Learned helplessness can be a ‘thing’

Reflecting on VisualVox/Aspie Under Your Radar’s recent post (link to her original post and the reblog), I realized that I had a lot to say about this subject myself, because I’ve witnessed (and, to an extent, I’ve experienced) it myself, albeit from different angles.  Her post really inspired me.  I started to type a little essay in the comments section of VV’s blog but then realized that I would be info-dumping and out of respect for VV, I didn’t want to end up monopolizing the conversation.  So, I backtracked and decided I’d write my thoughts here.  They twist, wind, and ramble a little, but if you’re so inclined, stay with me 🙂

I perceive learned helplessness as one of those semi-taboo topics that few dare to bring up, because it’s risky to do so.  So I’m going out on a limb of my own here.  My goals in doing so are several: to provide an additional “take” on the subject, to support VV in her stance, and most of all, to encourage anyone for whom this applies (including myself, more often than I’d like to admit) to become aware of this and work against the all-too-tempting tendencies.

My goals in writing this, however, do NOT include judging anyone, criticizing anyone, or engaging in any form of ableism.  If I do cross that line, I sincerely apologize.  I will do my best not to.  I AM going to issue a Trigger Warning for ableism, the nature of which was not perpetrated by myself, but by other people in this post.

I’ve noticed learned helplessness in a different context.  My partner was born legally blind; he can see, but not clearly.  As a result, he could never see the blackboard in school.  He can’t drive.  He doesn’t walk with a white cane, but he may not see that car barreling towards the intersection, especially if he has the green walk signal and that car is approaching a red light.

His visual impairment isn’t easily definable.  He’s not normally-sighted, nor is he completely blind, nor does he only see “shadows” (light and dark only).  His situation is something different, something rare, and even after more than 17 years together, I’m not always sure if he can see something in particular or not.  I’m not always aware of what he can and can’t see.  It’s very ambiguous at times.

As a result, his parents and teachers never expected anything of him, nor did they encourage him to push his limits a little.  They never figured out exactly what he COULD do.  His potential was never realized.  His parents (not exactly the proactive type) never got him a tutor or enrolled him in any activities; it’s as if they had never stopped to ponder, “OK, what CAN he do?”  His teachers were even worse; at worst, they displayed outright hatred for him; at best, they passed him through their classes in attempt to not to have to “deal with” him again (which is what would’ve happened if they would’ve held him back).  Their passing him was not for his benefit; it was for theirs.

But because he was never encouraged or expected to do much, he never learned some of the basics.  When I met him, he subsisted on Hot Pockets (microwavable boxed frozen food), potato chips, and Coke (soda).  His dishes actually smelled funny and had a ring of stubborn grit around the edges, because he had not learned about the importance of dish soap.  His apartment was (surprisingly) clean, and he was well-groomed and all that.  But there were a few idiosyncrasies that stood out boldly to me.

As time went on, I realized just how much he hadn’t been taught.  He hadn’t known how to be in a relationship.  It might have been presumed that he’d never “land” one.  He’d never learned how to dust.  He’d never learned how to balance a checkbook properly, or monitor his bank statements.

Please, don’t stone me yet–I’m not judging him.  If anything, I’m irritated with his upbringing.  If nothing is expected of you from childhood onward, it’s a lot tougher to grow as a person.

Far be it from me to claim to know what someone’s true capability is.  I’m not going to assume.  I’m all-too-aware that there are way too many instances of judgment from outsiders being levied upon people with less visible disabilities (after all, I am one of those people).  However, I do know that if a person isn’t taught to find their limits and evolve as as a person, there are stones that remain unturned.  No one ever knows what could have been, or what could be.

Now, I’m going to point the proverbial crosshairs at myself.  As some of you know, I have a permanent and progressive sensorineural (nerve-damage-related) hearing loss.  It’s autoimmune and hereditary.  I may have also mentioned that I have a neurological disorder known as autoimmune-related cerebellar degeneration (an uncommon presentation pattern of Celiac Disease).  What I haven’t mentioned yet (that I can remember) is that I also have two other conditions; one is known as acquired hemochromatosis (excess iron in the blood), and the other is a developing hereditary autoimmune-related hypothyroidism.  Both cause fatigue and systemic inflammation.

This means that on some days, I don’t have a lot of spoons.  I may lack energy, motivation, and focus.  I may opt to go straight home instead of running that last errand after work.  I may opt to put off calling someone or dealing with an issue until tomorrow.  I may not answer that email or phone call until later.

And then, enter the recent discovery of Asperger’s/autism.  My nervous system is easily overwhelmed, which results in an underlying anxiety.  When I can’t sleep (which is quite often), my ability to keep the inflammation and fatigue down to a dull roar is compromised, and my energy misses its chance to get recharged.  My energy wanes, my motivation dissipates, my tolerance level shrinks, and the invisible wall between what I want/need to do and what I’m capable of doing grows taller.

Apparently, I’m not alone.  I’ve talked with people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum who have generously given me words of caution.  “Once you get diagnosed, don’t slither into a hole,” they say.  “Don’t stop interacting, don’t stop trying to function, don’t let yourself off the hook TOO easily, don’t be too quick to use Asperger’s/autism spectrum as an excuse for trivial things.”  These people are Aspies/autists themselves; they know firsthand what it’s like to be on the spectrum, and everything (good and bad) that comes with it.  They’re not trying to engage in ableism; they’re just giving me well-intentioned and well-taken advice, usually because they learned these pearls of wisdom the hard way themselves.  They’re telling it like it is–the way they see it–which I appreciate very much–and they’re doing so in a caring spirit.

When I first came face-to-face with the reality that I’m a member of the spectrum, I realized how tempting it might be to pull too far inward, to decline to engage in discretionary activities.  Because after all, I now had a legitimate reason.  That’s where it gets sticky.  The need to rest and recharge, the fact that I’m a little quirky, the need for a familiar/controlled/secure Aspie-friendly environment are all absolutely legitimate.  But do I risk taking it too far?  Do I risk disengaging from the rest of the world, do I shirk responsibilities, withdraw further from new people, all under the guise of my spectrum realization (soon to be diagnosis)?

VoxVisual’s brilliant post featured a female who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s/autism early in life and thus, had begun to acquire her learned helplessness at an early age.  But the learning process never stops, and at not even 40 years old, I have a lot of my own life left to live (statistically speaking).  My concern is that I might begin (or have already begun) to learn a helplessness of my own that might unnecessarily limit the richness of the rest of my life.

Regardless, anyone (including my partner and myself) with a disability (perceived or not) may “fall” into the tendency to be (or become) helpless.  It’s not like we want to be helpless–at least, not that we’re aware of.  But depending on our overall worldview and headspace, as well as any other physical or psychiatric condition, the tendency can exist.

This can be worsened by depression, which both my partner and I can be prone to.  When we’re down, we can each fall into an inert state.

I know that I may end up engaging in a fight against myself to keep doing what I know I want/have to do, and resist any temptation to hide and become inert, no matter how alluring that temptation may be.

I know that we’re dealing with limited numbers of spoons.  I also realize that while many of those spoons are indeed real, there exists the possibility that others may be imagined…or even taught.

We’ll have to keep checking in with ourselves.  Because as legitimate as those “real” spoons may be, we want to guard against the false “spending” of “imaginary” ones.  Stories like that highlighted in VisualVox’s post are why a big part of me is actually glad that I didn’t get an Asperger’s/autism diagnosis as a young child, and illustrate how it might’ve stifled my partner to know from the beginning that he’s blind (the early knowledge definitely helped with many situations/aspects of life, but it may have also had its less-obvious disadvantages).  Living my own life as an unrealized Aspie/autistic person certainly took a toll of its own, and carried an enormous cost, but at the same time, I was (fairly or unfairly) held to the expectations of the world at large and as a result, I’ve become relatively independent and mostly “functional” (by conventional standards).  My life may be stressful and it might cause me wear and tear, but it has also been full, vivid, and rich with experience and even a few accomplishments so far.

That does NOT mean it was easy, not by any stretch.  It simply means that, like VV, I also worked my ass off to get where I am, because she’s absolutely right: “Nothing happens by itself; Nothing comes for free.”  I’m not afraid to say I earned it, and I’m not ashamed to be semi-proud of that (and neither is my partner), but neither of us would judge or begrudge anyone who couldn’t…if they truly tried and couldn’t.  But there are no extra  points for not at least trying.  🙂  ❤


(Image Credit: Cyril Rolando)


  1. A lot to think about there. A lot we could sit down and be helpless about in our world. Autism and EDS ( Ehlers-Danlos- a genetic joint disorder) dominate our house. I am finding it such a balance act between having expectations and when to let go. For my kiddos and hubby, of course, but, for myself as well. I am finally trying to give myself permission to be okay with not doing it all( hate all the limits my joints and my awkwardness put on me!) at the same time as I am striving to push myself into trying new things, knowing it can be good for me and good for fellow autistics to prove naysayers wrong. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Good for you (and I don’t mean that in a patronizing way ❤️). I think that a major driving force in my life has been to prove the naysayers wrong too lol 😉😊

      Liked by 1 person

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