15 March 2008

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

The Washington Post recently featured an article I've longed to see for years - no; make that decades; I've been a dissenter at the altar of self-help since the early 1980s. Which probably seems ironic, given the nature of this blog, but bear with me and all will be made clear.

The Post article, by Jennifer Niesslein, was titled "Take This Advice and Shelve It". In two succinct Web pages, she gets to the heart of the matter.
The premise of much, if not all, popular self-help literature is that the individual seeking help is somehow to blame for having created their problem in the first place.

The proffered solutions are rarely anything more than variations on a theme of self-deception.

The purpose of the self-deception appears to be to prevent people from realizing that there are, truly and actually, situations in which adult human beings are essentially powerless.
In other words, much of the game is rigged, and a successful outcome for the game-rigger depends upon keeping the marks from seeing or believing this simple truth.

I call this "taught" helplessness, to distinguish it from the term "learned helplessness". "Learned" helplessness, after all, assumes that your perception of helplessness in a given situation is largely illusory - and that you are somehow at fault for creating the illusion. Thus, it is only you - your outlook and perception - that is in need of repair. Once you unlearn the fallacy that you are helpless [the theory goes], you can seize control of the universe, or at least those parts of it that are currently bothering you.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? And isn't it convenient for everyone around you! You take all the blame, they get to feel superior, and they need not lift a finger to help you.

Reframing this concept as "taught" helplessness places the appropriate share of responsibility onto the school system, family of origin, workplace, abusive spouse, etc. Rather than presuming that the person who feels helpless isn't really helpless at all, and merely desires to feel that way, it implies, much more accurately, that other persons, groups, or systems may be, consciously or subconsciously, actively or passively - or passive-aggressively - encouraging the target to feel helpless.

Let me give you a personal example. Two, in fact.

I developed a dental abscess recently. For a day or two, I wasn't sure whether it was an infection or a neuritis, but I soon had no doubt as to what was going on. I called the dentist, and was fobbed off with no antibiotic, an appointment scheduled 24 hours later, and advice to take ibuprofen while enduring the wait.

I tend not to seek medical help until I NEED it. So by the time I made this call, I was experiencing electric shock type pain all along both the lower and upper mandibles on one side of my face - referred pain through the cranial nerves. My poor tooth was screaming for help, with all its friends and neighbors joining in. Moreover, due to the risk of gastric bleeding, I need to avoid NSAIDs [aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.] whenever possible, and because of an enzyme deficiency, Tylenol [acetaminophen] isn't an option.

I carefully and clearly described all this, in a calm and gentle - but by no means falsely cheerful or Pollyannaish - tone of voice, without drama. None of it was apparently heard, processed, or responded to in a constructive way.

Several hours later, at the point where the pain had become literally head-bangingly unbearable, I tried again, and this time aspirin was recommended.

The following day, the abscess finally received the recognition it deserved, and I was referred to an endodontist for emergency treatment ASAP. I was helpfully encouraged to call them myself and make the appointment, thus assuring that it would be less likely to be taken seriously than if the dentist's office placed the call and requested immediate assistance. I made three calls to the endodontist's office over a 75-minute period, waiting until after their official 'opening time'. As you might have predicted based on the rest of the story so far, none of my calls were returned.

This is not one, but two "taught helplessness" scenarios.

I asked, repeatedly and in an appropriate manner each time, for assistance that was desperately needed.

I asked precisely the persons I should have asked.

I asked in an adult, self-controlled, calm and competent fashion.

I described symptoms, without proffering a diagnosis, and I did not minimize my discomfort, nor did I exaggerate it.

I behaved, in other words, exactly as a responsible adult is - theoretically - supposed to behave in this type of situation.

The result, each time, was that my problem was trivialized, dismissed, or ignored outright, and I was thus given the clear message that I deserved nothing better than I was receiving - which was to say, almost nothing, or nothing at all, in the way of help.
No, I didn't accept this, and I'll explain how I handled it in a moment.

It's important at this point to shift the focus from the specific to the general. Because this type of situation, and this type of message, isn't something that just happens to middle-aged bloggers with abscessed teeth. It occurs all over the landscapes of our adult lives.
-Your child is bullied at school, and when you contact the principal or other administrators, you are told that your child must somehow have instigated the bullying. None of these behavioral masterminds was present during the actual incident, but they are unanimous in foisting the blame onto your child. Nothing is done to the bully. Your child, however, is targeted even more ferociously once the bully finds out that an intervention was attempted.

-You are bullied at work by an arrogant new hire, and when you attempt to discuss the problem with your supervisor [who of course hired the jerk and is more invested in defending that decision than in protecting your wellbeing], you are told that you "take things too personally", that you should "just let it roll off your back", that you "need to learn how to work with difficult people". When you attempt further resolution, for example via on site mediation, you discover that the 'impartial' mediator sides with the bully, and that your efforts to describe the pattern of bullying behavior are dismissed as 'an unhealthy preoccupation' on your part. If anything happens to the bully, it is probably a promotion.

-Your adult daughter marries a man you consider overly controlling and potentially vicious. She can't see this; he's playing up his controlling as fascination with her, his potential viciousness as sensitivity and neediness. They marry and move out of state, and when he begins to batter her, their church - and yours - takes the position that she is not being sufficiently submissive to his God-ordained 'headship'.
None of these scenarios is exaggerated, and I can assure you that none of them is fictional. These things happen, to real people, every day; and to take the position that the people to whom they happen have somehow conspired against themselves to cause these things to happen to them is obscene, if not frankly blasphemous.
[Part Two of this post follows immediately.]


Blogger CZBZ said...

HA! Well, then!! I read the Washington Post article by Niesslein and though I agree with her about the Fluffery being sold as Self-Help (re: The Secret), I can't agree with everything she has to say about Self-Help.

But then again, I’m an optimist who does better in groups than by myself. Discernment isn't an issue for me and I’m a good critical thinker who is not afraid to question what passes as The Last Word on Truth. I can take what's needed and leave the rest with no desire to tell anyone how he or she ought be doing his or her life.

I generally learn towards group support but that's ‘cuz I'm reluctant to give any single person authority over my life. Maybe that's a consequence of my childhood and marriage; but so far, it's been the best way to maintain an internalized locus of control.

I am extremely curious about other people's dilemmas and how they resolve particular struggles they are facing which expands my appreciation for life. I’m inspired by everyday people's courage dealing with unforeseeable events in their lives. This makes me a staunch proponent of 12-step though there comes a time for a girl to get off the boat and shake her legs. If she needs to get back on that boat, then thank god it's there.

Yes, there's a lot of fluffery out there and some of the gurus everyone likes to watch, are so full of themselves it makes my eyes roll in the back of my head. (re: Schlessinger and Dr. Phil) But that's more or less about entertainment value than it is reliable help. And remember, there were a mighty lot of spectators in Roman coliseums. People like to see other people get their "hineys" chewed. Especially VICTIMS. O! We love to bash victims these days, don't we?

What it comes down to for me is that the only way to improve the quality of our lives is to Help Ourselves. Whether we're sitting in a therapist's office or being counseled by friends and family, or re-learning what it means to be abused---the fact is, we can only Help Ourselves. Some of the books I’ve read have been life-changing for me but you might as well know that the most dangerous book I read during my husbaNd’s affair was written by Dr. Phil on ‘Relationships.’

I prefer autobiographical writings by the person who is experiencing what I’m also experiencing. But then again, that’s my authority issue perhaps. It just never worked for me to hand my life over to someone else to fix for me.


20 March, 2008 14:45  
Blogger So, what IS in a heart? said...

I can't see how group support is any different than a single person in terms of "handing over your life to someone". The only difference is that one is group and the other is individual.

Then again, I HATE groups, unless it's an entertaining one on the internet.

All that being said, it really depends on the self-help book. Some work real well, others don't. Plus, it simply depends on who YOU are. What works for one person could be a disaster for another.

02 April, 2008 11:37  
Blogger Stormchild said...

I think Ms. Niesslein was aiming more at the overall self-help 'culture', at least, the most aggressively marketed parts of it, than at specific writers or programs within that culture, whose philosophies can vary.

I know that I am.

Anna Valerious' recent post on "The Cult of Nice" really captures the objective of this culture.

Keep us thinking that we are to blame for all that befalls us;

Keep us isolated, dependent, helpless and docile;

Keep us forever struggling to win a rigged game against overwhelming odds.

Actually, some of Kathy Krajco's critiques fall along similar lines.

Much of the 'helping' appears to be designed to preserve the status quo, at the continued expense of those who are harmed by it. Teaching them that they deserve to be harmed, that their suffering is their fault, is a very effective way to accomplish this.

There are very good self-help programs and books, but much mainstream effort really seems to be directed at keeping us chasing our collective tails...

... and with a little bit of magical thinking, some phony testimonials, and a good sales pitch, snake oil sells just as easily now as ever before.

In re groups, there's a huge difference between a group and a community; just as huge as the difference between a group and a gang, but thank God, in the other direction along the emotional / mental health continuum.

I have known very few genuine communities. I don't think my situation is all that unusual.

But there are true healing communities - and there is good self-help information available.

02 April, 2008 19:25  
Blogger CZBZ said...

You may already be familiar with Steve Salerno but just in case someone might be interested in his perspective on the Self-Help Movement, here's a link to his blog: http://shambook.blogspot.com/

"Teaching them that they deserve to be harmed, that their suffering is their fault, is a very effective way to accomplish this."

Suggesting people have chosen an abuser to be their TEACHER is nothing short of reprehensible. I've read numerous spiritual books that merit a good burn in a bonfire. Especially books suggesting child abuse was a spiritual agreement between the child and the abusive parent because of the life lessons that child would learn.

This kind of thinking makes me ill.

Another crackpot idea in our self-help culture is that perfectly perfect people exist out there somewhere. And these perfectly perfect specimens of mental health are invulnerable to abuse. Why? Because they have reached the pinnacle of self-actualization. You know, those folks with amazing boundaries who would never end up with a lying son-of-a-gun 'cuz they're just soooooooo healthy??

Off my soapbox. I won't even get started on 'The Secret'...


03 April, 2008 00:48  
Blogger Katherine Gunn said...

I have read some books that have been pivotal in my understanding of what was/is going on in my life. I am glad I was led to these books - every one of them gave wonderful information and also said that the reader should not try to implement the things in the book alone - they should get the help of a therapist. That is the route I have gone and it is rough but right - healing is taking place because truth is being uncovered.

The sad thing is that this all happened after I was nearly over the edge. In trying to seek help within the church that I was a leader in, I got nothing but platitudes like "careful, don't dig up the past," and other cautionary notes that made it clear even the thought of looking into the events of my childhood might somehow trap me in some ungodly nether-world from which I would not want to return. The culture of nice and of self-help has trained people to be afraid of looking at ugly things - like abuse - and calling them what they are. Especially if the abuser is a member of the church - seen as being Christian.

A verse comes to mind: "And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely; for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." Luke 16:8 (21st century King James)

Just because we are called Christians does not mean we are supposed to check our common sense and common decency at the door.

03 April, 2008 01:01  
Blogger CZBZ said...

What you’ve written, Katherine, gets right to the basic flaw in Self-Help Groupthink (thank you, Stormchild): making people feel better without dealing with an uncomfortable reality. Constructing a spiritual interpretation of abuse puts the responsibility on the abused and not the abuser. After all, he or she is only human, right?

Maybe it’s an issue of biology. Our heads are above our feet, after all. But when our feet are not firmly planted in reality, we are not spiritual. We are delusional, in denial---escaping reality by ignoring a truth we are afraid to confront. We must get our feet firmly planted in reality before we start lofting into the nethersphere because as far as I can tell after visiting the place a time or two, it’s not heaven. It’s LaLaLaNd.

Alanon taught me a valuable lesson about our ‘feelings’. A member of my group said, “Anytime we are feeling ‘high’, it’s just as crazy as feeling ‘low’”.

The more grounded we are in reality, the more spiritual we become as a direct result. The problem is that grounding ourselves in reality is a painful experience. Our normal reactions to being abused/demeaned, threaten us with overwhelming emotions. So we run. And where do we run? To our heads. Which makes it very easy for perpetrators and manipulators to keep us distracted from legitimate suffering. We’re even grateful to them for alleviating our pain. But it’s a temporary escape.

I think a lot of folks confuse lofty feel-good-feelings with spirituality. I don’t think of spirituality as being dissociated from our bodies, but as deeper connections between self and other which includes greater responsibility for the whole.

When I start feeling all spiritual and lofty, I ask myself, “What aren’t you facing, CZ?” Once I deal with that by accepting what is happening and then acting consciously, perhaps I am being spiritual. There’s an important distinction between feeling spiritual and being spiritual though I struggle to define the distinction.

SelfHelp Groupthink takes the easy way out by capitalizing on people’s desire to escape pain. Feeling Good is not being spiritual. In fact, I make a joke of my church attendance: "I don’t go to church to feel good…I go to church to feel bad." ha! It’s a viable method for cutting through self-deception and unhealthy narcissism.


03 April, 2008 12:57  

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