I read this brilliant book: Learned Optimism.
In it the author (Dr. Martin Seligman) writes about how they experimented with a dog. They gave the dog shock treatments and gave the dog a way to end the shock by pressing a button or something. The dog didn’t become depressed because the dog had a way to control his environment.
When they stopped the button from working, the dog felt no control over his life… and he became depressed. After the dog had decided he could not longer control his what was happening to him, he became depressed.
Even when they fixed the button so that it would work again, the dog no longer even tried to change what was going on. It had given up. It had decided it could no control anything.
The dog had decided that it had no control over it’s own life… and it gave up. It stopped pressing the button. The dog had learned to be helpless. Even if the opportunity to stop the shocks was provided, it remained helpless. It had learned to be helpless and it remained helpless no matter what changed around it.
It can start in your family
If you grew up in a family in which you were controlled, abused or constantly put down, you may have stopped trying to change the world around you. You also might have learned to be helpless.
Even if God surrounded you with 100 big red buttons that will change almost everything around you, you may not even try to press them. You may have become depressed because you have learned (perhaps from your childhood or a recent disappointment) that you are unable to change your experience of life.
But what if that dog gave it another go and pressed the button? What if he unlearned that he was powerless? What if he thought it through and gave it another chance? What if he pressed the button and made a change to his environment? What if he decided he was not helpless and stopped behaving as if he is?
Yes, if he reached out and changed something, then some pain would stop.
If you are stuck in depression, it is possible that you have somehow learned that nothing you can do will change what you are experiencing. You might not even try any more.
It can start with a divorce or marriage
You may have come through a long and painful divorce. People only get a divorce when they give up. No one gives up quickly. So in a divorce you may have learned to be helpless. Here are a few scenarios how you may have learned to be helpless: maybe over a few years you could not make the other person happy – so you stopped trying. Perhaps for a few years you felt like you could not do anything right in their eyes – so you stopped trying. In this way you may have learned to be helpless.
But perhaps the marriage is over now. You need to see that you are living a different life. You have some control now. You have choices. Does it make sense to still behave in a helpless way? The dog was given a way to control his life, but because he had learned to be helpless, he couldn’t change his mind. He remained helpless and therefore remained depressed.
Perhaps you are not yet divorced, perhaps there is still time to change. You could try to express yourself, you could try new things with your partner. Try other ways of doing things that aren’t working. Helplessness results in depression – that isn’t good for a marriage. Try something else.
You CAN unlearn and change
You are not a dog. You are not an animal.
Learning optimism is done by consciously challenging any negative self talk.
You CAN change your mind. You CAN decide to control your life and do things that will lessen the pain. You CAN change and you CAN start with just a few small things. Start with your hair. Then your clothes. Then try avoiding hurtful people. Then go to a church where you feel loved. Then go to counselling and learn new skills. Then… then… then…
Bit by bit you CAN change your experience of the world around you. YOU CAN. 🙂
Here is an online test which is created by someone else. Enjoy this learned optimism test. I will write more about this book next week. I’m off to the coast. I’m changing my world to be a WHOLE LOT more fun. What are you going to change in your world? 🙂
UPDATE: My weekend was awesome. About it: Back from a gr8 weekend