Understanding Learned Helplessness – Brian Goosen

“Learned helplessness happens when a person chooses to not get out of a negative situation because the past has taught him/her that he/she is helpless”

So, the way one view’s a negative event has an impact on whether or not I feel helpless? YES. So, lets infer that if I take a negative event, choose intrinsic negative beliefs about myself to describe why an event happened, and let these attributions (excuses) pervade into other areas of my life. Would I then be more likely to let this helplessness turn into depression? You guessed it, ding ding!

Internal beliefs one holds that are “internal, stable, and global” lead onward into literally learning helplessness. When we blame ourselves instead of outside circumstances to a negative outcome (internalization), take this belief and let it pervade into our future (stabilization), and finally let this pervasiveness extend across multiple arenas of our lives (globalization), we have the fuel to the learned helplessness fire. These attributes, or factors that a person blames for the outcome of a situation (in this case negative situation), directly correlate as a reason for learning helplessness.

My question is, what is the opportunity cost to lingering in our learned helplessness? Do we sit comfortably in this learned helplessness and use it as a self-fulfilling prophecy to not move forward? † This trend is likely to increase unless we collectively take a progressive and proactive approach towards individually living mindfully, fully aware of possible secondary benefits that harm our growth and progression.

Look up Martin Seligman’s Learned Helplessness; going balls deep into the particulars of the background to the theory is not why we’re here. Instead, I’m going to relate to how I unintentionally learned the benefits of helplessness in my life. What follows will be my best attempt to be vulnerable, because lord knows I struggle with this face-to-face, especially with people I don’t know, most likely with people like you.

It was a brisk day in Illinois on April 20, 2016 (4/20 yes). My brother and I each woke up around 3:30 AM that morning with a shock of anxiety riddling through our veins, preventing both of us from falling back to sleep. This is highly unusual for me at the time, but I tried my best to think nothing of it and drove to Tinley Park for my 7th day leading my first project as a superintendent for renovating Hollywood Casino.

This micro-burst prolonged to generalized anxiety when the uneasiness feeling extended into the late morning. On my first break, I tensely walked to my truck to check my personal phone out of curiosity (carrying two phones is a pain in the ass, if you know…you know). A sobering walk led me to open my phone to see it exploding with text messages. Before I could open a message, my pops called with the traumatic news that my beloved mother had passed on.

When I look back at the person I believed myself to be while growing up, I see a happy guy that radiated positivity, which in turn bled out to those around me. I used to be a part of multiple social groups and took pride in uniting people together. Coupled with positiveness was my ambition to learn and grow.

I always looked to my mother for knowledge and my father for wisdom. From the time I was a child, I observed my mother’s never-ending desire to learn for her job and for leisure. My father’s unrelenting work ethic towards his profession and life in general was of course something I strive to emulate. As I’ve aged, I’ve grown to believe that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. However, as I sit here and analyze myself presently, I sense a considerable delta in these positive qualities from which I was before my mom passed and who I am today.

“The shell shock is real, & no one can be ready” is an excerpt from the “Your Love” poem I wrote 36 hours after the phone call, with maybe 2 hours of sleep under my belt. Looking back, this statement proves to be true, and unfortunately I’ve chosen to let the initial shell shock extend three years and pervade into thinking I am helpless not only with changing the events that led to my mother’s passing, but also in my ability to comfortably be “me” again.

“Wait a second crazy, you’re you everyday,” the reader suggests. My response is this: in order for you to comfortably be yourself, you must be mindfully aware of the ability to ride the dichotomies between the positive and negative qualities you possess. Do your best to find middle ground between bridging the two qualities. Remember the old phrase, “don’t let you highs get too high, and lows get too low?” Well, I’ve been living in a constant state of valley lows, with a short embrace to maybe a diminutive, plateaued-mountain every now and again, along this depressed path for the last 3 and some change years later.

When you’re not yourself, you disregard dichotomies and are in default mode, idling on one side of the double-edged sword.

What changed? I took the “a burden whose scar runs so deep one will never be the same.” accepted into my life. Today I’m arguably a foggy reflection of the person I used to stand up for myself as being.

From mimicking the positive qualities of both my mom and dad, as I grew up I quickly figured out I had the same burning fire inside that my mom had with gaining knowledge, and the same hustler’s ambition mindset of my father. I danced in these qualities before the passing of my mother, and let them lead me to success in school, work, and socially. No matter how hard life got, I stuck to these qualities and they were always able to get me to the other side of whatever struggle I was dealing with at the time. However, since my mom went upstairs, these qualities have been passively flickering, barely holding onto their relevance in my life as a young man.

The phrase: “I’ll never be the same” is of itself regarded as a highly pervasive phrase. Mix this pervasiveness with negativity, and you have learned helplessness. This is the phrase that catapulted me into my depression, and the reason stems from learned helplessness.

What does learned helplessness feel like, and how did this lead you into depression?

I’ll speak for myself, and to me learned helplessness feels like comfortable misery. Being unable to change the events leading towards my mother’s death is something I’ve held onto since the phone call. This feeling that I can do absolutely nothing to bring her back and/or change her state of mind before passing I hope will gradually change into acceptance upon learning about this theory of learned helplessness.

The infectious way of thinking crept into my mind when I was most vulnerable, after my heart was broken from loosing the most important person to me in life. I adopted the philosophy of doing the bare minimum to get by, which in turn gradually changed my “upbeat, positive demeanor” into a negative and helpless SOB (no pun intended). The fire that was once ignited as a young boy burnt out by the time I developed into a young man.

The way I used to dance in the positive qualities in my DNA has been succumbed down by my learning helplessness, which I let pervade into the foundation of my thinking towards any effort I put forth in life.

Why would I waste my time reading and writing? Why would I hit this extra sales call? Why go work out? Nothing I do is relevant enough to make a difference.


These phrases quickly lead you, in this case me, into a dark pit of depression. But is there a happy ending?

The secondary gains of a lazy & uninspired life has drawn me into researching why it is that I always feel like shit, and Martin Seligman you could be my angel. Upon finding his research, an instant light bulb went on in my head when reflecting upon the last three years I’ve lived. Moreover, its helped me realize that my mom would call me a total pussycat for the way I’ve been, which is an extra driving force to “unlearn helplessness.”

I believe that with the understanding of this theory lodged deeply inside my pre-frontal cortex, I can now “grow back up” into the man my mother sacrificed her happiness, her livelihood, and herself to create a better life for.

This is my formal goodbye to my “learned” helplessness. I choose to sink 10 toes down back into the foundation of the person my mom raised me to be. Happy late birthday mom, I love you very much.

Thanks for reading,

Brian Goosen

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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !

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