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Unlearning Helplessness (braythwayt.com)
71 points by braythwayt on May 7, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 28 comments

Here are the points that came up in my read:

1. See this as a concrete example of attachment/detachment: don't identify yourself with a situation. The event is not you. (Except if your pessimism is so great as to direct events, then it is you, but you can change.)

2. Circles of influence and concern are rarely nested. It's just we don't even consider areas of influence where we have no concern.

3. I'm saving the link to reference the HN graphic in future.

Just wanted to add onto this with some information I've gleaned lately. My business consultant takes me through a lot of different ways of looking at personalities and right now we're on Jung.

A lot of INTJs hang out here; here are some common INTJ mental tricks:

* Holding yourself to a higher standard than those around you

* Expecting yourself to make extremely bold, large career moves

* Holding yourself to a tighter timeline than you hold others

* Expecting yourself to achieve things on an unrealistic timeline

As INTJs mature (i.e. through and past midlife), it is common for them:

* To learn to make the small, bite-size steps that can help them put their big-picture plans into action

* To learn to be easier on themselves

An INTJ in the grip of their inferior function (stress, illness, tiredness / exhaustion) will commonly:

* Binge on things that indulge their senses (from TV to loud music to porn to food to exercise)

* Get zero enjoyment out of the binging

* Take an adversarial attitude toward the outer world (so-and-so is plotting against me, etc.)

An INTJ can escape this by:

* Using their gift for thinking to plan, learn, write, chart, and strategize about ways to escape their unrealistic expectations, currently sub-optimal situation, etc.

* Remembering that what others think about you is often a result of that person's personality dynamics, rather than whatever you, (the INTJ) think the other person must be thinking about you. For example, if you think an ENFP may be plotting against you because of something he said, that probably says more about your stress levels than it does about the ENFP's disposition.

A good reference (and not just for INTJs): "Beside Ourselves," by Quenk.

I hope this can be helpful to someone. It helps me just about every day.

The Wikipedia article does not make that point, and its section on criticisms of the MBTI (which itself should be treated differently from the general scope of Jungian theory, especially after a quantitative model of Jung's theory has been published, and further developments have been suggested) jumps around so much from micro-facet to micro-facet (effectiveness of executives?) that it is nearly impossible to take as a serious exposition. I am researching this area heavily myself and have to say that the Wikipedia writeup deserves serious TLC by those who have cogent arguments that lead to conclusions like the one to which you have leaped.

The test is largely bullshit, but the function stack that underpins the MBTI concept is a good model of the way people think.

It just turns out that discovering somebody's function stack is way harder than it looks. Rather than take a test, it's best to study the functions, pay attention to how you think, and suss out how your function stack works.

Of course, the MBTI letters that are used to describe the types are misleading. You look at INTJ and think "somebody who favors introversion, intuition, thinking, and judging", and that's such a horrible oversimplification it's easy to dismiss. But if you're familiar with the function stack, then you know INTJ is code for "introverted intuition > extraverted thinking > introverted feeling > extraverted sensing" (for short: "Ni > Te > Fi > Se"), and if you know how those functions are defined, then you can actually get a decent grasp on how an INTJ thinks.

I can say that from doing a lot of introspection that my four functions are Si, Fe, Ti, and Ne. I have still yet to suss out the exact order of my functions, and that appears to change with my mood. The two most plausible orders for me are Si>Fe>Ti>Ne and Ti>Ne>Si>Fe, which would make me either ISFJ or INTP, respectively. The usual descriptions of both types resonate very strongly with me in different situations (but never at the same time), and I can't say the same about any other type. One thing to note is that people can develop their weaker functions to the point where it becomes possible to emulate a type with the same functions but in a different order (there are four such clusters consisting of four types each), so maybe I'm just good at wielding my lower functions.

Fascinating that you think you may be ISFJ or INTP. I am married to an ISFJ and have a few ISFJ friends and they are quite a bit different from my INTP friends and family members.

MBTI is missing some of the dimensions of Big Five but it has a more positive, and non-pathological look on personality. Who would want to measure his "neuroticism"? There is this "aha!" moment when you first read about your type and identify all those little quirks of behavior you thought were your own as a type thing. It's liberating in the sense that it equally accepts all the personality types as normal - this shows there is more to being a woman than ESFJ - the archetypal woman type. There are also INTP women and they too are normal. No need to feel weird about being a little different. That's what I got from MBTI.

MBTI has always struck me as something akin to Astrology for the triple-digit IQ set.

> struck me

Sorry, but other than possibly validating the existence of the intuitive trait postulated by Jung, I don't know that this information is really that helpful or valuable. :-) It may help you to expound on the concrete experiences behind your feeling. Too many annoying Facebook memes on the subject? Etc.

Possibly the "Forer effect"

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forer_effect

> 3. I'm saving the link to reference the HN graphic in future.

There's something to be said about the similarity between first-page of HN and your typical "look at how awesome our lives are" facebook feed.

> It's just we don't even consider areas of influence where we have no concern.

This is one of the things that is at the heart of many arguments about "deep culture", bigotry, sexism etc -- and why people so often talk past each other. If an actor is blind to the effect of their actions, they are difficult to convince that they probably should change their actions. To them, their actions don't have any effect (or given the audience, their functions aren't as side-effect free as they think they are... ;-).

I'd appreciate a bit more content from this article, maybe discussing some specific strategies to reduce helplessness and increase resourcefulness.

As it stands now, it's a bit too fluffy to take much away from.

Additionally, I think that the core concept here is philosophically stoical, along the lines of "some things are up to us, some things are not up to us, and pain occurs when we aspire for the things that are not up to us to be up to us."

For the author-- the mockup graphic of the HN front page was a nice tough and made me laugh out loud. I'd be interested in a citation to the quote referencing gambling and bullying, too.

Cryoshon, a reference to at least some books like Burns' Feeling Good, or a synopsis of the techniques (like how you would apply Seligman's personal-general-permanent framework to Burns' triple column cognitive distortions tool), would be helpful, I agree.

And while I personally think stoicism is an underrated and misunderstood philosophy, I don't think the article is really getting at what you ascribe in your last sentence, because the article isn't saying that your circle of influence is immutably fixed. Unlearning helplessness may mean having the wisdom to accept things you can't change, but it could also mean thinking of ways to increase your circle of influence to be more in line with your circle of concern. Most people would say slavery is within their circle of concern, but would also feel as though it was well outside their circle of influence. And to some degree, it is, but you can still increase your sense of influence by donating money to effective anti-slavery organizations, for instance, or paying attention to where your consumer goods are produced. But you can also reasonably reduce your circle of concern without it being a surrender by acknowledging that there are bad things happening in the distance that you aren't reasonably obligated to spend energy worrying about.

Deciding that your circle of influence is small, and that trying to change that is aspiring beyond your place sounds itself like learned helplessness, though.

Author here.

This is a funny area. I feel quite confident giving prescriptive advice about strategies for software development, but not so much about strategies for dealing with psychological issues like depression and helplessness.

What I can do is share my own experience, and tell you where to find the resources that helped me. Thus... I would say that if anything in the post feels like something that is bothering you or has bothered you in the past, go and read about Learned Optimism, the rough opposite of Learned Helplessness:


And especially Seligman’s self-help book on the subject: http://amzn.to/1zFQXcr

The book claims that “optimism” can be measured, and that there are strategies for improving it, and discusses those strategies. I personally found that they did help me, and further that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) under the supervision of a professional helped me even more.

I also wrote a post directly about Optimism a while back, it outlines Seligman’s strategies:


There was lively HN discussion at the time, you may find it informative:


As framed/contrasted in the article, the term "learned helplessness" seems a bit off. If we look at the venn-diagram, it would appear that we have: things we care about, things we can change, and things we don't realize we can change. It's those things, that are "learned helplessness" -- and a way to avoid it is to form "informed helplessness": to have an accurate idea of our world: what we really care about, what we can really change and what we really cannot change.

First find out what we actually care about. Then figure out which of those things we are unhappy with. Then which of those we cannot change. This is our area of "informed helplessness". Periodically re-examine this area, to check if some things have become more malleable by ourself (this is to avoid "learned helplessness", or "artificial helplessness".

The point being: if you sit down and figure out "what you cannot change" -- you're effectively teaching yourself to be "helpless" about those things. The key difference is presumably that it is a rational, active, decision.

Perhaps the literature/research have some better terms for this -- but I felt it looked a bit inconsistent in the article.

"Informed helplessness" probably isn't the best frame for the concept, but maybe more like a cost-benefit analysis for giving a shit (CBAGAS), or the Gaullic shrug ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ). My brother and I both lived in DC once upon a time. We both got parking tickets, some of which were legitimate and some of which were made up by the meter maids because the DC government is banking that you'd rather just pay $20 than go through the hassle of an appeal (which they usually just ignore). I would get enraged; my brother would just shrug and say "cost of living in the city--you want to walk home from your favorite bar or to your favorite restaurant, this is what you put up with." It wasn't that he thought it was okay, he just decided it wasn't worth the mental energy to get mad about it.

I still get mad about them, but I can see that his perspective is far preferable.

> if you sit down and figure out "what you cannot change" -- you're effectively teaching yourself to be "helpless" about those things.

The research doesn’t back this up. This is one of the reasons why I’m reluctant to be prescriptive about these things, our intuition about what we ought to believe and how we ought to think sometimes does not produce the results we want.

For example, people walk around saying it’s important to “take responsibility” for the things that happen to us. And many successful people say, anecdotally, that this is what they do. And yet, many people try this and fail.

Seligman’s book explains why successful people say they take responsibility for what happens to them, but also explains why that doesn’t work for everyone. His research was that successful people have this “optimism” trait where they are asymmetric: They personalize the good things that happen to them, and depersonalize the bad things.

Meaning, they think they are responsible for their success.

But if you ask them, they perceive they were taking responsibility for everything that happened to them. But statistically, this is not the case.

So what I will say to you is, don’t argue with whatever I am writing or saying, go to the original sources and understand what Covey and Seligman are actually saying, and what research they did to arrive that their conclusions and prescriptions for changing your life.

Isn't the only difference between your venn-diagram example and "learned helplessness" that in the former case the subject is aware of the decision-making, rather than passively giving up?

Thanks for writing this. Circles of concern vs. influence, and optimism (as insightfully described in the article) are concepts that I have been practicing for years, attempting to teach to others, and have profoundly changed my life.

People reference 7 Habits so often but the things that are typically mentioned (the actual "Habits," per se) are not the parts that I found most life-altering. For me, it was the philosophy:

  -Character vs. personality
  -Abundance mentality
  -Responsibility = Response + Ability
  -Principles vs. values (and natural law) 
Actually this is the only summary I've found which hits on what I believe were the most important parts of the book: http://www.slideshare.net/shaludhamaniya/seven-habits-of-hig...

I also found Seligman's What You Can Change and What You Can't to be informative.

I actually immediately went and purchased the Learned Optimism book on Amazon after reading your article because it seemed like it would be quite interesting and useful.

Learned Optimism by Dr. Martin Seligman is well worth a read. It contains more details.

There's a interesting experiment where he shows how dogs learn to be helpless. Fascinating.

I saw this as an introduction to what helplessness is, what it means and where it comes from and more importantly, that it can be dealt with.

The reader is supposed to come away with the knowledge that this thing exist and it seems to make sense.

The author tells of an expert and links to his work for more in depth.

I think it's always going to be fluffy. Hard things are hard.

I think pain probably still occurs when injured, too.

What was the YouTube video about? Honestly ~50 minutes video is too long to embed without any kind of introduction to why I shouldd stop reading and start watching.

Even 10 minutes is stretching it, if the video itself doesn't start of with an introduction.

Inside joke. It’s the first episode of “The Prisoner,” a legendary dystopic television show featuring a prisoner whose jailers go to great lengths to induce a feeling of helplessness, but he resists.

That’s literally the plot of every episode: The jailers thinking up new ways to teach him that he cannot control what happens, and him coming up with new ways to make the jailers feel that it’s them who cannot control what happens.


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