Internal rebellion: Fighting against learned helplessness

fight learned helplessness

I struggle with a sense of learned helplessness, a condition where a person gives up trying to affect change during difficult circumstances or toxic relationships. When I believe nothing I do will make any difference, I give up. In fact, I sometimes believe anything I do will only result in more pain, so I try to disappear entirely.

Several years ago I had an emotionally and spiritually abusive relationship with an authority figure. Obviously, it didn’t start that way. The changes were subtle, and because I was not familiar with the psychology of control, I didn’t read the signs.  The relationship lasted for years, but the power play escalated slowly. When I finally deviated too far from the desired behavior and could not be controlled, the retribution was immediate and devastating.

Unfortunately when dealing with trauma, we are often our own worst enemies. I allowed the counsel of others and my own, critically injured, self-esteem to tell me I was responsible for my pain. My choices bore the sole responsibility for damage inflicted on myself and my family. I became the enemy. For years I allowed other’s perceptions control over how I acted and how I responded rather than trusting myself.

Even though the abusive relationship ended the day of my ‘punishment,’ the influence of the relationship did not. Shrapnel embedded in a person’s body can take years to work its way to the surface.  So too, emotional shrapnel, while not visible, continues to cause pain and damage as it works through the soul. My response to trauma was to do whatever was necessary to ensure no one was ever unhappy with me. I used to have a dog who had been so abused he practically begged every person he met to not kick him.  He and I have a lot in common.

Even though I have experienced a great deal of healing, I still struggle with falling into self-destructive behavior patterns. The abusive relationship is long past, but shadows and echoes linger, sometimes, in current relationships. When this happens I want to cringe and beg or disappear.  I still experience learned helplessness in situations where it seems I can do nothing right, and I still deeply fear retribution because of my failure to please.

On Wednesday, I wrote about being self-aware that I’m circling dangerously close to depression. Learned helplessness is one of the fastest rides down that road. These next one hundred days of writing— now 96 – are my way of pushing back.  There are circumstances in my life which I cannot resolve. But each day I can summon the courage to write, no matter what others may think.  I can reframe the narrative which tells me I should disappear. By taking back control of my voice, I’ll spit in the eye of the messenger who tells me I don’t measure up to an impossible standard.

This is my story. This is my song. No one gets to silence it, not even me.

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