15 March 2008

"Taught" Helplessness [and the Risks of Assertiveness] - Part Two

I was lucky. I had a work-around available to me, and am old enough, cynical enough, and shameless enough to use it. I went to the Web, printed the information I needed from the reliable professional reference that I had already located, and contacted someone who knows me, respects my intelligence and ability to report events accurately, and is legally permitted to prescribe medical treatments in my state of residence. This might have been my primary physician. It might have been a colleague who works in a teaching hospital. It might have been a suitably degreed colleague in medicine or dentistry, two floors above or below me in the place where I work. No matter; the bottom line is that I obtained a hearing, made the appropriate professional arrangements, and began a course of antibiotics and pain relievers 30 minutes later. By the time I saw my regular dentist the next morning, I had been able to sleep through the night, the pain had diminished, and I was confident that the antibiotics and pain relievers I had in hand would protect me until the endodontist could 'fit me in' to her schedule that day, even if nothing more was prescribed.

It was wise to make these clandestine [but legitimate] arrangements, because my dentist prescribed precisely the same antibiotic and pain reliever when I saw her. Because I am 'pushy' and 'don't know my place', I actually began taking the necessary medications more than 24 hours earlier than I would otherwise have had them. No, I didn't admit this. Had I done so, the second set of prescriptions would probably have been withheld, and as it turned out, I was going to need them. Because, after two hours with no callback from the endodontist, I drove directly to her office, where I discovered that she was out for the day, and her staff was ignoring voicemail.

Because this endodontist is absolutely brilliant, I booked the first available emergency slot, watched to see it entered in the appointment book, and filled the second set of prescriptions immediately. [My insurance company, of course, refused to pay for them, since I had filled identical scrips 24 hours previously. That's the same game, on a different field; take careful note.]
Once you reach a certain age, you realize that 'all's well that ends well' is less accurate than 'all's well that ends'. Bringing resolution to problems of this type is a fortunate event, much more dependent on luck than skill, and deserving of celebration.

I did not 'cause' my dentist or the endodontist's office staff to take my situation less seriously than it should have been taken, or to ignore their voicemails. This was a predisposition on their parts, perhaps due to stress, perhaps to overwork, but entirely unconnected to me in any causal fashion. However, in this case it could have had serious, even fatal, consequences for me. And in the Learned Helplessness / Self-Help paradigm, it is I who would be considered blameworthy. That is obscene.

Similarly, I did not 'cause' the availability of a helping professional who knew me personally, took me seriously, and was willing to 'run interference' for me so that I would have the medication my condition required while waiting to be seen by my regular practitioner. This was luck, resulting from my childhood fascination with science and medicine, my good fortune in being able to pursue a degree that places me in contact with working practitioners of various specialties in various locations, and my even better fortune in knowing several such people who are willing to help on occasions like this. I did not 'attract' the help I needed. Many people who are just as deserving of this kind of help, this kind of luck, simply do not have it, and suffer terribly as a result. That, too, is obscene.

I am glad to see writers like Ms. Niesslein, and Kathy Krajco, and Anna Valerious, and Meg [please see links to: What Makes Narcissists Tick, Narcissists Suck, and Brisbane Christian Fellowship, for Kathy's, Anna's, and Meg's blogs], standing up and roaring about the vile social gospel of blaming the victim and using that blame to justify withholding assistance, for which the victim is then further blamed and taught to blame themselves! Their reaction is humane, decent, and desperately needed. May their words and voices gather strength until they cannot be ignored.

One final note, regarding 'the Risks of Assertiveness' in the title of this piece.

Classical assertiveness training teaches you to continue beating your head against a wall in situations like this. The idealized assertive outcome would have been that I stood up for myself and my rights in an adult, non-confrontational way, a miracle occurred, and I was seen and treated by my dentist and endodontist on the same day that I made the original phone call. My choice to resort to what was, effectively, a 'second opinion' from someone I trusted to take me seriously, would be considered a non-assertive, and thus somehow inferior, approach to the problem. Never mind the fact that it worked, and in the circumstances may quite possibly have saved my life...

It would be lovely if we lived in a world in which asserting ourselves to those who don't want to hear us actually worked - but, of course, we don't. For one thing: this is the position I started from. I did all the correct assertive things in presenting my symptoms when I first called. I was adult, I was appropriate, I was calm and non-aggressive. Net result? I was blown off, essentially told to go sit in a corner and fester. Which I was lucky enough to be able to avoid having to do.

Continuing to do the same thing in these circumstances and expecting a different outcome - trying over and over to get a hearing from people who are not listening and are not going to begin listening because they do not want to listen- isn't 'assertive' at all.

As pretty much any serious recovery group will tell you, it's simply insane.


Anonymous Meg said...

WHAT a brilliant post!!!!

Clear, precise, to the point, and very, very honest.

GOod for you, that you did what you did here, and followed up where you were able. I wonder that less mature, and less experienced people, mainly women, probably wouldn't want to rock the boat, and either go to an emergency room at a local hospital or just stay at home and faint.

In fact, I had a similar situation recently. Nothing as life threatening or even as serious as your example, but the same attitude prevails. I have recently found the bad apple in my children's new school. We left the last one because of incompetence and bullying from the students AND the administration. Now, its a teacher who believes you should lecture parents on their 'responsibilities'
first and ask questions later. I told this teacher in no uncertain terms (and for the first time in my life I think said what I wanted to say exactly at the moment I wanted to say it) that I didn't appreciate her attitude. She got upset that a parent was actually talking back to her and hung up on me. I am sick of being patronised by people who think their job description entitles them to an expert opinion on any subject under the sun regardless of whether they have been asked for it or not.

This teacher is also a children's author and recently won a book award in our state. She is revered by the school, and I know for a fact that if I complain to the principal about her behaviour I will be looked at as though I am chopped liver.

I am personally sick and tired of confronting assinine teachers but the alternative is unthinkable to me now. I no longer just 'put up with' being treated like an invisible, inaudible bank balance.

Thank God for courageous women (sometimes known as 'heartless bitches' because of their refusal to go quietly) who reject the crap that we are all at the mercy of the 'professionals' among us who know us better than we know ourselves.

Sooner or later the critical mass will be reached. In any event, my three children at least will understand what it means to recognise balderdash and stand up for themselves. My fifteen year old son already called his last principal on some first class hypocrisy. He did it all on his own because he had used his intelligence and recognised right from wrong. The same couldn't be said for the school principal.

16 March, 2008 07:22  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Thanks Meg!

I was pretty desperate and it's amazing what you can do if you're desperate and can keep from getting flustered [or too angry to think straight].

Thanks also for giving me a chance to 'tag' something here.

The post describes my good fortune in finding a pro who would listen and prescribe for me while I was waiting for 'official' help. I had another fallback strategy going just in case none of the people I knew were available - you would be amazed how often that happens - they're on vacation or business type travel - . Just like the endodontist was, in fact. I didn't mention it because it was a digression from my main point, but on further thought, I'm not so sure about that. I think it actually further supports my main point. So here it is:

I'm an amateur herbalist, so I was using several herbal tinctures, topically, to deaden pain and as an antibacterial/antifungal. If I had been unable to obtain the necessary antibiotics, Plan 2 was to begin taking a specific herbal regimen systemically in addition to the topical use. The herbs I would have used are quite strong and interact with some prescription medication, so I needed to wait until I was sure there wouldn't be complications. Fortunately, I was able to get the antibiotics, but I'm still using the topical herbals as well.

The bottom line is - people really aren't widely motivated to help others, even when it's ostensibly their job [sometimes especially when it's their job - abusers love jobs where they can look like heros and act like jerks]. When you are the other needing help, it's so important to understand this, and not let it prevent you from doing all you reasonably can for yourself to get the help you need.

I like your examples with the school environment, although I'm sorry you are having to deal with them. Yes, that arrogant teacher sounds like a classic Anointed Favorite. I'm willing to bet that there's a really good, caring teacher on that staff who's being used mercilessly to take out the garbage [Anti-Pet].

BRAVA for you, telling that teacher what she needed to hear. And bravo for your son. 15! You really can't learn these things too soon, and much of our culture seems to be geared to preventing us from learning them at all.

That people won't necessarily help in time of need, yes, this we know. That this is due to flaws in their sense of social responsibility, and to gaping flaws in our overall social values - and not because we somehow deserve to have them treat us badly? This we are not taught. Much easier to blame the person needing help, and criminalize misfortune. Look at the time and effort it saves.

16 March, 2008 09:21  
Blogger CZBZ said...

(having a little trouble getting my message to post...so please disregard if you've already received ten ten copies...LOL)

Brilliant post, Stormchild! I hope your tooth is feeling better, though! As usual, your messages have triggered numerous insights and tangents…so I have a few thoughts to add to what you've written about Taught versus Learned Helplessness.

I’m speaking to this topic as a female who realizes she has done her gender very well (after returning to college in Women’s Studies). My disclaimer to men who feel alienated from my comments is that I can only speak for myself and myself has always been female. I’m pretty good at empathizing with others, but for now, empathizing with the plight of the good girl is my immediate concern!

Anyway, Storm, you’ve created a valuable framework because it offers a way to think about the perceptive child who learned her helplessness very well. She was smart enough and willing enough to be taught about what it required to become a good citizen in the greater community. Learning the lessons we are taught as children is fundamental to our core beliefs about ‘how life works’ and ‘who we are’. These beliefs (erroneous or not) become Core Assumptions. Assumptions so fundamental to our framework of reality, they are unconscious.

You know, I’ve often thought that the perceptive child is a Catch-22:

If we don’t learn our lessons well, we’re dis-empowered and alienated from the community.

If we learn our lessons well, we’re dis-empowered and alienated from ourselves.

As female children, taught helplessness becomes a core assumption about how life works; about who we are; about how we are expected to behave in order to fit into society. The smarter a young girl may be, the dumber her lessons will prove to be when she’s an adult. At which point of course, other folks will suggest she must have done something ‘wrong’ when in fact, she did everything exactly too ‘right.’

When life goes to hell in a hand basket and we’re forced to confront assumptions we may never have realized were there, it’s easy to blame ourselves for being stoopid. But the truth is, we are extremely perceptive and smart. It’s the taught helplessness that’s stupid, not the student. If we’ve been ‘duped’ by a narcissist or a guru or any other Teacher-of-the-Lie, it’s important to examine our entire life experience in order to take pride in the countless ways we’ve been unlearning the master’s lessons all along.

Since we’re talking about teachers, I’d like to share an example from my life when I was about 26-27 years old and my daughter was in the first grade. She came home one day and told me she was in the slow group at school because she would never be able to read. (This was in the 1970’s) Of course that startled me since she’d always been a brilliant child and could recite 45-minute Disney Album dialogues when she was only three years old! So I knew she was intelligent despite the teacher’s allegations.
I made an appointment for a parent’s conference. (Don’t ask if my husbaNd was there or not…of course he wasn’t. As far as suggesting partners of narcissist are helpless victims, well, let me crush that assumption immediately!)

Now before I proceed with the outcome of our conference, it’s important to say that I had been taught Obedience-to-Authority from the time I lay crying in my cradle. An authority was anyone who had a title, position, status, money, etc. Teachers certainly fell within the realm of authority figures; after all, they had college degrees and I didn’t. (See the hierarchical construct that puts me in the subordinate position?)

When I got to the conference, the teacher told me directly and firmly and with utmost audacity: “CZ, your daughter is one of those children who will never be able to read. I am sorry to tell you this.”

“O, really-full?” I thought to myself, keeping my anger in check since it never worked for me to be aggressive with Authority figures.

I replied, “Hummm…I can see how difficult it must be when a teacher is responsible for her students’ vast learning differences. How about I help you out and teach her at home? If you could offer me a few manuals on reading, that would really help!”

Within two weeks, my daughter was in the top reading group and continued to read over a thousand books in the second grade. When the second-grade teacher started a class project putting one section of a caterpillar on the wall for each book her students read, she said to me, “Your daughter reads tooooooooo much.”

“O really-full?”

Now to those who were not taught to subordinate their power to others, this story might seem trivial. But, for me in my life? This was an example of intelligent resistance! Why? Because I managed to confront without alienating, to get the help my daughter needed and assert what I knew to be true in order to start unlearning the lies we were taught about what it meant to be a good girl.

I believe it’s important for us to take note of the countless times we’ve challenged the helplessness we were taught, albeit in small and non-hostile ways. A careful review of the incremental steps I took in order to unravel the web of taught helplessness, has restored my self-esteem.

In order to learn, we must be vulnerable and humble. These are not character weaknesses. They are a foundation to the noble student. The fault is in the teachers-of-lies who views vulnerability as an opportunity to maintain dominance while never questioning his or her preposterous assumption of having Authority over Others.


20 March, 2008 14:01  
Blogger Katherine Gunn said...

Thanks for this post.

Sometimes, the 'teacher" in learned helplessness is the parent(s). I am an intelligent person. I got marks in the top percentiles all through school. My narcissistic mother always told me I could be 'whatever I wanted.' Trouble was, when I started expressing interest in actually DOING something, I would get a seemingly offhand but calculated instruction on how difficult and unproductive that course would be. From my father, anything creative that didn't seem like 'hard work' to him was a 'waste of time' that I needed to put aside in pursuit of sucking it up and doing what needed to be done to survive and put money in the bank - like everyone else. What did I learn? That my ideas/dreams were silly and unfruitful and a waste of time and that I was just lazy. But, pursue what YOU want. Yeah - right.

This is also taught in abusive churches. Manipulative pastors can twist their congregations to the place where they are afraid to make any decisions without consulting the church leadership or until they have received instruction from the pulpit.

It is all about narcissistic control - helpless prey won't run away.

30 March, 2008 05:01  
Blogger So, what IS in a heart? said...

IMO, you MADE your luck by going elsewhere for your treatment. OF course, some people choose to become more aggressive. As in, "You might not care about me, but MY family does and if anything happens to me, YOU WILL BE SUED!" This is something cancer patients tend to do when their LIVES are on the line. It might be aggressive, but the other option is death. Course in an abusive relationship, it would escalate to everything from martyrdom to violence. Then again, simply BEING there will do that.

When assertiveness isn't working, then it's best to bail and "take your business elsewhere".

I love your response, CZBZ. HEE! Yea, a lot of abuse targets aren't exactly weak.

02 April, 2008 12:16  
Blogger CZBZ said...

"But, pursue what YOU want. Yeah - right."

Ha! It's the old Double-Bind. No matter what you choose, it's WRONG. That's hard on kids who naturally want to please their parents. We get stuck in the dilemma and can't make a choice.

And like you wrote, Katherine, "helpless prey don't run away."

True Dat!

So WhatsInAHeart---you don't buy into the idea that abuse victims are helpless l'il creatures with yellow streaks running down their backs? LOL!! I think it's important to pay attention to the difficult choices we're had to make within an oppressive relationship. In fact, some of those researchers writing about victims of abuse, can't even imagine the resiliency and courage we've demonstrated by surviving the relationship and refusing to take the easy path out---becoming just LIKE our abuser(s).


03 April, 2008 13:07  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home