Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness was one of the most interesting concepts I studied in my undergraduate studies. The basic gist of the concept is that if you experience pain over and over, you become conditioned to stop trying to escape it.

This is the basis of what I touched on in my post the other day about “Michigan mind.” Again, it doesn’t apply to everyone who lives in the state, nor is it a commentary on the state itself (much of which is incredibly beautiful, much more so than where I live now.) But I’ve known a lot of people who have developed the mindset and my husband and I did as well.

We both tried so hard, so many times, to improve our circumstances, only to be continually met with failure. My husband worked for five years at a call center where he earned only $30K a year, which was a poverty-level income for a family of five. He never got a raise, despite getting excellent performance reviews. He also didn’t receive any promotions. There were many other people he worked with who were in the same boat, having worked there for years without raises or promotions. Opportunities for promotion were few and far between, with several very qualified candidates competing for them.

Why didn’t they leave? It’s because there was nowhere else they could go. My husband tried for most of the five years he worked at that job to get a different job elsewhere. Eventually, he finally found one that was marginally better (doing IT work instead of tech support), but even that job laid off their entire IT staff a couple years after we moved, choosing to outsource the work instead.

We both finished our bachelors degrees in our 30s, thinking that would be the key to making things better. But that didn’t work, either. I didn’t find any work at all for seven months after I finished my degree, and the job I got was working part-time at Starbucks. My husband never got a job in his degree field.

When you live with few opportunities for advancement or growth, it’s hard to be hopeful. Depression starts to set in. There were layoffs several times a year while my husband was at that tech support job for five years. He always managed to escape them, but it was a regular source of stress.

I didn’t find out until I was filling out the FAFSA for college at age 18 that my dad had maxed out his own pay at $11 an hour. He had worked at the same company for decades and there was just nowhere else he could go. In that, I realize that I had been conditioned to accept learned helplessness my entire life. Mine was not a childhood in which I saw people get rewarded for their hard work with advancement and opportunities.

The only thing that finally got my dad out of that job was a lot of patience and luck, when he finally got hired by GM, one of the few “good jobs” available in our area, almost ten years after he applied. He wished a similar stroke of good luck and long-delayed gratification for my husband.

Instead, what I observed and experienced was that no matter how hard you worked, it wouldn’t matter. You were just lucky to have a job, when so many did not.

What I have finally figured out through the course of pursuing full-time work again now is that this mindset of learned helplessness is something that you have to constantly work to defeat. It was a belief that I could overcome it that drove me to move back to Texas, where I knew the economy was different (especially in my husband’s line of work.)

Even a lot of people I knew in Michigan didn’t want me to leave, not because they would miss me, but because they believed it was unlikely that I’d find something better. One person who lived in the neighborhood where I grew up and who got furloughed every winter even asked me, “Why do you need more than $11 an hour?” Several people thought I was uppity for trying to leave.

I got a job myself when I moved here but I lost it when I needed to care for my middle son after he was hit by a car. I got another job after he recovered but had to quit almost a year later when I couldn’t find transportation for my kids to school. What I didn’t realize until now was that learned helplessness had been reinforced in me yet again. I started to believe that my husband could succeed in his job but I could not.

I successfully overcame learned helplessness–aka “Michigan mind”–to move down here and get established. But I’ve slipped back into that mindset again more than I had realized, especially while I was receiving disability. I really started to develop this (very deeply unconscious) belief that I didn’t have agency over my own destiny, now because I had a chronic illness.

I’ve also realized how much my parents have reinforced this learned helplessness in me. They don’t believe in my ability to control my circumstances either. In fact, my dad has constantly repeated that you have to be careful about what kind of job field you choose, as you’re likely to get stuck doing that type of work for the rest of your life. As previously mentioned, my mom doesn’t think I should risk losing my disability payments by getting a job. In a way, it’s understandable why they would be so continually discouraging in what they tell me, as it reflects their own experiences with learned helplessness.

But the point is that I’m not in that place anymore, literally or figuratively. It is possible to make career changes here. It’s also very possible that if you perform well at a job here, you’ll move up, often fairly quickly. I know this because I’ve seen it happen for my husband, both when we lived here the first time and again since we’ve returned.

I’ve realized that because learned helplessness is a mental state that I grew up with, which my parents (likely unintentionally) continually reinforce, it’s something that I have to continue to consciously fight. I did so successfully in order to move but I have to keep fighting it. Getting on disability was helpful to allow me to recover from illness but I don’t believe it’s been good for me in terms of the learned helplessness factor. In fact, being on disability is in many ways the very definition of learned helplessness.

I am strong and I’m a fighter. I didn’t fight this hard to get to Texas just to give up and go back to that mental state of disempowerment again. I just have to keep fighting and refuse to stop.

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