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Question
Posted by: Maria | 2010/03/10

Learned helplessness

Hey CS

I''m not writing an academic paper on this subject, I promise! I''m thinking about my bipolar sister-in-law who at the age of 39 still lives with her parents and are mostly treated as if she is an imcompetent child. She is stable on her meds, definitely not suicidal, depressed or manic. Yet her mother controls her meds, takes her breakfast in bed, keeps telling her that she isn''t capable of doing this, that or the other. My sil is reluctant to try anything new and often prefaces statements about herself with " I''m not very good at..." . She doesn''t cook, doesn''t hold down a steady job, lives in a little bubble where she is not expected to take responsibility at all. (I wrote about her before, by the way).

Is this an example of learned helplessness? For more than 20 years my sil has been treated as if she is not capable of anything, one can hardly blame her for believing it. She is never expected to take responsibility for her actions even when those are socially unacceptable.

Can you recommend some books or other sources I can use to put together some information about this? She''s going to land up being the responsibility of my husband and I. Shudder. I know that my mother in law''s attitude is key in all this but I''m at a loss to figure out how you change someone''s mind who is 71 years old and have been behaving in a certain way for more than 20 years.

Scratch behind the ears for kitty. :)

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Our expert says:
Expert ImageCyberShrink

OK, no paper, though this is such an excellent example.
People do indeed tend to live up to ( or down to ) the expectations they have for themselves, which they have often inherited from the expectations others have for them.
And you seem to be describing an excellent example of learned helplessness ( Martin Seligmann who developed the idea wrote some very accessable books about it ).
She lives in a little world which requires her to take no responsibility for herself, and carefully teaches her that she is incapable of doing so.
At 71, even brain surgery would be unlikely to change the mind and habits of your m-i-l. Really competent treatment of any disorder, including Bipolar, requires more than just drug juggling, and how I wish more shrinks would realize that. Recognizing the potential for this sort of situation, and preventing it where possible and actively intervening to treat it where possible, is an essential component of treating the disorder itself.
Kitty says thanks. She has been trying to Learn Helplessness, but feels unable to do so.

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Our users say:
Posted by: Maria | 2010/03/10

I should perhaps add that my mil is a genuinely nice person who is absolutely committed to her family. Unfortunately she can also be quite controlling. Her sister is very ill at the moment and we offered to pay for a carer, but she insists that she wants to do it even though it''s clear that she is not coping with the situation.

Reply to Maria
Posted by: cybershrink | 2010/03/10

OK, no paper, though this is such an excellent example.
People do indeed tend to live up to ( or down to ) the expectations they have for themselves, which they have often inherited from the expectations others have for them.
And you seem to be describing an excellent example of learned helplessness ( Martin Seligmann who developed the idea wrote some very accessable books about it ).
She lives in a little world which requires her to take no responsibility for herself, and carefully teaches her that she is incapable of doing so.
At 71, even brain surgery would be unlikely to change the mind and habits of your m-i-l. Really competent treatment of any disorder, including Bipolar, requires more than just drug juggling, and how I wish more shrinks would realize that. Recognizing the potential for this sort of situation, and preventing it where possible and actively intervening to treat it where possible, is an essential component of treating the disorder itself.
Kitty says thanks. She has been trying to Learn Helplessness, but feels unable to do so.

Reply to cybershrink

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