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.
(This post is the most viewed post on this blog with over 18,000 views and 146 comments at the present time. It was updated and revised in March of 2017. If you are looking for the original version of this post, you may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Warmly, Roxanne)
As a life coach I have experience helping HSPs with emotional wounds from childhood often stemming from one or both parents being a malignant narcissist. Emotional abuse is an especially horrible experience for a highly sensitive child. It may be that you felt there was no caring about your feelings whatsoever. You may have felt invisible and as if you don’t matter. …As if your feelings don’t matter! If you were emotionally abused or continually diminished as a child by your parent it’s not healthy to hold that in! Let it out–voice it or write out the truth, acknowledge what happened and then continue to practice letting it go–releasing it–sending it out away from you to be replaced by comfort, compassion, and love for yourself. It’s not healthy to hold onto blame–but admitting it is important and the start to healing repressed and denied emotions.
At under age 2, when we can’t express ourselves with words, we can only cry to get our needs met. A sensitive child becomes obedient out of mortal fear but you can’t tell–they don’t look afraid because they have repressed it. As an obedient highly sensitive child, you put your own needs away and focus on pleasing others–but lying under the surface those unmet needs are still there! Begging for attention! Longing for love! There is nothing wrong with you! You are just afraid to speak up and ask for what you deserve.
And in some families there is no genuine love to be given. And even as a tiny child you know it. As the sensitive child in the family you felt it’s absence and it hurt like hell! And you cried and complained and may have had tantrums of despair in the grocery store! But then at some point it was too much and you stopped crying or complaining and you stopped being …YOU. The fear of being hit or just the mean look from their eyes would feel like a spear of pain through your heart and it would shut you up over and over again until you gave up and became obedient. And that is the trauma! The pain so unbearable to a child that you cannot survive it and so the repression happens. (See Alice Millers’ book, The Drama of the Gifted Child.)
If you experienced this too, the fear you had to repress also held down your true self and all the feelings that went with it. You became obedient and fearful from the trauma but instead of expressing your rage at the injustice of it all, you pushed your feelings down so deep you hid them even from yourself. You didn’t know ’til now that you have such a rich and deep inner life, and a wonderful, loving personality. It was all hiding in fear. Until now.
Now it is safe to come out. For whatever reason, your beginning years were spent in an environment of fear and no love, but there is love out there to be found! Get some support and start a life with stronger boundaries so that you can fully heal. You may need to cut the strings so you can feel safe and free. You deserve to live a life of peace that is free from guilt-inducing manipulations, negative comments undermining your confidence, fear-inducing threats, comments about the rewards others will get for being “good”.
It’s wrong to take care of the feelings of anyone who continually diminishes you in any way at the expense of yourself. It’s difficult but very necessary to set boundaries with malignant narcissists. It’s especially hard being blamed and turned into the bad guy more than anything. It’s excruciating! But you are worth the fight and you must be strong. You have to take care of yourself and your health. You will also feel a sense of exhilaration and freedom and pride in yourself for being honest and no longer pretending like you approve of how they treat you. With support from your new loved ones in your life you can move forward and go for your dreams! You can learn to comfort yourself through the hard times. Know the truth and be strong and hang on ”til the good times–“the sweet tasting good life”… I love that song…”Way Over Yonder. …the sun shinin’ golden, shinin’ right down on me.”
For more on the subjects I have written about today please click on “Recommended Books”. Thank you so much for reading. Please leave a comment about your story. It will help others to know they are not alone.
Way Over Yonder lyrics
Songwriter: King, Carole
Way over yonder is a place that I know
Where I can find shelter from the hunger and cold
And the sweet tasting good life is so easily found
Way over yonder, that’s where I’m bound, that’s where I’m bound
I know when I get there, the first thing I’ll see
Is the sun shinin’ golden, shinin’ right down on me
Then trouble’s gonna lose me, worry, leave me behind
And I’ll stand up proudly in true peace of mind
Talkin’ about a, talkin’ about a
Way over yonder is the place I have seen
In the garden of wisdom from some long ago dream
And maybe tomorrow, I’ll find my way
To the land where the honey runs in the rivers each day
And the sweet tasting good life is so easily found, yes it is
Way over yonder, that’s where I’m
That’s where I’m bound, talkin’ about, talkin’ about
Way over yonder, that’s where I’m bound
Hi everyone. The day after I started writing on this blog for the very first time you might be able to guess what happened–I woke up in the morning with the dreaded feeling of Guilt like a black cloud hanging over my head. In the past I might have felt guilty and spiraled into negativity but thank goodness I knew what to do. I observed this feeling instead of falling into it. I was actually grateful for my new awareness of knowing and being able to label this feeling as Guilt. (I used to just feel numb or a generalized anxiety in the morning–it was a familiar and comfortable state–it was how I survived as a child.) I said to myself, okay this makes sense to feel this feeling today after the success of my first blog. This is Childhood Pain Coming Up to Heal Because Things Are Going Well. This powerful phrase has helped my husband and I so many times. I learned about this from John Gray–in one of the last chapters in his Venus and Mars book. This was one tiny section which I feel was so important he could’ve written a whole book on it for the impact it made on my husband and I.
I realized I had internalized shame that showed up after I had successes that made me feel good about myself. I believe ultimately as a small child that I believed “there is something wrong with me. I am guilty–it is all my fault.” To survive I had to repress all the anger and fear at having been blamed unfairly. I was a highly sensitive child. I desperately needed love and approval. So I settled for conditional love–I became an obedient and anxious shell of a person.
So I had expressed my true authentic self by writing my truth and my inner child was expecting to be punished and blamed and felt guilty. What I have learned is that the strong part of me which now knows the truth is able to comfort the wounded child in me that still feels fear and insecurity and blamed and guilty. See, as a child we make decisions and believe them so thoroughly it’s very hard to change the neural pathways in our brains that are so deeply set. The negative thoughts are so automatic–that’s how we survived. But we can change those pathways in our brains by becoming aware that the negative things we are saying to ourselves are from a wounded child’s perspective! As highly sensitive people, we know how to nurture and love and comfort other people through their self-doubt and fear–so by taking that wounded child inside of you and comforting yourself you can change your inner child’s beliefs about yourself and the pathways of negative spiraling thoughts. Realizing that I had to be the one to love myself and that noone was going to do it for me was a big revelation and turning point for me. Learning to comfort myself with positive affirmations and taking it easy when these big overwhelming feelings come up is now something that comes much easier.
So do I still feel guilty about my speaking out and writing on this blog? In a way the guilt is still there but it is small and completely manageable. And the part of me that is strong, wise, and knows the truth is keeping it in check–telling the wounded child in me that it is going to be okay and I am doing the right thing by speaking my truth. Do I have days when I still succumb to the child part in me and spiral negatively and beat myself up in despair? No, not any longer but I used to and it was a gradual process to get me where I am now. It used to happen mostly in the mornings and sometimes I couldn’t stop it right away. But then, there usually came a time of awareness a short time later, on the same day, when I realized this was a brand new layer of unbearable pain from my childhood that came up to heal because things were going well. My inner child felt safe enough to show it to me and say hey this really bad injustice happened to me and I needed to let it out finally. These are days when I put everything else aside–my list of things to do can wait until tomorrow. I allow myself to grieve for the childhood I never had and deserved. I comfort myself with my favorite things and am nice to myself like I deserved to be treated as a child-legitimate needs that went unmet until now are being healed–by me. I am a nurturing, supportive, comforting mom to myself. I can do it! And so can you. Ultimately this process is what a good empathic coach or inner child counselor is for. They are someone you can trust with the pain of your inner child to help you figure out the truth of what really happened and help you grieve. Then, when you can comfort yourself through the worst of the feelings that come up, then you know you no longer need the coach. You can take care of and love yourself through anything!
Thank you for reading! I hope my words have been helpful to you.