Sunday, June 20, 2010

Learned Helplessness Part II

As I was searching the net for info for my first Learned Helplessness post, I came across an article on a Buddhism site by Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod that talks about learned helplessness in systems run amok.
Learned helplessness results from being trained to be locked into a system. The system may be a family, a community, a culture, a tradition, a profession or an institution.

Initially, a system develops for a specific purpose. But as a system evolves, it increasingly tends to organize around beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos that serve the continuation of the system. Awareness of the original purpose fades and the system starts to function automatically. It calcifies. The beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos shift in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways, to ensure continuation. And those beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos are trained into the people that comprise the system.
He explains that systems sometimes distort their original purposes, but people are still expected to function in the system, because the system itself has power.
The system uses shame and the withdrawal of attention to instill a fear of survival. Simultaneously, the system presents the view that power resides in the system, not the individual. The combination creates a dependence on the system for survival. Gradually, the system is internalized and the person identifies with it -- he sees himself the way the system sees him. His sense of who he is is defined by the system. (We see this tendency very clearly in the professions -- "I'm a doctor, so I do x, y and z" or "I'm an attorney, so I do x, y and z.")
"The system" could here refer to a maternity care system, in which physicians are expected to act one way and patients another. The system developed for the purpose of helping mothers and babies, but in some ways, it has shifted its focus to perpetuating itself, by keeping the system functioning and keeping the way it functions the same.

McLeod next explains how learned helplessness perpetuates patterns of abuse within systems (such as boyfriend/girlfriend relationships or families).
Whenever we are subjected to abuse, physical, emotional or spiritual, two patterns form inside us: the victim and the abuser. Our experience of being abused lays the basis for the victim pattern. Our experience of how abuse can be meted out lays the basis for the abuser pattern. Both give rise to learned helplessness, though the learned helplessness manifests differently. In the case of the abuser, learned helplessness might manifest as "Something just took over; I didn't mean to say or do that." In the case of the victim, it might manifest as "I don't know why I put up with it but I can't seem to do anything about it." In both cases, we are expressing passivity with respect to the patterns operating in us. In both cases, we are confessing helplessness.
In the functioning of a maternity care "system", the provider is in a position of authority and the patient is subservient. We follow the patterns of behavior that the system expects from us because our brains recognize this as normal. We have been trained to believe that people in authority are there to help us and that we should listen to them. So, even if our own research or personal beliefs tells us otherwise, we may still go along with what our provider says (or even what we believe they think) we should do--agree to have a test done, schedule an induction, have a vaginal exam, push in the bed, whatever--because we are passive in respect to the system. It is not a fear of the care provider per se, but a fear of doing something that doesn't fit in the construct of a system. The system makes us feel powerless to act differently than its pre-determined role for us.

McLeod's article says that the only way to overcome learned helplessness as passivity to a system is to sever all ties with the system.