I recently was introduced to the concept of learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an averse stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation, even when opportunities to escape are presented.
This struck a tender cord with me.
As soon as I started reading the article, I recalled the various situations in my life where it applied. I can remember how hurt I was while it was happening, and I can remember the people I hurt by my inaction. When asked later “Why didn’t you do anything?” I had no answer. I just froze and let it happen.
Just one of many instances: I was bartending at a swinger party. There was this sexy Asian lady flirting with me. Uhf. I went upstairs to use the bathroom, and on my way out of the bathroom she grabbed me and tossed me on the bed. Now, at first I was a little pleased that I caught her attention, but I sat up because I wasn’t really in the mood to “play.” She pushed me back down aggressively while her date and the couple they were fooling around with cheered her on. I got really uncomfortable. As she jumped into action (and they followed), my whole body was like “we don’t want this,” while my brain said “why are you fighting? You remember what happens when you fight, don’t you? You get hurt. Anyway, you should not be having these feelings right now. You need to enjoy it or pretend to enjoy it. Plus she’s hot, so you should be liking it, not feeling panicked.”
I could have easily gotten up and walked away. But I didn’t. And I felt horrible afterwards. Feelings that I hadn’t felt in a long time, feelings that I try to keep locked in, were right on the surface. I felt helpless, broken, and disgusting as I smiled and pretended like it was all good.
When discussing it with my boyfriend later, who was taken aback and a little hurt when he witnessed it happening at the party, at first I just didn’t know what to say. I hemmed and hawed – because I honestly could not figure out why I just didn’t push everyone out of the way, say something, do something…anything but just lay there smiling and fighting back a panic attack. I was ashamed of myself. And I was overwhelmed with the influx of past emotions bleeding over into the current emotions of helplessness. Over the next week, I kept thinking back to the several other times where there were people over me, forcing me to do things I didn’t want to do and there was no way out.
Finally I told Oni what I was experiencing, though I don’t think I did a very good job of explaining it. I think there were more tears than intelligible words. He held me, as he always does, and calmed my tides (that’s why he’s my Moon).
Being a survivor of years of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse takes a huge toll on you, more than one could ever imagine. It takes a large amount of self reflection for me to be as self aware as I am now – and sometimes I still don’t know where my emotions stem from. Like someone I read quite often (Page Turner) says, “It’s a wonder anyone wants to date me, and it’s a miracle that someone is so good at it.”
I’m on a never ending journey of healing and understanding. It is a physical pain for me, reflecting back, trying to understand my emotions, the way I think, and the way I react in order to become a better person.
But what is better, anyway?
4 thoughts on “helplessness.”
Hi there! I’m so glad you’re reading and enjoying what I write.
I relate all too well to basically everything you’ve written here — especially the freeze. People always say it’s fight or flight, but there’s definitely that third one, fight, flight, or FREEZE. And you got it. Learned helplessness, Martin Seligman’s dogs, etc.
“What is better, anyway?’
Ha! That’s it, isn’t it?
I feel like that’s our prize for having to deal with all of this — an understanding deep enough to ask questions like that. Sure, it’s painful and frustrating as all get out. But we learn to question.
And questioning is the only really “knowing.”
“And questioning is the only really “knowing.””
Yes! So true. I’ll try to keep that mindset that it’s a prize, haha.
And a sidenote: thank you for commenting! I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while and it was part of what motivated me to start writing again. I relate to a lot of what you write; so much so that I have referred your blog to my poly network several times and linked many facebook statuses to it. I admire that you are so open and willing to help others with your realizations and experiences.