…and over again, we unlearn it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’ve been finding myself perplexingly incapable of late. I’m a smart guy with enormous privilege, financial resources, and I’ve been known to have moxie by times. And yet problems that, in theory, are solvable have been slaying me, and I’ve been grasping for reasons why. Driving downtown this morning …

From the linked wiki:

In Seligman’s hypothesis, the dogs do not try to escape because they expect that nothing they do will stop the shock. To change this expectation, experimenters physically picked up the dogs and moved their legs, replicating the actions the dogs would need to take in order to escape from the electrified grid. This had to be done at least twice before the dogs would start willfully jumping over the barrier on their own. In contrast, threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no effect on the “helpless” Group 3 dogs.

There are a lot of neuroses a person can acquire around locus of control. If you look at the wiki for that one, they’ll sort of make it sound like “strong” locus of control means believing that everything is under your own control, and within a certain (very American) mindset that is obviously Right And Good. Yet… that can lead to a lot of flailing or self-blame over things that were never really up to you.

(“You”? It’s me. I am the person with an inappropriately internal locus of control. I have very hubristic intestinal bacteria or something: in my gut, I foolishly feel that if I were to Just Buckle Down, I could solve a good chunk of the world’s problems, certainly all of my problems… this also thus means that anything I ever come across that’s wrong is, conversely, My Fault.)

My mother told me about Seligman’s experiments, in reference to someone who has a very external locus of control. The thing that she pointed out was that you really can’t pressure the dog out of its learned helplessness – but the dog really can’t will itself out, either. It is persistent external support that makes it possible to learn the actions you can take that make a difference. Even if you understand on a cognitive level – t’s training wheels that keep a bike upright so you can get a feel for moving forward in the way that’ll let you balance later on your own.

I have not yet lost someone in the way that Peter has. I think it’s the kind of thing that you can’t understand till you’ve been through it. But I have seen learned helplessness before – so if there’s one tiny corner of this metaphor I’d dog-ear (sorry not sorry), it’s that importance of someone physically moving the dogs’ legs to show them the motions of getting out. Not even once, but more than once.

Probably what that looks like is very situational. It’s hard to recognize learned helplessness, so it’s probably even harder to figure out what the support is that you’d need. I won’t presume to advise Peter because

a. I would cosign that he is a “smart guy” b. meanwhile I am a lumpy goblin who just ate more ice cream than I meant to because it was warming in my hands and continuing to eat was easier than figuring out whether I should put it back c. he does emphasize asking for help, “over and over and over again”

So just generally, then, to anyone else who may be vibing with the sentiment here but may not have grokked why the help is so important… I can only note that, you know, maybe there’s some way that the people who love you can help move your paws as you’re figuring it out.