One example of this can be demonstrated in the area of victimized women and children. Halfway houses and safe houses are established in an attempt to both protect and retrain battered women and children. Efforts are made to teach them how to change their perceptions and give them new feelings of potency and control. The goal is to teach them that they can have an effect on their environment and have the power to administer successful positive change. For many women, assertiveness training, martial arts classes, and seminars on how to make a strong positive statement with their self-presentation (such as their choice of clothes) become matters of survival.
Children, however, are in a much more vulnerable situation, as they must depend on adults in order to survive. For most children in the world, helplessness is a reality in many situations: They do not, in fact, have much control over what happens to them, regardless of the response they exhibit. Adults, whether they are parents, educators, church leaders, or older siblings, have the responsibility of being positive role models to help children shape their perceptions of the world. If children are allowed to express their feelings, and if their comments are listened to and considered, they can see that they do have some power over their environment and can break patterns of learned helplessness.
A therapist has described "Susan," a client who as a youngster had lived with the belief that if she argued or asserted her needs with her parents they would leave her. She became the "perfect" child, never arguing or seeming to be ungrateful; in the past, if she had, her parents would often get into a fight and one would temporarily leave. Susan's perception was that if she asserted her needs, she was abandoned; if she then begged the parent who remained to tell the absent parent that she was sorry and would never do it again, that parent would return. In reality, her parents did not communicate well and were using their child as an excuse to get angry and leave. The purpose was to punish the other adult, not to hurt the child.
When Susan became an adult, she became involved with a man who mistreated her, both physically and emotionally, but always begged forgiveness after the fact. She always forgave him, believing that she had done something wrong to deserve his harsh treatment in the first place. At her first session with a therapist, she was reluctant to be there, having been referred by a women's shelter. She missed her second session because she had returned to her lover, who had found her at the shelter. Eventually, after a cycle of returns to the shelter, the therapist, and her lover, Susan was able to break free and begin the healing process, one day at a time. She told the therapist repeatedly that she believed that no matter what she did, the outcome would always be the same—she would rather be with the man who abused her but paid attention to her than be alone. After two difficult years of concentrating on a new perception of herself and her environment, she began to experience actual power in the form of positive effectiveness on her life. She be came able to see old patterns before they took control and to replace them with new perceptions.
Another example of the power that perceptions of helplessness can have concerns a man ('"John") who, as a young boy, was very attached to his father and used to throw tantrums when his father had to leave for work. John's mother would drag him to the kitchen and hold his head under the cold water faucet to stop his screaming; it worked. The child grew up with an impotent rage toward his mother, however, and disappointment in his father for not protecting him. He grew up believing that, no matter how he made his desires known, his feelings would be drowned, as they had been many years before. As a teenager, John grew increasingly violent, eventually getting into trouble; he did not realize that his family was dysfunctional and did not have the necessary skills to get better.
John was never able to believe in himself, even though—on raw rage and little confidence—he triumphed over his pain and terror to achieve an advanced education and black belt in the martial arts. He even developed a career teaching others how to gain power in their lives and how to help nurture the spirit of children. Yet after all this, he still does not have much confidence in his abilities. He is also still terrified of water, although he forces himself to swim.
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