Learned Helplessness
Writings | Training, Life

Conversation I

“I can’t do it,” he said.

“What prevents you?” I asked.

Long silence.

“Do you know how to do it?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied, “but I can’t.”

“‘Can’t’ or ‘won’t’,” I asked, pushing a bit.

Another long silence.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “Everything you say makes sense. I understand how to do it. But I can’t.”

“So what prevents you?”

“A lot of different things. I mean, I was brought up to be a nice person, you know, someone who treats people decently, who doesn’t push, gives people a fair deal and expects to given a fair deal in return. I can’t believe what has happened. I feel totally betrayed. I feel like I’m a victim of my own naiveté. I feel helpless. Yes, I understand what you’ve suggested and, intellectually, I understand that I can take those actions, but internally, I’m very confused. I feel I’m being violent is I say, ‘No, I’m not going to accept that and here are the consequences.’ But the alternatives are terrible. I don’t want to give up my job and have to move. Decent people shouldn’t be in this position. I feel I’ve done something terribly wrong, but I haven’t, have I?”

Conversation II

“You’re kidding?! You’re not serious?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m serious. You said that you wanted to be clear and present. Being clear and present means that you serve what is true,” I replied.

“But what will my family think? What about my friends? They won’t understand,” she said.

“Yes, there are consequences. You have to make a choice. Do you continue to live the life defined for you by others or do you act on what you know to be true?”

Both these conversations are fictional. I made them up for this article. Yet I’ve had many similar conversations with different students (and with myself).

The common theme is an internal pattern called “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness results from being trained to be locked into a system. The system may be a family, a community, a culture, a tradition, a profession or an institution.

Initially, a system develops for a specific purpose. But as a system evolves, it increasingly tends to organize around beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos that serve the continuation of the system. Awareness of the original purpose fades and the system starts to function automatically. It calcifies. The beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos shift in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways, to ensure continuation. And those beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos are trained into the people that comprise the system.

For example, the purpose of a family is to provide a nurturing environment that protects the children from the vicissitudes of the world while they are developing the physical, emotional and intellectually abilities to function on their own. Love, compassion, joy and equanimity are vital: love so that the child opens to the world; compassion so that the child learns not to fear suffering; joy so that the child feels confident in his or her own abilities; and equanimity so that the child can be free to go when he or she has matured.

All too often one or more of these aspects is distorted by the family system. Instead of love, the child experiences a demand for affection; instead of compassion, a fear of suffering; instead of joy, derision of his or her abilities; instead of equanimity, judgement.

And whenever the child says, “Hold on, there’s something wrong here,” the power of the family system comes into play:

“What? You don’t love your mother! Shame on you.”

“You can’t do that, you might get hurt.”

“You think you’re hot stuff, huh? Let me show you a thing or two.”

“”You must be evil to even think that.”

Similar conditioning mechanisms operate in most systems. The system uses shame and the withdrawal of attention to instill a fear of survival. Simultaneously, the system presents the view that power resides in the system, not the individual. The combination creates a dependence on the system for survival. Gradually, the system is internalized and the person identifies with it — he sees himself the way the system sees him. His sense of who he is is defined by the system. (We see this tendency very clearly in the professions — “I’m a doctor, so I do x, y and z” or “I’m an attorney, so I do x, y and z.”)

One of the primary characteristics of learned helplessness is that the person feels passive with respect to the system. The passivity, however, is only half the story.

Whenever we are subjected to abuse, physical, emotional or spiritual, two patterns form inside us: the victim and the abuser. Our experience of being abused lays the basis for the victim pattern. Our experience of how abuse can be meted out lays the basis for the abuser pattern. Both give rise to learned helplessness, though the learned helplessness manifests differently. In the case of the abuser, learned helplessness might manifest as “Something just took over; I didn’t mean to say or do that.” In the case of the victim, it might manifest as “I don’t know why I put up with it but I can’t seem to do anything about it.” In both cases, we are expressing passivity with respect to the patterns operating in us. In both cases, we are confessing helplessness.

Can learned helplessness be undone? Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? The answer is “Yes.” The cost, however, is high. We can only undo learned helplessness by severing our internal connection with the system that gave rise to it.

Our motivation must be clear and strong. We must really want to hear and respond to our own questions about life. We must really want to live our own life and not one prescribed by our family, society, culture, profession or tradition. Metaphorically, we must be willing to go north, the direction that takes us out of society. We must be willing to endure pain, know from direct experience, act on what we see and receive what happens. We must yearn to experience what is without relying on anything to confirm our existence.

How do we undo learned helplessness? Traditionally, three steps are described. One formulation, from martial arts, is:

“Know what to do; learn the skills; remove the blocks.

We study to understand what’s involved. We then adopt a discipline that trains the necessary skills so that the skills become part of us. Then we work to remove the internal blocks that prevent us from using what we know.

An alternative formulation from Buddhism is:

“Recognize the problem; develop a practice; continue until the problem is gone.

The first step is to recognize that there is a problem. Then we develop a practice that brings attention to the problem and, particularly, to the patterns that underlie it. Finally, we continue that practice regardless of what arises until the problem is gone.

These are difficult instructions. When we follow them, we come up against the power of the system as it has been internalized in us. Fairy tales are full of stories about the young prince or princess going into a castle guarded by dragons, demons, sorcerers and tyrants, inadvertently waking them up by asking an inappropriate question or breaking a rule and then having to fight to find a way out. These are “no holds barred” stories, in which the prince or princess uses skill and awareness to kill the apparitions and conquer the apparently overpowering forces arrayed in opposition. And there is a cost.

When the internal identification dies, we feel as if a part of us has died, and it has. When we violate the dictums of the system, we will feel that we are being violent, and we are. When the system dies in us, we will feel that we have killed something, and we have. We step outside consensus reality. We cease to look to the world to confirm our existence.

We come, instead, to rely on our direct experience of what arises and we act according to our observation of the needs of the moment. We may even choose to work in an institution, follow a tradition, or pursue a profession. But our choice is conscious and we knowingly accept the responsibilities and obligations that come with our chosen path.

The practice of Buddhism could be described as a way of dismantling learned helplessness. Renunciation, leaving society, and reliance on one’s own experience are central themes in the life of Buddha Shakyamuni. The practice of meditation requires the willingness to stand in the face of internal material and know we are not that material and to stand in the face of death and non-existence.

The four separations that Sakya Pandita received from Manjushri point the way.

“If you are attached to this life, you are not a spiritual person.

“This life” means the life defined by society and culture — success and failure in the conventional sense. The primary practice for separating from “this life” is meditation on death and impermanence. When we know clearly we are going to die, we focus on what is truly important to us, not what we have been told is important.

“If you are attached to the cycle of existence, you will not be free.

The cycle of existence (samsara) is the technical term for the whole collection of habituated patterns that confine us. As long as we are attached to any of those habituated patterns, we will never experience freedom. The primary practice for separating from such patterns is meditation on suffering and how it arises.

“If you are attached to your own welfare, you are not an awakening being.

When our lives are based on protecting and defending our self-identity, we can never wake up to the totality of awareness and experience. An awakening being (bodhisattva) is one who is determined to wake up. So we have to separate from being concerned solely with our own welfare. The primary practice is taking and sending. It embodies the four immeasurables (loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity).

“If you are attached to a position, you can’t see things as they are.

When we hold anything as real, we adopt a fixed position and can only see things in terms of that position. To see things as they are, we need to remove attachment to any position, particularly the notion that “I” exist is some fundamental way. The primary practice is meditation on insight, using attention to see into the way things are.

Finally, a more succinct formulation comes from the Korean master Seung Sa Nihm:


First kill the Buddha.
Then kill your parents.
Then kill your teacher.

In other words, we remove any idea that there is an ideal such as enlightenment or buddha that is going to save us. Then we remove all the habituations that we acquired from our family. Finally, we remove even the habituations we acquire as a student. Then we can stand in awareness and serve what is true.