent or other family member may be biased…prejudiced…against you for no discernible reason at all: you have simply been assigned the role of family scapegoat and abuse will inevitably issue forth from that. Psychoanalyst Elizabeth Young-Bruehl uses "prejudice" in this context: "Listening to my adult patients in psychoanalysis who were maltreated as children, I have heard basically three stories: they were not wanted, they were controlled and manipulated or they were not allowed to be who they felt they were. So I have come to think in terms of childism that intends 1) to eliminate or destroy children, 2) to make them play roles no child should play or 3) to dominate them totally, narcissistically erasing their identities. Survivors make it clear that the worst part of their experience — the most difficult to heal from, the least forgivable — was that no one protected them from it. They often make it clear, as well, that they have internalized the prejudice and direct it toward themselves."

Someone facing inescapable prejudice (e.g., abuse) may develop learned helplessness and depression as a result. “Helplessness born in the face of inescapable prejudice matches the helplessness born in the face of inescapable shocks. ” 

Abnormal and cognitive psychologists have looked at the correlation of depression and anxiety with learned helplessness over the years. It has been shown that the symptoms shown with learned helplessness have corresponding symptoms in depression. The symptoms most [people] feel when depressed give the feeling of helplessness and uncontrollability that have been correlated with learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness can also be a motivational problem. Individuals who have failed at tasks in the past conclude erroneously that they are incapable of improving their performance. This can occur even when you have not failed, but when failure is assigned to you…and that situation is crazy making. You can also be set up to fail, even when it looks like you have not. In the early 1970s my Nhusband and I got into a dispute about buying a second car: I had a sickly baby and did not want a used car that might break down on my in an emergency; he was adamant that I buy second hand. To end the argument, he gave me a budget of $2500 and said if I could find a new car for that money, he would buy it. Well, it took me several months but I did find such a car…brand new for $2442…and he bought it but, instead of being pleased at having a brand new car for so little money, he was furious with me. It turns out that the whole thing was a set up to teach me a lesson and instead of learning the lesson (he is always right) I made, in his eyes, a fool of him. He was furious…livid…that I failed to fail. It became very difficult for me to determine if I was supposed to succeed or fail at a task he set before me and, because my focus was on pleasing him and getting his approval, I found myself convinced I could do nothing right…

Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences. However…people who cite helplessness in social settings may be viewed poorly by others, resulting in a situation that reinforces the problematic thinking. Think “nerds” and other socially inept people…how do we, in the larger society, think of them? Girls don’t want to date them, won’t dance with them when asked at clubs, and generally shun them. Nobody likes being rejected and those who have not mastered the art of social intercourse find themselves repeatedly shut down in their attempts to integrate. That fear of rejection and the feeling of humiliation that comes with it, keeps them socially isolated because they buy into the idea that they are somehow defective…which is, in itself, problematic thinking.

Social problems resulting from learned helplessness may seem unavoidable…Learned helplessness in response to experiences can be prevented or minimized by “immunization” and, when present, may be reversed by therapy. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous experiences, when they were able to effect a desired outcome. Therapy can instruct people in the fact of contingency and bolster people's self-esteem. But when we become convinced of our helplessness, when we believe that the world will not change and we are powerless to make any changes in our own worlds, we begin to live the belief, and that inevitably leads to depression.

So, are you afflicted with “learned helplessness”? If you are the child of a narcissist, you probably are. But too often we take this on without clarity: we think we are helpless to change our situation because we think that to change the situation we must somehow get the authority figures to change…and then when we hear we cannot change anyone but ourselves, the message we take away is one of hopelessness because if we cannot change our narcissistic parents, siblings, bosses, spouses, and others, we are doomed to be their scapegoat for all time.

But extracting yourself from learned helplessness is not a matter of changing the people around you, it is a matter of changing yourself, a matter of changing your attitudes, your beliefs, your paradigms. Your choices are not black and white, change the narcissist or remain in the same trap. Your choices are infinite: leave the narcissist to be what she is, but change the idea that you owe her your allegiance, change the idea that you must do as you are told, to fulfil the role she created for you. You can choose to change the frequency and nature of your communication, you can choose to set down boundaries and even choose what those boundaries will be and what the consequence for violating them will be. You can choose to see the truth of your FOO or you can choose to continue to believe the fictions you have kept all this time and which keep you depressed and helpless. You can un-learn this helplessness if you truly want to, but it involves taking off the rose-tinted lenses, giving up the myriad of excuses you use to rationalize your N’s behaviour (which, inevitably, lays blame on you and makes you feel guilty), and proactively seeking out the truth and embracing it, along with all of the feelings of hurt, outrage, and disbelief that you may have stored away in hopes that your worst fears are wrong and that your narcissists really do love and value you, not for the role you play in their dysfunction, but for the warm, real, loving human being you really are.

It means embracing reality, in all its ugly glory, and changing yourself, your beliefs, your responses, your feelings to match the objective reality of who and what your Ns are, rather than clinging to the hopes that have kept you a helpless hostage for so long.

Easier said than done, I know…but it is the only way to wholeness and leaving your learned helplessness behind.


  1. I can grasp what you are talking about, having just recently experienced my freedom, and that I'm no longer chained to my parents and placating them.
    Last year I did NC and it was amazing and my life certainly advanced, but I still had an achilles heel, and that was denial about my enabling dad. This caused me to feel some underlying guilt and a sense of obligation to him. It also saw me get sucked back.
    Since coming out of my denial (which was painful), NC has become very straightforward and I am relishing my freedom. I am no longer my mothers emotional punching bag, where she bullies me and then runs and hides behind my EF, who'd then blames me for upsetting "your poor mother".. (see how helpless that made me feel)
    But as you pointed out to me, I was free all along. But I hadn't perceived it, as I was still bound by feelings of helplessness and powerlessness and OBLIGATION.
    And I all I had to do to be effective with NC, was change ME and leave.

    The part where you said this..3) to dominate them totally, narcissistically erasing their identities. That was my mother to a tee, and where I'd learn to feel so helpless. When I was young, she'd yell and pound into me that I was no good, and I'd tearfully try to defend myself, but to no avail.
    Now instead of having internal conversations with her in my head, where I'm defending myself to her, I remind myself "You don't have to talk to her". In my experience, defending oneself to someone (making them your authority), is also powerlessness.
    I don't engage my mother anymore. I've walked away. FREEDOM from BOTH of them and their crazy making dysfunction.
    So yes, this post totally resonates with me. It's very empowering and takes courage to do, but once my perceptions changed, it became so much easier to do. That's what amazed me. Life is good.

  2. It took me years to understand that I was set up to fail because my mother seemed to be obsessed with my gaining worldly, conventional success. Actually I think now she just loved telling me what a loser I was. When I actually was successful, she was at best not interested. She had a genius for turning a success into a failure. When I was fifteen, I got a good school mark which I was pleased about. If she had been as concerned about my worldly success as she claimed to be, she should have approved but instead she said I had to work very hard to get that result and this meant i was a "plodder". This was devastating to me; somehow even when I was smart, I was stupid. I started pretending not to work hard. Even today, I don't tell her what has gone into accomplishing something, she seems to think it happens by magic.

    I grew up really scared of telephones. I know this sounds unbelievable. I touched a telephone for the first time when I was eighteen, after living away from the parental house for a year. I don't mean I used a telephone, I just touched it and that was a breakthrough. I eventually learned to use telephones but this anxiety was a big professional liability. They said I sounded nervous on a phone. I don't know why I had such a phobia but my parents must have started it. My youngest sister was just the same. Talk about being set up to fail. It has taken me years to understand what happened to me.

  3. I have known about my mothers NPD for 13 years. She set me up to fail by telling me that I wouldn't amount to anything or that I was a "loser." To the contrary, I have been successful in many areas of my life but it hasn't come without constant struggle to battle these kinds of beliefs. Her very last comment to me was, "I don't have a daughter." I went NC. She was a very sick woman.

  4. how useful. Article about "unlearning". 90% of it is devoted to "learning" and remaining 10% basically say "don't do that".


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