CASTING THE FIRST STONE
Years ago, I remember cornering
two field mice in my garage. They
had no route of escape except
through me. Nervously, they began
crawling over each other in a frantic
display of despair. I felt sad for them
and mercifully backed away.
If either mouse had volunteered to donate a drop of blood for scientific study, I would wager that chemicals associated with rodent- anxiety would have been ‘off the charts’. When fleeing and fighting are believed to be futile, stress is inevitable!
Like field mice, we humans also have an instinctive ‘fight or flight’ response to perceived danger. What’s to be done, however, when we believe there is no way out?
Decades ago, researchers placed a rat into a cage that had a metal floor. Spanning its center was a low fence easy enough to jump. An electric current with sufficient intensity to terrify but not injure could be applied to either side. With the current switched on, the hapless creature frantically rushed about. By chance, it eventually crossed the fence and experienced the relief of no more shock. After repeated trials it learned to jump the barrier to safety ever more quickly. As rodents go, rats are smart!
Alas, the researchers played a dirty trick on the rat. They began randomly applying voltage to both sides of the barrier causing it to lose control of its fate. Pitifully, when exposed to this treatment enough times, it would just lay down, with or without the electric current. Even when a cat was released into the area it would’nt try to escape. The term Learned Helplessness originated from experiments like this.
The rat’s exposure to repeated uncontrollable circumstances gave rise to its expectation that events in the future would also be ungovernable. Sophisticated versions of this experiment with various other mammals have been performed, with similar results. As one might expect, many inferences have been theorized about how learned helplessness may apply to you and I.
Unlike other mammals that become independent within months or a few years, humans take a long time to grow up and survive on their own. Unfortunately, from infancy through young adulthood, many are raised in environments that don’t supply much validation or other types of nurturance.
We all need and deserve validation from others, especially during our formative years. “What I do and what I say matters. You hear me. You acknowledge my accomplishments. You appreciate my efforts etc.”
An opposite of validation is non-recognition. “I don’t give a damn what you want, what you say, what you think. Who cares? You’re overreacting. You don’t know what you’re talking about…”
Non-recognition sounds like fertile soil for a degree of learned helplessness. In fact, subjection over time, to acute dysfunctional circumstances may be a reason some choose to alter their reality with mind numbing substances. Does that decision imply weakness of character or an understandable choice, albeit counterproductive?
Do we believe the despairing rat needed to be punished or demeaned for not having sufficient willpower to flee the cat? Or, rodent bias notwithstanding, do we have a natural inclination to remove the creature from its circumstances and recondition it to a state of ‘learned confidence’ so it can thrive and become a contributing member its community?
Understanding the origins of someone’s inappropriate behavior does not imply that we excuse it. Being aware of and sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of another, however, may be a light at the end of a tunnel that has too long seemed pitch black. As stated by author Stephen Covey, “When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it's like giving them emotional oxygen.”