Depression and Learned Helplessness

by | Oct 4, 2002

Depression has been defined as a persistent feeling of learned helplessness. For those who are depressed, this raises the questions: what do you feel helpless about, and why? What needs to change in order for you to feel less helpless? One area to work on is your attitude; in other words: your beliefs and your […]

Depression has been defined as a persistent feeling of learned helplessness.

For those who are depressed, this raises the questions: what do you feel helpless about, and why? What needs to change in order for you to feel less helpless?

One area to work on is your attitude; in other words: your beliefs and your thinking. For example, you might denigrate yourself unfairly without realizing it. Or you might objectively underestimate your abilities — or the capacity you possess for reasoning and thinking out solutions to problems. Or you might overrate your talents in another area. Or you could be failing to see how ineffective and self-defeating you act in relationships which are honestly important to you. Subconscious, false beliefs affect your actions, usually more than you know.

Another area, more overlooked by the field of psychology, has to do with control. Many people experience a sense of learned helplessness because they are trying to control the uncontrollable. Put another way, they indulge themselves in feelings of frustration over the fact that significant others — parents, children, bosses, employees, etc. — are not acting the way they think they should act.

If you focus too much on factors you cannot control — most of all, other people’s choices (irrational or otherwise) — then you are setting yourself up for feelings of learned helplessness and, as a consequence, some level of depression.

Why do this to yourself? If focusing on others’ weaknesses changed them, this would be one thing. But the ruminations of your consciousness are no substitute for conscious personality and behavioral changes others can only exercise of their own free will. Sure, try to persuade them. But don’t dwell on your frustration over their refusal to listen, or their inability to understand.

This is a particular problem, I find, with people who are idealists. By “idealist” I don’t necessarily mean an unrealistic person. There are certainly rational ideals such as honesty, integrity, self-respect and productivity. Not all idealists are fools, contrary to conventional opinion. Unfortunately, even people who hold rational ideals sometimes spend too much time focusing on people who don’t live up to those standards. Letting go and accepting the fact you can’t control others, such idealists fear, is tantamount to giving up on those ideals altogether.

Not so. To accept the hard reality that others don’t live up to your ideals — even valid ones — is not to give up on your principles. You can still live up to them, and you will probably always find others who live up to at least some of them. You might have to give up on others, but you need not ever give up on yourself — or your ideals, so long as they are rational and achievable.

Yes, it’s true that others often do not act in a way that they should. However, they are who they are and you must come to terms with this fact of reality. Accepting this fact is not a compromise of your standards. They’re the ones compromising themselves, not you. Let it go, and focus on the possible instead. If you don’t let go of what you can’t control, you’re going to feel ever more helpless.

This applies to loved ones in your life. Don’t make loved ones your project, rationalized in the name of “caring.” Instead, spend more time making yourself your project. Improve your career, your character, your life situation, your speaking/writing skills, your artistic skills, your technical skills, or your communication skills — whatever you want. Success with yourself is not guaranteed, but at least it’s possible. Depression and learned helplessness will not become the norm, as they do when you set out to make others your project rather than yourself.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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