Learned helplessness occurs when one repeatedly experiences pain and frustration, coupled with a general lack of control over his or her environment, and becomes too used to this state of being. Becoming habituated to a sense of helplessness, he or she will not attempt to change the painful situation they are in, even when it becomes entirely possible to do so. The theory comes from experiments with dogs:
In learned helplessness studies, an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action.
We can understand this theory in the human world, and particularly in terms of recovery, in a metaphorical way.
The notion that we are helpless is usually introduced to us as young children. Many of us grew up in chaotic, alcoholic homes. Our parents, who are often addicted, themselves, could be ultra critical and incredibly hard on us.
Or maybe we grew up in a family system where we were sheltered, with parents so afraid that we would get hurt somehow, that we were never allowed to go out into the world and try to figure it out, to get out there and make mistakes and learn and gain confidence in our ability to make things happen.
Or in the same vein, maybe we were heaped with praise for achieving average, mundane tasks, building an intense sense of entitlement in us. Maybe we are in our late-20s, and have never had to have a job because our parents still support us.
What is Autonomy?
Whatever the origin of our learned helplessness, it must be understood as the enemy of ‘autonomy.’ Autonomy is our ability to determine our own lives, to act in a grown up way, and not as a powerless child.
The word ‘autonomy’ comes from the Ancient Greek autonomia, from autonomos, from auto-, ‘self’ and nomos, ‘law.’ Originally, the word meant ‘one who gives oneself one’s own law.’
Too often, even as grown adults, we live under the law of our parents, under the set of beliefs and rules imposed on us when we were small children, before we were able to form our own – but what if they just don’t fit anymore? So the problem becomes how we make the leap from learned helplessness to autonomy.
Sadly, if we are not very aware and very careful about what we are doing, a drug and alcohol treatment program can do more to contribute to learned helplessness than it does to help our clients to achieve autonomy. The over-institutionalization of young people is a huge problem we encounter in the contemporary treatment landscape.
Young men in their 20s, afraid to leave the comforts and security of institutionalized recovery homes, can too easily become men in their 30s, wearing their sweatpants around the smoking table, shuffling in and out of group therapy, day in and day out. This happens when we prevent our clients from living their lives, and is based in a fear that they might get hurt, or die, if they risk putting themselves out there.
How Do We Teach Autonomy?
There is a wrong idea, in my opinion, that when dealing with the younger population, it’s either work life or recovery, and never the twain shall meet. At Alo House, a large and growing focus of our work is to get our young clients through to the other side, and out into the world.
We do this with a combination of therapy, which is designed to teach ‘emotional autonomy,’ and life coaching, which has the aim of teaching ‘financial autonomy.’ Drugs and alcohol may be alluring. But nothing feels better than that first night in your new apartment, which you worked so hard to afford, so tired after a long day at an honest job, without anyone telling you how to live your life.
When it comes to teaching autonomy, our approach is to not shelter our clients from life. After all, we all got to make mistakes in our recovery. So why would we get to, or want to, shelter our clients from making mistakes in theirs?
In essence, this is how we learn and grow and improve as people. Failure is okay! Mistakes are okay! As long as we are willing enough, and man or woman enough, to face the consequences. But we wouldn’t know it from the culture we grew up in, where each of us were rewarded for perfection and punished for failure in an outdated, unrealistic education system. We aren’t policemen, and we aren’t controlling parents. We want our clients to be free!
With many of the young people we treat, we don’t even know if we are really looking at ‘pure’ addiction, or extreme cases of learned helplessness that happen to be complicated by addiction. If all one has to do is relapse every few months in order to end up back in a very comfortable Malibu rehab – if that person is paralyzed by inexperience, a lack of confidence, and a lack of positive direction – why wouldn’t they? Why would they ever try to jump into life, and truly begin their journey into recovery, and life after rehab?
For any of us working in addiction recovery, we must be constantly asking ourselves, are we contributing to learned helplessness or helping our clients – empowering them! – to achieve autonomy? Because it’s impossible to do both at the same time.