LEARNED HELPLESSNESS 5


By Gustavo A. Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant

In a previous article I pointed out that in 2013 (too) many people in Belize are struggling, day in and day out, and trying to survive ever-increasing “hard times”. During these very difficult times life gets harder and harder with each passing day. Yet, as of today, I see no public action whatsoever being taken, no suggestions being made, to try to lower the extremely high unemployment rate (especially of highly educated citizens), widespread poverty, gangs openly and violently taking anything and everything they choose from hard-working Belizeans, the dozens of violent and uninvestigated murders, and increasing closures of what were once successful business establishments. It seems as if, somehow or other, we have all inexplicably “learned” to accept our current pitiful and miserable, at times even violent, situations as being our uncontrollable destiny. In other words, it seems as if by unanimous agreement throughout the land, everyone has decided that change for the better in Belize is totally beyond our control, and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do to improve the current out-of-hand and dangerous situations in which we live today.

On the contrary, though, I firmly believe that no one should ever think that change is beyond our control, or that we have no control over the outcome of our actions! In order, though, to ever change the situations in which we live everyday, we must fully believe and accept that we are not helpless! Despite the widespread and deafening apathy within which so many of us live, day in and day out, we should realize that no one is ever destined to suffer. We are not living in a Dickens novel where all living conditions are beyond our control. Each one of us can always do something to change our living situations. However, as the old proverb reminds us, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step”. For some inexplicable reason, though, it seems as if the entire nation (jewel) chooses to live helpless each day, and suffer poverty and criminal rates that continue to soar higher and higher each day. No one is taking a “first step” toward changing and improving the situation in which we currently must live. Why, though, do we continue to live in a conditioned and helpless state, give up all hope, and put forth no effort whatsoever to change? It reminds me of students who get homework assignments or individual class projects to complete by specific deadlines, yet keep putting it off and putting it off. They will find every single excuse under the sun why they cannot do the work; consequently, they fail the class for not doing the class work. Many brilliant psychologists have extensively studied and written about this classic characteristic called “learned helplessness”.

As a guidance counselor I have worked successfully with many high school students to guide them in overcoming extremely abusive situations: physical, emotional, and sexual. In our very first session/meeting I always stress to students that they can and will change their future after they make an effort to change their present. In other words, never rely solely on others to change your present or future, but rather rely on your very own actions to change your present and future. Based on that guiding concept, and despite many times hardly ever finding anything positive in their present, I have helped students “move forward” into better futures. First, we set specific short-term and long-term goals and then we work toward achieving them.

What short-term or long-term goals have we, individually or collectively as a nation, set in the last 12 months to challenge and try to halt the fast-paced and extremely negative turn-around of what was once a productive and peaceful Belize? Those of us who have not done anything to try to achieve change continue living in the classical conditioned state of learned helplessness. Sadly, the nefarious consequence to living such helpless situations is that we end up looking mostly, if not solely, at all the negatives in our lives. It’s no wonder many students feel so sorry for themselves: “poor me; those damn teachers don’t like me; they are so unfair”! Of course, that line of thinking always provides a much easier route than actually studying and working hard to complete class work. It’s no wonder someone recently commented on how unfair it is that students get so much homework nowadays. And so the classical cycle continues…

How, though, do we break free from learned helplessness? The first step is to admit to ourselves that we are not helpless, and that any change we may want to achieve is possible and achievable! We should think like optimists, not like pessimists, and keep reminding ourselves that we have control over what direction our lives take. No one, ever, is destined to suffer in this life. Secondly, allow ourselves to think big, rather than only think that we are doomed to accept whatever horrors life deals us. Stay motivated, even in the face of our daily challenges and disappointments, instead of constantly looking for pity. Most importantly, set specific short-term and long-term goals, and then “work” to achieve them, instead of merely feeling jealous of others and sorry for ourselves when things don’t go “our way”. Once we start achieving small short-term goals we will be motivated to keep trying ever harder to achieve our long-term goals. Martin E. P. Seligman, Professor of Psychology, in his published research on learned helplessness writes that, “Optimistic people tend to interpret troubles as transient, controllable, and specific to one situation. Pessimistic people, in contrast, believe that their troubles last forever, undermine everything they do and are uncontrollable.”

So, do we continue to cry, point fingers of blame at politicians, and feel angry and sorry that Belize, once recognized worldwide as a peaceful country, is now listed among the most dangerous areas in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America – in the entire world? The choice is ours: we can continue to feel angry but helpless, or actually do something to change the situations in which we currently live. Let’s not keep pressing forward, day in and day out, with blinders fully stuck on, and simply be satisfied that we live(d) in a “jewel”.

Author’s Note:

These articles on Education are not intended to be comprehensive or complete. They are written and contributed in an effort to provide a “starting point” for valuable discussion amongst educators, students, and the community. When we discuss and review students’ learning capabilities and the ways in which we currently try to educate them, we learn from our mistakes as well as success. Here’s to fining the best path to follow, fellow educators!

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About Gustavo Ramirez

Gustavo A. Ramirez is an educationist with many years of experience in the field of education. He has worked in capacities as teacher and guidance counselor in secondary schools since 1978, and has been instrumental in incubating and nurturing guidance counseling through systems, curricula and people development, both in Belize and the United States.He writes several columns dealing with the constant need for adapting and embracing “change” in Belize’s Education systems. Ramirez holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology (Guidance Counseling) and a Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin. He attended Holy Redeemer Boys School, St. John‘s College, and St. Michael’s College (Sixth Form/Junior College) in Belize City.

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