Why bear pain when it can be escaped?

Pain anxiety and helplessness

In an experiment, scientists shocked a tied up dog, who could not escape, again and again. The dog would still violently try to escape. This was understandable as it was its basic instinct to try to escape pain and discomfort. But after many cycles of shock, the dog stopped trying to escape. This was again understandable since the dog had learned that it could not escape and any effort to do so was worthless. The dog’s innate escape instinct had been overridden by a conditioned behavior. But the real surprise came when he was provided with a visible opportunity to escape and it still didn’t. It kept sitting there, kept suffering the shock. This experiment led to the psychological concept of “Learned helplessness” and believe me, there’s a lot we need to learn from it.

One may say that learned helplessness is good in that it makes you tolerant to a bad condition, or conditions. Well, if you’re successfully able to extrapolate the above experiment to your own life, you’d realize how this is not true. If you’re feeling helpless, you’re not calm. You’re not tolerant to the pain or discomfort. You’re not in your comfort zone. In some cases learned helplessness makes you very depressed or anxious. Anxiety is never tolerable. Even if learned helplessness puts one in a comfort zone, it serves as a major bottleneck to one’s true potential.

The good thing about learned helplessness, like most conditioned behaviors, is that it is reversible. This makes this concept very important for you to understand.

I am a perfectionist. I am so bad at it that I get very anxious when I’m unable to meet the standard I set for a task. I also get very anxious when a task I’m doing gets very complicated. This latter form of anxiety is strange. Why would complexity in a task make me feel anxious? The reason for it is my knowledge of my perfectionism and my belief that it is inescapable. So when my task starts getting extremely complicated, I feel as If I am out of control and helpless due to my perfectionist tendency. This feeling of helplessness brings in me severe anxiety. All it takes to kill this anxiety is the realization that escape exists.

An inquisitive mind might ask: If I know the way it works, why do I still experience helplessness and anxiety. Well the answer is simple. It is last night that I discovered that my feeling of helplessness was irrational and no more than a conditioned response. It so happened that I was working on a software project and things were going on fine until I realized that I had started digging into the minutest of details. There I almost had a panic attack. But then out of nowhere this idea crossed my mind: “If I know I’m digging too much into details, I can simply chose not doing it” and ironically that was the end of it. There, in a flash, the episodes of both perfection obsession and anxiety had vanished into thin air. I do realize, however, that sometimes my inborn tendencies would really put me in situations I’d have difficulty controlling and that anxiety wouldn’t always go away as easily as it did last night. But the belief that I can escape the pain through a difficult process makes a lot of difference compared to the belief that I’m absolutely helpless.

I have come to realize that learned helplessness plagues many other aspects of our behavior too. But this time I just introduced you to the concept and talked about how the knowledge of it may help those obsessed with perfection. If you think I have oversimplified it, stay tuned for more on learned helplessness.

If you think you can’t, you won’t.


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