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Excerpted from Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. Copyright © 2006 by Martin Seligman. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright © by SpiritSite.com.
 

"The very thought 'Nothing I do matters' prevents us from acting."

  Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, Part 2

The Unclaimed Territory

At the core of the phenomenon of pessimism is another phenomenon – that of helplessness. Helplessness is the state of affairs in which nothing you choose to do affects what happens to you. For example, if I promise you one thousand dollars to turn to page 104, you will probably choose to do so, and you will succeed. If, however, I promise you one thousand dollars to contract the pupil of your eye, using only willpower, you may choose to do it, but that won’t matter. You are helpless to contract your pupil. Page turning is under your voluntary control; the muscles that change your pupillary size are not.

Life begins in utter helplessness. The newborn infant cannot help himself, for he* is almost entirely a creature of reflex. When he cries, his mother comes, although this does not mean that he controls his mother’s coming. His crying is a mere reflex reaction to pain and discomfort. He has no choice about whether he cries. Only one set of muscles in the newborn seems to be under even the barest voluntary control: the set involved in sucking. The last years of a normal life are sometimes ones of sinking back into helplessness. We may lose the ability to walk. Sadly, we may lose the mastery over our bowels and bladder that we won in our second year of life. We may lose our ability to find the word we want. Then we may lose speech itself, and even the ability to direct our thoughts.

The long period between infancy and our last years is a process of emerging from helplessness and gaining personal control. Personal control means the ability to change things by one’s voluntary actions; it is the opposite of helplessness. In the first three or four months of an infant’s life some rudimentary arm and leg motions come under voluntary control. The flailing of his arms refines into reaching. Then, to his parents’ dismay, crying becomes voluntary: The infant can now bawl whenever he wants his mother. He badly overuses this new power, until it stops working. The first year ends with two miracles of voluntary control: the first steps and the first words. If all goes well, if the growing child’s mental and physical needs are at least minimally met, the years that follow are ones of diminishing helplessness and of growing personal control.

Many things in life are beyond our control – our eye color, our race, the drought in the Midwest. But there is a vast, unclaimed territory of actions over which we can take control – or cede control to others or to fate. These actions involve the way we lead our lives, how we deal with other people, how we earn our living – all the aspects of existence in which we normally have some degree of choice.

The way we think about this realm of life can actually diminish or enlarge the control we have over it. Our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues. For example, if we think we are helpless to make a difference in what our children become, we will be paralyzed when dealing with this facet of our lives. The very thought "Nothing I do matters" prevents us from acting. And so we cede control to our children’s peers and teachers, and to circumstance. When we overestimate our helplessness, other forces will take control and shape our children’s future.

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