The Three P's and Learned Helplessness

mental health Dec 17, 2020

"Two Lists"

I recently heard an interview with Corey McCarthy, who experienced significant trauma growing up in Buffalo, got mixed up with drugs and alcohol abuse, and spent many years in prison.  He has subsequently become clean and sober, has been released from prison, and ministers to those stuck on a similar journey.

One of the ideas he spoke about, and which I loved, was the idea that we all have "two lists" we read from. The first is the list of all the negative things that might hold us back - childhood trauma, lack of money or education, genetic risk, etc. Reading from this list tempts us to place blame and avoid responsibility for the choice we get to make for how we respond. When the "check engine" light comes on in the car, it's saying, "Why does this always happen to me?"

The second is the list of things we could be grateful for. It's the list of people who support us, opportunities we have, maybe even the opportunity to use the mess in our own lives and our own struggle as a source of help and inspiration for others. It's realizing when the "check engine" light comes on that we are blessed to have a car. 

For me, the takeaway from point is that how we respond to negative situations can have a big influence on how easily we move past obstacles or rebound from disappointment.

Learned helplessness

Psychologist Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, developed the theory of learned helplessness in the 1960s. His team found that under the correct circumstances, dogs would stop trying to escape from painful or uncomfortable situations. They learned to act helpless, even when a way out was present. Expanding this research, he found that people suffering from depression exhibited similar behavior - specifically acting helpless even when they had the power to change their unpleasant circumstance.

The important point is that when we feel we have no control in a situation, no ability to affect the outcome, we lose the ability to be resourceful. We learn to be helpless. We can no longer access our best states or our best problem-solving abilities.

How might you change this?

Three P’s - Personal, Pervasive, and Permanent

Experts believe learned helplessness arises when you believe your problems are:

  • Personal. The problem represents a defect that is inherent to your personality or character. “I am not good enough for my boss to respect me.”
  • Permanent. The problem will never go away. “This always happens to me. I’ll never have a good friendship.”
  • Pervasive. The problem is present in all areas of your life. “Everyone I know takes advantage of me.”

What you can do

One way to escape learned helplessness is to change your perspective - ideally describing your problems in ways they are impersonal, impermanent, and specific. As you listen to your self-talk, ask yourself “is this true?” Look for examples in your life that offer evidence against your problems being personal, permanent, and pervasive.

Say you lose your job. Your thoughts might settle on, “I am not good enough” (personal). But is that true? Changing to “my company was struggling, and I’ve received recognition and awards for my work in the past” might help you shift to a more truthful assessment and allow you to look for a solution.

Similarly, “I’ll never find another job” (permanence) could become “I know lots of people who’ve found work recently and I have a unique and valued set of skills. I’ll find another job soon.”

“I’m also a terrible parent” (pervasive) could change to “I’m not perfect, but I’m raising two healthy and vibrant teenagers. My problem right now is with my work.”

Any time you can shift from a mindset of “I have no control” to one of “what can I control?” you are more likely to have success getting past the obstacle in front of you.

This week

Are you engaged in a struggle currently? Thinking about your self-talk, can you identify any ways you have made your struggle personal, permanent, or pervasive? Are those thoughts true? Do you have examples to suggest they are not? Where do you have control? What can you influence?

I wish you peace this week.


Dr. Topher Fox

P.S. I don't want it to seem as though I am minimizing the adverse effect of trauma, and I highly encourage anyone who has suffered trauma (abuse, neglect, abandonment, enmeshment, witnessing horror) to seek professional help. I don't want the adverse effects of trauma to be the end of your story.


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