When Bodhi the puppy was in the process of being house trained, he spent a lot of time penned up in the kitchen. His bed was there; his food was there, and any exocrine accidents could be easily cleaned up. Gradually Bodhi came to learn however, that most of the real action in the house was happening in the living room, dining room and bedroom, places where the kitties, Archie and Gracie had free rein. So, every chance he got, Bodhi would make a break for the action rooms. Each time he did, I would authoritatively call his name to get his attention, walk over and lead him firmly by the collar back to the kitchen.
Over time, once he learned that chewing table legs and eating Kitty-poo Roca was a no-no, he was able to spend more and more supervised time liberated from the kitchen. Gradually he learned and earned the right to have the run of the whole house (Although the cats, Archie and Gracie, have their way of letting him know when his intrusive presence is unwanted).
What has contributed most to Bodhi’s learning in my estimation is that he has never been hit and has rarely been yelled at. Whenever he would prematurely escape his kitchen training ground, my wife or I would simply repeat the return-to-the-kitchen drill. The fear and shame structures in his brain were rarely set ablaze. I would simply explain to him, calmly in words, why he wasn’t ready to have the run of the house. My sense is that he didn’t understand my words necessarily, but he DID understand the energy behind my words. In my mental cosmology, Bodhi came to respect my intentions. He was also never punished for his natural desire to pursue the exhilaration of discovery which is almost, but not entirely irrepressible in puppies (q.v. Pavlov).
The point of this story is that Bodhi has rarely experienced anything that would work to teach him learned helplessness. There have been no severe punishments for Bodhi taking action in the world according to his needs and wants. Simple, firm, nonreactive guidance showed him what behavior was desired and acceptable and what wasn’t.
Children, however, both deliberately and unwittingly, are continually subjected to treatment that undermines their power and their ability to act on their environment to meet their own needs and wants. From public schools where curriculum is rarely designed to match specific, unique levels of interest and development, to interactions with peers and immediate and extended family, children are constantly constrained by the odorless and colorless restraints of emotional reactivity.
Neurochemistry Makes It Happen
When we feel helpless, neurochemical changes in cortico-releasing hormones and serotonin reuptake structures profoundly affect the flow of energy and information in the brain. Learned helplessness is sometimes likened to the state of dissociation that often results after an overwhelming traumatic experience. Immature brain circuits, which can generate an avalanche of healthy activity when the system is supported but not overly stressed, can become trained, intentionally and unintentionally to shut off and go into Homeland Security Lockdown in the face of negative reactions from the people around us. To overcome such inhibitions takes effort, encouragement and practice. And it needs parents who don’t consider “talking back” or assertive “No’s” to be disrespectful. A more skillful response, found in disciplines like Authentic Movement or Aikido, might be to “pace and lead” children in the behaviors we desire.
One perspective on overcoming learned helplessness and transforming it into “learned optimism” can be found in Buddhism. Korean Buddhist teacher Seung Sa Nihm expresses it succinctly:
First kill the Buddha.
Then kill your parents.
Then kill your teacher.
Obviously Seung Sa Nihm is not advocating for actual serial murder. What he is advocating for is growing into our own authority; finding our own way to continually ask and answer The Two Perilous Questions. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if children were raised, guided and actively supported from birth to continually ask and answer those two questions? That would require parents to actively work with almost every single conditioned fear alive and well in their own neural network. It would invite parents to do the work required to kill their own Buddhas, teachers and parents. Not such easy work.
But we actually can kill them all … while loving and respecting them at the same time. It requires a kind of slowing down, a softening and a willingness to honor what might be true for others, but not necessarily true for us. Which is as it should be. Each generation grows minds and brains capable of processing evermore energy and information. How could they not be different than us?
P.S. I’d like to invite you to consider the book below to be the perfect Mother’s Day Gift … for Father’s Day. To learn more, click HERE.