By Vaishnavi Sundar Mar. 11, 2020
For years, I lived with my abusive husband and often found myself feeling guilty and begging to make amends. That’s the thing about manipulative relationships. Years of trauma makes you believe that you are incapable of breaking free. It’s called learned helplessness.
In a while, the sun will rise for me
fill the nooks of a dark snicket with light
The voices of duality shall be set free
when vultures feed on his unabsolvable plight
Stay with me, courage, this is no time to flee
let the words gush out now, of candour & of spite
I wrote this poem on one of the darkest days of my life. For years, I was shackled in an abusive relationship, and I convinced myself I was incapable of breaking out of the fetters and setting myself free.
After a point, I wasn’t even attempting to walk out. But why?
Martin Seligman, the Director of the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania spoke about “learned helplessness”. He demonstrated it through an experiment in which two sets of dogs were rested on a harness, with two panels in front of them that could be pressed with their head. One set of dogs learned to press the panels and escape the shock in the process. For the other set, however, the panels did nothing, and they had to endure the shocks until the experiment was over. The next day, the same sets of dogs were put through a comparatively less strenuous experiment.
All dogs were placed in a two-compartment cage separated by an adjustable barrier, with one end administering a shock when a light goes off, so the dogs could jump to the other compartment to avert it.
What startled Martin and his colleague was that the second set of dogs whose panel didn’t work in the first experiment, did not even try to jump to the next compartment, while the first set did it rather effortlessly. Some from the second set didn’t try to avoid the shocks even after weeks of experimenting on them. As cruel as the process is, this precise moment was when Martin coined the term “learned helplessness”. When someone is put through a traumatic situation repeatedly, they start believing that they are unable to control or alter the situation. So, even when opportunities for change present themselves, they do not even bother utilising them.
Martin believed learned helplessness isn’t about helplessness at all, but about control. He figured a way to reverse the effect of it in dogs. One simple change helped stop the passivity from developing. They reversed the order of experiments and put all dogs in the compartment first, and then on to the harness strap. The harness spell was broken and both sets of dogs kept trying to escape the shock regardless of a faulty panel. And when they were again put into the box, they didn’t cower. Instead, they immediately regained their ability to avoid shocks.
The more we talk about our collective failed attempts, the easier it would be to regale in the thunderclap when we march toward the end of the tunnel.
As a survivor of emotionally abusive relationships, everything about this experiment resonated with me. I was one of the dogs whose panel never worked, and I did nothing to try to escape the painful shocks for years.
My abusive ex-husband knew that I was desperate for approval from a male figure because of my past; I was sexually abused by a relative. He made me feel guilty for confronting him about his abusive behaviour, and used the threat of suicide to manipulate me. Even on days when I wasn’t around, he would find ways to reach me, call for help, and make me believe he can’t do without me. But all along, he was merely using me as a punching bag.
After our fights, it was me who would try to make it up to him. The image of me sitting outside the bedroom, begging him to open the door is still vivid. Even when he treated me like dirt, I was incapable of walking out. I “learned” helplessness due to years of gaslighting and manipulation. If he hadn’t chosen to walk out on me I would still be trapped in that horror movie that was my marriage.
Long before that, my first experience of learned helplessness was when a family member abused me as a child. Coming from a conservative household, nothing gave me the confidence to talk about it for the fear of not being believed. I couldn’t stop it when it happened to me again, as a teenager. After almost a decade, when I did call my harasser out, the family rallied against me only confirming my fears.
What my family, like many others, couldn’t comprehend is the long-term effect learned helplessness has on the mental health of children. And how such experiences can play a huge role in all the critical decisions we make as adults. Research shows that children who were abused, engage in alcohol/drug consumption to cope with the trauma. Some end up choosing wrong partners, who further abuse them, and some take their own lives.
Seligman thought that humans, like dogs, could be taught to become more resilient through what he called “learned optimism”. I am put off by positive affirmations and “look at the bright side” kind of arguments, so I should explain what learned optimism is not. It is not the same as your parents giving a “you go girl” sort of encouragement when after a week of crippling depression you agree to shower. It is not the Shiv Khera “you can win!” booster when you can’t stop crying all day either. Learned optimism, unlike learned helplessness, manifests from within the person. Any external stimulus is merely an aid. So, those enduring trauma have to do much of the heavy lifting themselves.
When someone is put through a traumatic situation repeatedly, they start believing that they are unable to control or alter the situation.
For many women who are still on the dark side of this phenomenon, I shudder to be in your shoes. But having been there for almost all my life, I can assure you that it is possible to train yourself into learned optimism. I wish I could also tell you that it is easy to do so.
Books by Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millet, Susan Brownmiller, Sheila Jeffreys, Germaine Greer, and many other feminists opened my eyes to the fact that the world doesn’t always have a woman’s back. I started approaching my life from a position of self-realisation, as opposed to self-pity. This is the first step toward learned optimism.
I try (very hard) to be a bit more forgiving of myself. I wake up from nightmares so harrowing that I feel suicidal at least once a week. Most of my woes occur because I can’t let go of the fact that “I fell for it”. I couldn’t forgive myself for being so gullible, and for not putting up a fight. But lately, I am cutting myself some slack.
Through Seligman’s life-affirming phenomenon, I also learnt about neuroplasticity. The brain’s ability to reorder itself and to heal from trauma. I used to think people diagnosed with depression, stress, or in my case, borderline personality disorder, are doomed for life. That there is no way for us to heal. I was very wrong.
When I started therapy, I questioned the process over many sessions before I let myself be vulnerable. While still new to India, learning about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy gave me some reassurance that there could be some method to this madness. Unlike the West where help is easily available, in Indian women not only have to be self-aware but also have to look for the right therapist. And that itself is a task. I’ve encountered therapists who’ve made matters worse with their patriarchy-infused approach. If one does get lucky, it is tricky to meet the costs of therapy (and medicines) given that there is no definitive duration for recovery.
As I write about having put the worst behind me, it might seem like my story has a happy ending. It does not. Giving up feels so effortless. But the most humbling thing about sharing even my failed attempts is that it could help someone not to fail. The more we talk about our collective failed attempts, the easier it would be to regale in the thunderclap when we march toward the end of the tunnel. The key is to not give up, even at failing.
Vaishnavi Sundar is a women's rights activist and a self-taught filmmaker. Her interests lie in an odd mix of mental health, books, cinema, arts, and all things feminist.