Updated March 2016
Hi everyone. Today I want to write about a subject that many of my clients and readers can relate to as Highly Sensitive People. It is something called Learned Helplessness. Learned Helplessness is that feeling of powerlessness that we all feel at times, and for some of us it is more pervasive and all encompassing than for others. There is much hope in talking about it because if you can understand the roots of this feeling, you can understand that it is “learned” behavior and that you can become aware of it when it hits you and ultimately heal from it completely.
I first heard about Learned Helplessness in my introductory psychology class in college. And you probably have heard the story as well–the story of Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov used a dog in an experiment in human behavior to demonstrate the result of conditioning. I can’t recall the exact details except that the dog was given rewards or withheld the rewards and the resulting behavior of the dog was recorded and studied. There were other dog experiments by a psychologist named Seligman in which he shocked sets of dogs to demonstrate learned behavior and conditioning and punishment.
The main thing I remember vividly about the whole thing was that at the end of the Seligman experiments, the dogs were shocked repeatedly both when they completed a task correctly and also when they did not. The poor dogs were so confused that they layed down depressed and GAVE UP and even whined–and this was Learned Helplessness that the dogs were experiencing. I still remember learning about this vividly because I felt SO bad for these dogs–I was empathizing and upset beyond what the average person reading this would expect to be.
At that time in college I did not have the insight or self-awareness yet to realize it was because I resonated so much personally with how the dogs were treated. As a highly sensitive, empathetic person I knew just how those dogs must have felt and I related to them giving up and laying down, hopeless, and helpless, in fear, and self-doubt. Those dogs were experiencing the same damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t no-win situation that those who were bullied consistently (or even neglected or controlled) by a caretaker or narcissistic or controlling parent were subjected to day in and day out as children. Years later I remember talking to a counselor about this, knowing just how a dog in those experiments must have felt and it helped the counselor have a picture of the frustration, fear, desperation, loneliness, despair, hopelessness, and helplessness.
After I voiced this to the counselor, I was able to picture myself as a small child with the same compassion I had for such a dog and finally realized that I deserved so much more. The roots of my anxiety were then exposed–no wonder I felt anxious all the time, no wonder I was a perfectionist and afraid to disappoint anyone, no wonder I didn’t know how to relax, no wonder I had no access to my own dreams and desires and was filled with self-doubts and negative messages in my head. It helped to talk to someone about how I felt what I experienced could compare to the treatment of those dogs–the feeling of not being given consistent love and support and feeling rewarded only if obedient and punished with emotional rejection if not.
My life coaching experiences and studies have taught me the following in regards to those highly sensitive people with a narcissistic parent: The Scapegoat child of a N parent can very much relate to this constant punishment and criticism. But the Golden Child (GC) can relate as well because they are often the obedient one who needs desperately some kind of loving approval and, out of fear, becomes what the parent or wants for them to become. Outwardly to others it may appear as if the GC has it all–the love, attention and admiration of the Narcissistic parent. But inside there is so much emptiness and pain, an absence of the knowledge of self and true feelings–feelings that had to be hidden away because they were too painful to bear. The false self is developed and honed in, the GC knows exactly how their N parent feels even before they do. The GC develops a radar that helps them to survive the lack of love and support–and they develop an illusion that they are the ones at fault if, even with their best efforts, they fail to win the acceptance of the N parent. They blame themselves and have very low self-esteem, crushed by criticism, holding relationships at arms length so no one will get too close and cause them further pain.
The roots of co-dependence are also linked to this learned helplessness–victims of such abuse telling themselves that there must be something wrong with them and that they are deeply flawed and it usually goes in one of two ways–either they decide they need to find another person to love them and take care of them and then they will be happy (co-dependence) or they become a porcupine not letting anyone one else near, lashing out at anyone who suspects that they just might have some insecurities underneath their outwardly successful yet workaholic exterior shell. People who suffer from panic attacks and even agoraphobia often have learned helplessness from childhood as a root cause as well.
“What can a person do?” you may be asking if you relate to what I am describing. Plenty! Just being aware and believing that this happened to you as a child is the first step. Just as you have compassion for the dogs in the experiments, you need to develop this same compassion for yourself and make a decision to stop being so hard on yourself. Make a decision to be kind to yourself every time you are feeling bad–it is almost always childhood pain coming up to tell you the truth of what really happened to you. Become aware that the negative messages in your head were put there by someone else and that you did not deserve them. Change them to positive messages. Write in a journal all the things you were good at as a child and never given credit for. Writing out the truth is powerful and go back and read it often to remind yourself.
It takes time so be patient with yourself. Taking baby steps in the direction of healing is wise because there is pain to work through and release but you can do it! You have many gifts and talents that have never been acknowledged yet and only you can bring them out from their repressed state of Learned Helplessness.
Whether you were the scapegoat in your family or the obedient golden child, you can heal from the trauma of Learned Helplessness. Often people who experience post traumatic stress from an abusive childhood fall into this state of learned helplessness when their wounds are triggered. It can feel like an inability to function, a numbness–but sometimes the feelings along with that are a mix of rage and despair.
If you have lashed out at loved ones with an intensity beyond what is appropriate then you probably were a victim of a person that controlled you in an abusive way far far too much with no remorse. If you were extremely sensitive (extremely emotionally gifted 🙂 ), just a mean look from his/her eyes could cause a traumatic reaction in you as a child and the fear may have felt like a spear through your heart. The rage and despair you feel is understandable and appropriate but needs to be directed, voiced, and released at the person that did this too you in a journal, letter that won’t be sent, and/or perhaps even read outloud with a safe witness friend, counselor, or coach present (never to them or to their face) . You will find a sense of relief each time you release some of this truth and the light inside of you will become brighter and brighter and you will feel lighter and lighter. You will begin to experience the essence of your true self and the vitality you deserve. This is the process of healing. Don’t hold onto the anger and resentment that comes up but release it completely each time, visualizing the negative emotions going up to heaven or into the earth,whichever appeals most, to be healed by love and light–Imagine love and light coming to you as well to replace these negative emotions each time to center yourself again to a peaceful state.
Why did you experience learned helplessness while your siblings did not? Perhaps you had the gift of high sensitivity and along with that the knowledge and expectation of a higher level of love. And when you did not receive this love that you innately knew existed, you had no choice but to blame yourself because…it made no sense to you. Your siblings possibly just got mad at your parents and rebelled–they may have had no higher vision of a loving existence so it didn’t feel as traumatic to them.
So you see, the cure and the answer to all of your self-doubt and learned helplessness is LOVE. Love yourself as you deserved to be loved and give yourself the love that you so easily give to others because that is your gift. Compassion and love for yourself will help you overcome all of the many symptoms of Learned Helplessness just as consistent love and affection and kindness would help Seligman’s abused dogs to learn to trust people and trust themselves again. I hope my words have been helpful to you.
Hi everyone. I am a life coach for highly sensitive people with childhood wounds and I specialize in inner child healing. Today I am releasing Part 2 of my More Helpful Tips post for those of you Highly Sensitive Souls trying to figure out how to thrive when you have a narcissistic parent. It may help for you to review tips 1 through 6 in my last post. To summarize, they were about: your gift of intuition; the childhood traumas you repressed to survive; anxiety, self-doubt, co-dependence and PTSD; there is hope; inner child healing can help; and no contact with your Narcissistic parent may be vital to the healing process. So here are tips 7. through 12.:
7. Know that the GUILT is relieved by acknowledging the anger and hatred you felt as a child that you were forced to repress.
The guilt of setting boundaries in your relationship with your Narcissistic (N) parent will be strong! Ignore it! It is guilt induced from elsewhere that you internalized since you were a tiny child. That has affected your freedom as a gifted child to become your own wonderful self! It may feel as if they took that from you and gave you guilt, shame, and fear in it’s place. So what do you do with the guilt you feel when stepping out on your own to become the person with freedom to do whatever you want with your life? HSPs tend to feel guilt for feeling anger–allow yourself to feel angry about it! Righteous anger is a healthy emotion that you were not “allowed” to express to them–but it is important that you release this anger in harmless ways (not to the parent who abused you) . Acknowledge it, tell a safe person, or write it out in a journal (for your eyes only) in detail the anger you feel for all that you lost. Because this rage inside that comes out sometimes in your life at the wrong people has an origin that needs to be acknowledged and let go of. You have a right to acknowledge this repressed anger for the traumas that happened to you as a child–it was too painful for a child to survive this kind of excruciating, unbearable emotional pain of hating your parents when you needed them so desperately. So the trauma is repressed and the truth of what happened to you needs to be released so that you can finally be free. Punching a mattress with your fist and/or screaming into several pillows for as long as you need to is helpful to release the rage you have kept inside all these years. It helps to have a supportive and safe person present to validate your feelings as you release them. Do not hold onto this intense anger–release it and imagine this energy going away from you forever. (Forgiveness is important but not until all the layers of repressed anger are worked through and this takes time and patience with yourself–do not attempt to forgive too soon or you may get stuck in a guilt about not being able to forgive cycle.)
8. Know that grieving the loss of your childhood is part of the healing process.
Often after the release of anger you will begin to feel all the hurt and pain of not being truly loved as you deserved. Letting this out and releasing this is so important as well in the healing process of your wounded soul. It helps so much to talk to another empathic human to feel fully validated and comforted through this grieving process–but if there is no one possible then you can write this pain out and you may even surprise yourself by the poetry that pours out of you. (No rules when you write–just let it pour out). These words of your soul will always surprise you– you will discover a richness and deep inner life inside of you that you never knew existed. Because it was hiding in fear all this time–a very real fear–fear of your parent’s judgemental rejection and abandonment of your budding wise self.
9. Know that it is okay for you to be FREE of them and put yourself first so you can heal.
It is a free country! You are a free person to do as you wish. And noone knows the pain that a narcissistic parent can do to the soul of a highly sensitive child except those who have experienced it. So stop waiting for approval from the rest of society. You may need to stop all contact with the harmful, negative, malignant narcissistic parent in your life forever and always if that is how long it takes for you to feel safe and have inner peace. You do not even need to attend their funeral if that is something that worries you. It is okay to protect yourself from all the negative energy and judgements of others at family gatherings if you are feeling this will happen. (This all depends upon your own personal spiritual beliefs–I personally now believe our souls live for eternity and those who truly love and support you will be there in heaven and watch over you in spirit–they will understand your reasons for staying away. I believe you don’t need to go to a funeral to say goodbye or to appease family members who don’t support you either. This is something that must feel right to you and your own personal spiritual beliefs) And to support you further, I just happened to hear on the radio today, a Christian counselor reminding someone that “Honor thy father and mother” DOES NOT APPLY when they are emotionally abusive and use fear to control you. Fear is the opposite of love! It is a deal breaker and they are no longer honorable parents. God wants for you to protect yourself and go towards love in your life and away from those who induce fear. I agree with this. Loving parents want you to feel safe and loved–N parents do not care if you feel safe and loved, they want you to obey or else! Please get yourself safe and free.
10. Know that Narcissistic people are known as “Crazymakers” for a good reason.
If you have malignant narcissistic parents, they are not going to change and they are not going to stop trying to make you wrong. You are not wrong for putting your life and your dreams first for a change. This is your time! This is your life! This is your time for healing and dreaming and learning to love yourself as God has always wanted for you. Malignant Narcissism is mental illness. It’s a severe problem and insidious in nature because they appear to fit in with other people and have friends and thrive and look fine on the outside. They may even be religious and say they are devoted to God but it is not true! It is just words! They may even appear to change and will be on their good behavior around your children but don’t believe it. They may even turn your kids against you in an instant if they are able. There’s a hidden self-hatred there underneath in a narcissist and a desire to control others with no remorse and no desire to change as a disconnected self-protection from emotional pain–a complete separation from their soul’s true essence. That’s enough knowledge for you to know you need to get you and your children safe with safe boundaries in place.
11. Know that highly sensitive people absorb the negative energy of others. Time alone and the beauty of nature can help recharge your positive energy.
Malignant narcissists are like energy vampires sucking the good energy out of you and replacing it with all their unconscious negative feelings about themselves. You feed them, so to speak, and they take it and feel better about themselves. And they constantly want more, not seeing or caring how it is hurting you. Only you can stop feeding their endless need for your supply of positive energy. This is what it means to develop healthy boundaries. It is your very essence, your “gift” that they are taking–your ability to give light and love to others. You must protect this gift. It is meant for those who are also of light and love so that we can build each other up and help each other so that all of our dreams can come true and we can improve life on our planet. These dreams and desires that you have deep inside are the innervoice that connects you to God and the light that feeds all of us (HSPs). It is the LOVE that you never got from your N parents that you begin to feel has been inside of you all along. As you begin to connect with your real feelings and your vitality you connect with God and the love and bliss that was there innately in our true selves. Love exists and you can give it to yourselves when you realize you were loved all along and were born with this love to give to others who don’t exploit you.
12. Know that you can rescue yourself! Noone can do it for you.
Take the first steps and start on a path of healing today! Be strong and stay away from your malignant narcissistic parent while you heal and anyone who judges you for doing so. You don’t need to explain it to anyone. Most highly sensitive people will understand without explanation. They are out there–don’t give up! I am proud to be a highly sensitive person and now as a life coach of inner child healing I shine my light brightly to help other sensitive souls out of the dark. You have a light inside of you that has just been hiding in fear. Everything is going to be all right now as the truth of who you are comes to light. Please take extremely good care of yourself so your highly sensitive soul can shine and inspire others. I hope these tips have been helpful to you.
With Love and Light,