My Cat Has Learned Helplessness and You May Too

Barbara Martin

If you were trapped inside a house your entire life and was suddenly given the chance to run free wouldn’t you take it? Not my cat, Holly. Granted, my five-year-old indoor cat has a very cushy life; eating way too much, sleeping whenever and being petted and hugged more frequently than she likes.

Recently, my daughter and I decided to test if Holly has some latent animal instinctual desire to venture outdoors in the wild suburbs of Boson (or at least onto the front porch). In truth, we were motivated by our neighbor who swaggers around the outside of his house with his cat, Wally on a leash. He often, kind of braggingly, hollers to us across the street as we stare in envious amazement, “It’s easy!”

So, feeling encouraged by Wally’s achievements, we tried a small behavioral experiment with Holly which involved standing outside our wide open front door and enthusiastically calling to her, “Come out, you’re free!” To our amazement, she stood right next to the open door dumbfounded, staring at the outdoors like it was something terrifying.

After about 30 seconds of indulging us in our ridiculous antics, she anticlimactically flicked her tail and turned her back on us to go sleep somewhere deep inside the house. Huh… I guess freedom is overrated.

Funny story, but you may be more like Holly than you think.

Holly’s behavior is surprisingly not unusual, it corresponds with the concept of learned helplessness which has do with a cognitive sense of control. She has not been allowed outside and has comfortably lived inside the house for so long, that venturing outside doesn’t even occur to her even if presented with the option. In essence, she has learned to be helpless.

The concept of learned helplessness was first identified by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier through their animal research. They observed that animals that are continually shocked without control over ways to stop the shock will develop learned helplessness. The animals won’t even attempt to stop the shock even when they are given the option. The helpless behavior is driven by a learned cognitive expectation that there is nothing the animal can do to stop the negative experience, so why try.

People can exhibit behaviors of learned helplessness as well. Similar to animals, learned helplessness in people can develop when they feel they have no control over a situation. This can be seen in children whose parents are overly involved in their child’s decision-making process with the intent of protecting them from failure.

The classic “helicopter” parent. Helicopter parents have the propensity to make most of the decisions for their child even when the child is a young adult, old enough and competent enough to make these decisions on their own. Deciding what their young adult child should order at a restaurant or what topic their child should cover for a college paper are just some examples.

Parents making most, if not all, of the decisions for their children ultimately hurt their child’s ability to make decisions on their own. The child may struggle with even the simplest of decisions because they have never been allowed or empowered to trust themselves.

Listed below are some of the common patterns of behavior exhibited by individuals with learned helplessness:

  1. You feel you must call your parents first in order to make a decision on most issues.
  2. You rely on others to make decisions for you.
  3. You believe you have no control over the outcome.
  4. You have symptoms of anxiety and or depression when making decisions.
  5. You believe you are incompetent.
  6. You constantly fear making the wrong decision.
  7. You feel you must make the perfect decision even on the tritest matters.
  8. You feel paralyzed by having to make a decision and often make no decision at all.
  9. You give up easily

Maybe Holly has given up trying to escape, but you don’t have to.

If your reaction to the list is, “oh my god, that is me,” no need to catastrophize because it is a learned behavior which can be unlearned. The way to begin breaking this pattern is to start tracking your decision-making process.

  1. Track how you make a decision. Is it a struggle or relatively easy?
  2. Track how you feel when you are making a decision. Do you feel anxious, depressed, or incompetent or do you feel confident?
  3. Track your thoughts around making a decision. Are you irrationally beating yourself up over making the perfect decision or are you rationally talking yourself through the decision-making process?

Once you have tracked the process, this self-information will help you begin to mindfully challenge and reframe your feelings and thoughts around decision making, hopefully learning a more independent and confident process. Doing the work to change your learned helplessness tendencies is not an overnight fix but a process that in time will allow you turn this behavior into learned mastery, optimism, and hardiness.

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