I’ve talked to more than one woman about her relationship with her narcissistic husband and heard her say, “There’s no way out. He will always win and I can’t overcome this so I might as well make the best of it.”
That, my friends, is a negative mentality known as learned helplessness and it can keep you locked in a jail of your own making for life without parole.
Just Exactly How Do You Learn Helplessness?
I am so glad you asked. You learn helplessness after your needs go unmet week after week and year after year. At some point you become despondent and begin to believe that nothing will change for you no matter what you do, so why bother?
This was illustrated in, what I consider to be, a cruel research experiment on dogs in 1967. Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist, used electric shocks to demonstrate learned behavior. He rang a bell and shock the dogs. After a while he put them in an area where they could get away from the shock but when he rang the bell they just stiffened up and waited for the shock. They’d become resigned to being shocked at the sound of the bell and were helpless to save themselves from the shock even when they had a way to do it!
When you are in a relationship with a narcissist you learn pretty quickly that your feelings don’t matter unless they contribute to a greater good. For example, your desire to take a family vacation doesn’t matter until your narcissist wants his boss to see what a great family man he is. He’ll take you on that family vacation but not because it was important to you.
In all actuality, when you are in a narcissistic relationship you are being told that you are crazy, that you overreact, that you don’t see things as they really are. After a while you begin to believe it, accept that you have no control over your life, and become resigned to whatever happens to you. You go into survival mode, doing just what you have to do to get through the day.
If a friend sees what you are dealing with and tries to show you how you can get out you’ll dismiss her advice quickly.
- I could never do that.
- That wouldn’t work for me.
- This is just the way my life is and I need to accept it.
- It will just be this way forever.
- This is God’s will for my life and He’ll change things if they need to be changed.
The last one is one that I believed for a very long time and I know many other women who lived by that statement. It is untrue, ungodly, unbiblical, and unhealthy – a lie straight from Hell.
Symptoms of Learned Helplessness
One of the most obvious signs that you are dealing with learned helplessness is that you begin to believe that everything that is happening is your fault. You chose a bad marriage partner and now you just have to live with it, you were promiscuous in your younger years so you deserve a spouse that cheats, or any other excuse you make for what is happening in your life.
You begin to accept that things cannot get better no matter what you do so there is no point in trying to do anything about your situation. You become like Martin Seligman’s dogs and just endure, telling yourself that you deserve whatever is happening and it is your fault somehow.
People who are dealing with learned helplessness have low self-esteem and feel that anything they try will fail. How could they possibly leave a narcissistic, abusive spouse when they have nothing to offer in the way of job skills? How would they make it on their own?
Society’s Role in Promoting Learned Helplessness
When society pressures a woman into “fixing” her marriage than her feelings of responsibility are increased. For example, I was told numerous times, for years, that I needed to pray more over my husband, be a more loving wife, or change in some way. While I am not perfect in the least I can honestly say that none of those things worked or would work. No one bothered to tell the narcissist to pray over me, become a more loving husband, or change himself. The responsibility for change was placed squarely on my shoulders which increased my belief that it was all my fault.
It isn’t your fault and it isn’t your responsibility to change your spouse. Your responsibility is to deal with your own stuff, grow, nurture yourself, and own your emotions.
You can overcome learned helplessness and take control of your life.
Image Courtesy of Flickr's Creative Commons- Briteside913
How to Break Free and Move On
If you have been broken down to the point of learned helplessness it is going to be difficult to break free of that pattern but you can do it!
- The first step is in recognizing it for what it is – a behavior you learned in response to unyielding abuse, whether it was emotional, physical, or verbal.
- Look in the mirror several times a day and tell yourself, aloud please, “I am beautiful, kind, intelligent, and I do not deserve this treatment.”
- From now on, every time that your mind tells you that you can’t do something come back and tell yourself that you can do it. You are an intelligent, kind, caring human being with a multitude of untapped talents and abilities.
- Make a list of steps to reaching your goal and begin to carry them out. For example, if your goal is to be financially comfortable apart from your spouse then your first goal might be to find a part-time job. Next you might apply for a scholarship or some kind of funding for college. After that you might go to school and get a degree. Each step moves you forward toward your goals and each step that you complete empowers you.
- Hang out with people that encourage you. People who want you to stay in a bad relationship where you are being abused do not have your best interests at heart! Spend time with friends who are dedicated to seeing you succeed at whatever you decide to do and who will have your back no matter what. Let the others go without regret.
Learned helplessness can be overcome with encouragement from other women who understand what you are going through. Join First Wives World and get the encouragement that you need to be the best you can be.
Lead Image Courtesy of Flickr's Creative Commons- Martina Photography