If you take a dog, lock it in a cage whose floor is electrified, and you give repeated electric shocks to the poor thing, the dog will agitatedly try and find a way to escape, and will find none. Ultimately, the dog will just give up trying and will passively bear the electric shocks as they come and go. Now, if you partially lower down one of the sides of the cage, such that the dog can easily escape by jumping over it, the dog would not even try! It will stay as it is, passive and whining, taking the shocks while freedom is but a leap away. It has learnt that resistance is futile; it has learnt that there is no escape, so why even bother. It has learnt to be helpless.
You'd think that humans might do better, being rational creatures and all that, but they don't. In fact, they might even do worse! It is because humans have a much more enhanced ability to learn helplessness even by observation alone. The electrified cages for us humans are the systems we live in, our families, our cultures, our societies. Our bars are varied and numerous: judgements, criticisms, shame, reputation, guilt, duty, social isolation, and sometimes even physical punishment. And it works as long as you see yourself as the system sees you. If the system believes you have lost your honour, then you have lost your honour. If the system believes you have brought shame upon yourself, then you have brought shame upon yourself. You allow yourself to be judged, you allow yourself to be branded, you allow yourself to be afraid of the system, because since childhood you have learnt that resistance is futile.
Is there an escape? Can we de-learn this learnt helplessness? It is possible, yes, but unlike our dog, it is not just a leap away. It is a much more difficult task, requiring a life-long effort and will. You may have to uproot and replant your life in a whole new way.
Ken McLeod offers some good piece of advice:
'Can learned helplessness be undone? Well, that's the big question, isn't it? The answer is "Yes." The cost, however, is high. We can only undo learned helplessness by severing our internal connection with the system that gave rise to it.
Our motivation must be clear and strong. We must really want to hear and respond to our own questions about life. We must really want to live our own life and not one prescribed by our family, society, culture, profession or tradition. Metaphorically, we must be willing to go north, the direction that takes us out of society. We must be willing to endure pain, know from direct experience, act on what we see and receive what happens. We must yearn to experience what is without relying on anything to confirm our existence....
[A] formulation from Buddhism is:
Recognize the problem;
Develop a practice;
Continue until the problem is gone.
The first step is to recognize that there is a problem. Then we develop a practice that brings attention to the problem and, particularly, to the patterns that underlie it. Finally, we continue that practice regardless of what arises until the problem is gone.
These are difficult instructions. When we follow them, we come up against the power of the system as it has been internalized in us.... When the internal identification dies, we feel as if a part of us has died, and it has. When we violate the dictums of the system, we will feel that we are being violent, and we are. When the system dies in us, we will feel that we have killed something, and we have. We step outside consensus reality. We cease to look to the world to confirm our existence.
We come, instead, to rely on our direct experience of what arises and we act according to our observation of the needs of the moment. We may even choose to work in an institution, follow a tradition, or pursue a profession. But our choice is conscious and we knowingly accept the responsibilities and obligations that come with our chosen path.'
[For more information on the cruel and crucial dog experiments, which, unlike our hypothetical experiment, were actually performed by Martin Seligman, see here.]