Detachment isn’t the same thing as absolving ourselves of responsibility. However, it does teach us how to let go of the things we are powerless over. This gets very confusing when we struggle with a problem known as “learned helplessness”. It turns out, that if we are exposed to lots of stress over a long period of time, when a way out of the stressful environment presents itself, we have a hard time moving to safety. In my previous example, I was frozen because of “learned helplessness”.
According to Debra Jay, “People with learned helplessness are common in alcoholic families. Having a close relationship with someone addicted to alcohol or other drugs results in three things: prolonged stress, unpredictable stressors, and a sense of having no control.” By the way, these same three factors are not exclusive to families with alcoholics. Mental illness. Proverty. Trauma. Lots and lots of family issues create prolonged stress, unpredictable stressors and a sense of no control.
Here are some other descriptors that are typical for folks who have lived with prolonged stress, unpredictability or a sense of having no control. Do any of these sound familiar to you?
- Lowered self-confidence
- Poor problem-solving skills
- Social constraints
- Limited attention span
- Feelings of hopelessness
What does this look like? When faced with a problem, a person who has been taught they are helpless will not properly evaluate solutions to problems when presented them. A person struggling in this way doesn’t protect self or others from the hardship of living with an unhealthy person. It isn’t that this person doesn’t care, they simply believe that there is absolutely no solution to the problem at hand.
How can we help each other overcome this helpless state? We can huddle as a tribe and communicate the prevailing message that WE are together in this thing, WE can do hard things, WE can find solutions and YOU are not alone. The goal is to calm the freaked out person, not become a Job’s counselor who implies blame or demands the person do what seems so dang obvious to us.
Tomorrow, I will share some of Debra’s questions that she suggests we ask ourselves to appropriately apply the concepts of detachment and letting go. In the meantime, are there any folks in your life who you have labelled negatively who may be struggling with learned helplessness?