Physicians and medical students: Unlearn helplessness

Learned helplessness. It’s a psychological concept marked by a perceived loss of power, and it’s prevalent in medicine. We are taught early on how little we are in this colossal world. We are told what to do, when to do it, and what we will get for it. Our objections go unheard or—worse—ignored.

Let me quote a paragraph from The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz:

They were conducting a series of experiments on basic learning processes in animals. The experiments required animals to jump over small hurdles to escape from or avoid electric shocks to the feet. The animals typically learn this quickly and easily, but a group of animals that were exposed to the task after having experienced a series of unavoidable shocks failed to learn. Indeed, many of them failed even to try. They sat passively and took the shocks, never venturing over the hurdle at all. The explanation for this failure was that when the animals were being exposed to the uncontrollable shocks, they learned that they were helpless. Having learned this helplessness, the animals then transferred the lesson to the new situation, one in which they actually DID have control.

In medicine, we learn helplessness through sleep deprivation, loss of autonomy, and constant assessments where our scores determine our future. We realize that we have to “just get through,” so we stop objecting to it. We submit.

But I fear that, like the animals who failed to adapt when put into a new scenario, we fail to recognize our power when we do acquire it. Opportunities are everywhere but we start to think they’re for “other people” and outside the realm of what we are capable of.

We have to change that mindset. We have to lean into power and opportunities and feel perfectly entitled to them. In all honesty: Healthcare is run by the wrong people. It needs to be run by us: the clinicians, the ones who know medicine, we who are both traditionally studious yet idealist revolutionaries.

So in this medical journey: learn as much as you can, but don’t learn helplessness. Reject it every day and every step of the way. Remember how powerful you are, and recognize how much can be done if and when you put that power to use.

Jamie Katuna is a medical student.  She can be reached at her self-titled site, Jamie Katuna, and on Facebook.

Image credit: Jamie Katuna

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