Most books I read these days have examples of experiments ran in the ’70s or ’80s and the amazing discoveries that they uncovered. Some of these experiments make me gag, to be honest, as they seem to define some lines of basic decency. And mostly because now, in Anno Domini 2020, the things they study are somehow well known – well, of course, because of this discovery.
I was listening earlier to the audiobook version of „The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar and one of these experiments came through – it involved dogs, bondage and electrical shocks, the perfect combo to make my stomach squirm and gave me that feeling that if I don’t yell now, something inside me will break. I managed to zone out for a bit and get detached from the situation, as the concept they were describing was quite interesting – learned helplessness. Simplifying the concept: we learn that in situations in which we felt out of control before, we won’t even try to treat them differently and change our outcome when they come in our lives again. The big difference for me in between learned helplessness and actual helplessness is that one of them in a prison of your mind and, in the end, a choice of not taking back your power.
I felt helpless a lot of times, as probably most people felt. I choose to bullshit myself on some occasions saying I was in that situation because of being loyal or because I couldn’t cope with my feelings. The truth is that I always had the chance to move out of a job that wasn’t fulfilling for me or push myself somehow out of my anxiety episodes and focus on other things. The choices were there, I just went for the passive option because it was easy, ending up in causing myself even more harm, more self-doubt and to spiral in thought patterns that told me that it’s not that the environment I am in doesn’t allow me to flourish, but that I am not enough from certain points of view to fit in the place I was in.
It took me years to learn how to talk with myself about these things. Years of ups and downs, of spurs of motivation and of long times of giving up and accepting everything that was coming my way. I had a choice, but I didn’t take it (in time). It takes a lot of will and guts to be able to take yourself out of a situation, yes. It takes a lot of time to figure out you’re not in the right place, and that’s normal and fine. We don’t always operate with our instincts turned on and sometimes we tell ourselves that maybe we see things in a distorted way, that maybe we are playing the victims and it’s on us to accept the things we’re going through.
The truth is that unlike the dogs in the experiment, most of us end up being in places where we wanted to be in. We don’t always look back in our path and see that those were choices we made, maybe with the best intentions towards our future self in mind. And then, lost in the moment, we sometimes forget that we also have the choice to take ourselves out of those situations, regardless of how hard or even impossible it might seem.
How can this happen? Shouldn’t we know the tastes, preferences, needs, and desires of the people will be next year—or at least later this afternoon? Shouldn’t we understand our future selves well enough to shape their lives—to find careers and lovers whom they will cherish, to buy slipcovers for the sofa that they will treasure for years to come? So why do they end up with attics and lives that are full of stuff that we considered indispensable and that they consider painful, embarrassing, or useless? Why do they criticize our choice of romantic partners, second-guess our strategies for professional advancement, and pay good money to remove the tattoos that we paid good money to get? Why do they experience regret and relief when they think about us, rather than pride and appreciation? We might understand all this if we had neglected them, ignored them, mistreated them in some fundamental way—but damn it, we gave them the best years of our lives! How can they be disappointed when we accomplish our coveted goals, and why are they so damned giddy when they end up in precisely the spot that we worked so hard to steer them clear of? Is there something wrong with them?
Or is there something wrong with us?
Of course, I am not talking here about extreme cases where we feel our wellbeing is in danger. But be it a job that doesn’t fulfill you or a friendship that doesn’t give you energy, a living room’s furniture that makes you feel out of space or dealing with mild to medium anxiety, we need to remember that we always have the option to take action towards our good at the moment and change our path.
In the end, we’re the only ones who are truly in control of who we are and the worse thing we can do to ourselves is decide to do nothing.