Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Thawing From The Freeze Of Learned Helplessness

 Honoring and getting in touch with the "mobilizing energy" in our bodies is the antidote to learned helplessness.

"Learned Helplessness" is a term coined by Martin Seligman - one of the founders of the positive psychology movement.  I won't repeat the details of the experiments he witnessed that influenced development of this theory, but he found that animals subjected to hardship - who did not have a path of action that would benefit them - eventually just gave up. They didn't try to escape difficulty because they'd become conditioned to believe that they had no agency.  

He extrapolated this finding to human beings, theorizing that we too can develop a kind of learned helplessness after being subjected to the different hardships of life and internalizing a lesson that "there's just nothing I can do about this."

These days I'm noticing a good number of people expressing a similar sentiment that, "I just feel so powerless." Of course, not everyone reading this will relate, some people have integrated a grounded sense of personal power - those seem to be pretty rare individuals.  Others have a sense of personal power that amounts to something more like aggression, they were conditioned in a different reflex: to get angry at unwanted circumstances.

But I wanted to speak to the first group, those who upon being barraged with unwanted circumstances are feeling a little worn down.  This is a point that many involved in long-term social justice work will reach, because this work is always about the underdog fighting against entrenched systems of institutional power.  That type of power concedes nothing without a fight - but because of the power-differential, the fight is usually going to be a protracted one, a fight that requires endurance and cleverness more than bursts of strength and speed.

In these long-term struggles that call upon all of one's resources, it's hard to note one's wins, it's hard to see where the needle of justice has moved forward and change has taken place.  Part of this is because of our innate negativity bias - a short cut in the human brain meant to help us stay aware of danger.  When we're trying to keep up our spirit to continue to Work on behalf of our values, negativity bias can become a major obstacle.  Instead of being able to feel our longing within and know that we're making progress toward the goal, we instead look at all the setbacks, all the pain, all the roadblocks, and we think "maybe what I'm doing doesn't matter."

Just like Seligman noted in the lab while in college, the sense that we have no recourse, no agency in the situation is what can give rise to learned helplessness.  This also seems to be related to trauma.  The trauma that stays with us, unresolved, seems to often be about where we went into a "freeze" response.  Where the body could not take flight away from danger, and didn't have the resources to fight, and so it did the only thing it could - play dead and maybe they'll go away, or trance out and maybe I won't feel the pain.

This is directly related to what some of my loved ones are experiencing - chronically or cyclicly.  With the outbreak of a pandemic and vast social division about how best to respond, with intensifying natural disasters and still no coherent plan to reverse catastrophic climate change, with outbreaks of violence across the USA, and more, it's EASY to feel powerless against such an array of bad news!  And so some of you readers will have experienced a day where you just can't get out of bed, don't want to hear any news, can't seem to get motivated... or if you were able to get out of bed, you just feel terrified and immobilized by every new assault from the news.

A helpful thing to know is that these are natural responses of your nervous system to threats.  Smoke fills the skies in California and the whole bodymind goes "RUN!"  People are being harmed and you see it on the news and the whole system says "FIGHT!"  But those people aren't here in front of you to protect in the moment, and unless you're being evacuated, you're not going to run, you're just going to close the windows and stay inside.  The system is calling for ACTION! but there is not direct course of action for you to take - apparently.

If we think about things like voting and politics, the same problem confronts us, the mind says "someone's got to DO SOMETHING!"  And the nervous system orients for that... but we don't know what to do and there's too much to do, and we know what to do but not how... and lacking a path to fight or fly, we freeze.

There's a quick trick I want to share with you today to help thaw us from the freeze of learned helplessness.  That trick is quite simple and all it is is to do something, anything, on behalf of others!

I once read a mystical fiction book where the characters were given sacred dreams, and the trick was that you have to honor your dreams and act on their wisdom or else your dreams would start to get murky or unrecognizable, or go on repeat or even turn to nightmares.  I think a similar thing can happen in our emotional being. We're CALLED to act upon our values, but if we find no path of action we freeze up, and this subtly dams the flow of that mobilizing survival energy within.  We feel a little less alive and empowered.  Not surprisingly, the next time our values call upon us to act, we feel even less empowered to do so.  This can continue until the call stops - we no longer are goaded within to act, we just feel anxious and helpless.

Fortunately, this process can be run in reverse.  If we do something, anything, on behalf of others, we're literally putting our body-mind energy in motion and signifying to ourselves that there is something I can do.  It doesn't even matter whether it relates to the stuff that worries you most, we're hacking our inner mechanisms here, what's important is that you feel resourceful.  

The stance is a little like the story where the starfish have all washed up on shore and someone is walking down the beach tossing them back in the ocean one by one.  Another person sees the gargantuan task and says "you can't possibly help them all!" to which the first person tosses another one back and replies, "yeah, but I helped that one."  That attitude of resourcefulness is empowering to us, and the good news is that if we do want to help more than just the tiny bits we feel capable of now, the thing to do would be to get our systems optimized, the biological energies flowing.  When we take one tiny action, we catalyze that flow and it can lead to even more resourcefulness as the ice begins to thaw, as the dam begins to break.

My church will be participating in a "clean up the creek" day this weekend and this is a great example of this type of action that promotes resourcefulness - it may not solve climate change or pollution, but it does help someone.  When you're finished with this dedicated activity on behalf of your values, you'll likely find that your confidence, motivation, and compassion have increased.  Rather than a downward spiral of frozen confusion, we can start an upward spiral of empowerment leading to further empowerment.


We've got some BIG jobs to tackle here on planet earth, we're going to need our best social and creative selves online to do it.  Our first step then is to learn to take the reins of this mobilizing force and use it for what it was meant for - start tackling the small acts of kindness that are available to you and remember what a powerful and resourceful being you are.  Then you can remember that it's not all a litany of obstacles, but rather an ecosystem of activism - each of us plays only a tiny part but we all matter this adds up to make a big difference!

Answer the call, what can you do TODAY?


Friday, September 18, 2020

Mourning is the path to power. Blessings to RBG

I was just polishing off what I feel is going to be an amazing Sunday Sermon over here - about taking action when hope is hardest -  and I popped on the social and witness the sad news that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has passed away due to complications from cancer.  I am heart-rocked.




My heart is alive with honor for this long-time warrior for civil liberties in the highest court of our nation.

I know, too, that many of my liberal friends will be grieving.  Not the grief that comes from merely losing a social icon, but the grief that comes when you lose someone who pushed her body as long as she could to stand as a bulwark against the erosion of democracy.

At this time, when fairness seems so hard to come by, any breech in the line can seem catastrophic.

Our hearts may fill with worry and with fear.  It is important that we mourn, that we give those feelings their say.  

It's important too that as we let the waves of feelings fill us, we recognize what they are - they are the voice of our deepest values.  We feel so strongly because we long for equity and self direction for women, for marginalized peoples, for the protection of voting rights which lead to a thriving democracy.  We feel so strongly because we're uncertain that our values for care and compassion will continue to be reflected in the nation we call home.  We grieve all that has come before, and we grieve preemptively the dangers and losses we imagine in the future.

But the crucial point I long to share with you is that knowing we're hearing the voice of our values is what turns fear into power.  We have two choices when we're rocked by shocking and disheartening news: We can let it collapse us, or we can let it catalyze us.

We collapse because we've been encouraged so powerfully and for so long toward learned helplessness that the trauma of past losses can crash down upon us so heavily we cannot even think to move.

Hearteningly, we could also choose to be catalyzed by remembering that there is always SOME action we can take, SOME movement we can make.  There will never be a day where we say "ah, the likelihood of my preferred outcome is low, so I guess I'll just stop trying."

Rather, the lower the likelihood of outcomes aligning with our values, the HARDER we must try.  Not only harder, but SMARTER too.

In mourning we learn, over and over, that nothing is certain.  Our best laid plans for creating change, protecting ourselves and those we love are always subject to chance, entropy, and the law of unintended consequences.  When this happens, when the source of protection you sought is taken from you, it's not time to abandon the quest, it is time to adapt.

You may be called upon to act in ways you did not prefer.  It may require more deprivation, energy, engagement than you believe you have, and yet, you can always find some path forward.  It may not be the path that goes from where you are to where you want to be in a single step.  But direction is everything.  Your job is to move the needle even a micron toward your loving goal - because sometimes that's all you've got.

If you've never engaged in a direct action, this may be your year.  If you've never put your body in the path of violence to protect another, it might finally be time.  If you have been itching to deprive the government of your tax dollars for ethical reasons, you might just be gaining an opportunity now.  If you've been slow to bring your most vocal skills of compassion to the fore, to share your love of caring community with those who need convincing, this could be your moment.  Obviously, vote.  Obviously sign a petition.  Obviously donate to those who will work on your behalf.  But when our structural hopes seem in danger of shattering, build a network of local resilience as well that doesn't depend upon them, boycott all the harder.  Find your plan B, C, and so on until you run out of alphabets! 

The people who got us where we are were fighting much stiffer odds than the ones we face, and somehow they found a well of motivation and paths of strategic action that have allowed us to crawl forward to the moment we find ourselves in today.  We can step in to that long and arduous struggle with the strength of our hearts.

Today, we honor the life of someone who constantly worked to move that needle of justice forward, and we recognize that now this job has passed to you.  It is a time to mourn, but also to let mourning rouse you.  It is a time for practicality - not a vague sense of impending doom and that "someone's got to do something" - but a time to ask "what is mine to do?"  And having asked this, to calmly and with great inner strength, with great love and with steadfast persistence, tackle one job at a time until the work of justice is complete.

With great prayers of blessing to notorious RBG the dissenter, and to all of you, amen.