While roaming the fairgrounds at the Iowa State Fair when I was a young teen, I was fascinated with a family that was offering elephant rides for five dollars. I found a spot in the shade and watched the elephant for over an hour while I drank my lemonade. My attention was drawn to the chain attached to a heavy bracelet around the elephant’s leg. It restrained the elephant when she was not being ridden. It was an impossibly dainty chain to hold such an animal — even as gentle as she seemed. It was similar to the chain that suspended the seats on a municipal park swing set and no heavier. The chain was attached to a wooden tent stake driven into the ground. It seemed to me that the animal would be many times strong enough to break that chain or pull the stake and roam free if she wished.
I finally got the nerve to ask the elephant’s attendant, “Is that chain really strong enough to hold that elephant?” The attendant — a tall, thin man about forty years old — answered, “Well … yes and no.” He explained, “When elephants are babies, we stake them with a much heavier chain and peg. They are not strong enough to break it even though they try and try. Soon, they learn that they cannot get away, so they quit trying altogether. When they are big and perfectly capable of escaping, they don’t try because they still believe they can’t.” This is a very common practice for people who work with elephants. Elephants learn to be helpless, and they “never forget” it.
So what does this mean for human beings? Can we also learn helplessness? Yes. We can and do. It is a simple thing to look around and find people who have learned to be helpless in an environment that actually offers them control. There is also a strong link between learned helplessness and depression. Psychologist Martin Seligman links it to what is called our explanatory style.
An explanatory style is simply how you explain to yourself why certain things happen to you in your life — either positive or negative. It is all about the words that show up in your inner dialogue when you think about things. Certain explanatory styles predispose us to depression, and the paralysis of depression tends to validate the explanatory style that contributed to it. The spin-off from this self-feeding cycle is learned helplessness.
You can measure your explanatory style in three ways:
internal versus external
permanent versus temporary, and
pervasive versus local.
Internal versus External
If your explanatory style is internal, you might say to yourself, “I guess I said the wrong thing to her.” Someone with an external explanatory style might say, “She must have had a really bad week.” In the first explanation, the cause for failure is within you and therefore subject to your control. In the second one, it is within the other person and, therefore, we can’t control it.
Permanent versus Temporary
A person with a permanent explanatory style might say in the above scenario, “I always say the wrong thing.” But someone with a temporary approach might explain, “I guess I said the wrong thing today.” In the first sentence, it is a permanent condition. In the second, it is temporary.
Pervasive versus Local
If our explanatory style is pervasive, we might say, “I always say the wrong thing to everybody. That’s why nobody likes me.” If it is local, it sounds like, “I seem to have trouble talking to her.”
Now the implication of all this is fairly clear. People who are prone to the depression that feeds learned helplessness tend to use an explanatory style that is external, permanent, and pervasive to explain negative events. In other words, when they experience a setback or failure, their inner talk goes something like the following:
“The cause is outside of me, so it is out of my control. It is permanent, so it’s never going to change. This is why I’m such a loser at everything.”
On the opposite end of the scale, people who overcome great adversity to rise above their circumstances, enjoy success in life, and command their own attitudes in the midst of hardship have opposite explanatory styles. Their inner talk tends to be internal, temporary, and local. If we could listen in to their thinking after a setback or failure, it might sound something like this:
“The reason for that failure is in my own attitude, and I can change that. Just because I failed to achieve what I wanted this time, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid or useless. I will learn from this, change my approach or attitude, and try again.”
Henry Ford had it right. “Whether you think you can or think you can’t—You’re right.”
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