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From Helplessness to Empowerment Via The Flow Channel

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When Martin Seligman, now recognized as the father of positive psychology, first began experimenting, he was hoping uncover the then elusive etiology of depression. By placing dogs in a condition similar to what a depressed person might feel – they were placed in harnesses and then delivered an inescapable shock – and then placing the same dogs in a situation where escape was possible, Seligman was hoping to better understand why some depressed people seemed to resist efforts to get better – even when they were right in front of them.


As a control, Seligman put some dogs in the harnesses, and then delivered no shock – Group One. Group Two dogs were placed in the harnesses and delivered a shock which they could escape by placing a lever. Group Three dogs, however, were yoked to Group Two dogs, and when a Group Two dog got a shock, so did a Group Three dog. The only difference was that Group Three dogs’ lever didn’t stop the shock. For these dogs, the shocks seemed to both occur at random and cease at random, with nothing they did bearing any control over the situation. For Group Three dogs, the shock was “inescapable”.


The second part of Seligman’s experiment revealed something that continues to shape our understanding of psychology today. After placing all three groups of dogs in the harnesses, Seligman then placed them in what is known as a shuttle box – a cage separated by a barrier that the dogs could jump over. While the floor of the cage delivered a powerful shock to the dogs, they could quickly jump over the barrier to escape it. However, what Seligman found was that not all of the dogs chose the escape. The dogs in Group Three – who had experienced the inescapable shock condition – urinated, whined, and laid down. Immobilized in the face of the shock these dogs choose not to even attempt to escape it.


Seligman went on to develop the theory further, ultimately calling it “learned helplessness”, which he described as a psychological condition in which a human being or an animal has learned to act or behave helplessly in a particular situation — usually after experiencing some inability to avoid an adverse situation — even when it actually has the power to change its unpleasant or even harmful circumstance. Seligman’s experiments were later replicated in several studies – with different animals – with similar results. And in every single case, the strongest predictor of a depressive response was lack of control over the aversive stimulus.


Interestingly however, the feeling of complete control over their actions, is exactly what characterizes the state of flow, also known as optimal experience. People in the state of flow describe their actions as effortless, and seeming to occur in perfect harmony. And yet they are facing tremendous challenge – in fact, their strengths and skills are stretched to their capacities. But their strengths also perfectly align with the challenge in front of them – in what is known as the “flow channel” – and as they meet the challenge, what they learn is that their actions effect the outcome. Not surprisingly, connecting effort to outcome is the cornerstone of developing a “growth mindset” – one that tries harder after setbacks.


People in flow also report something that smacks of the paradoxical nature seen in each of the five domains of post-traumatic growth. While feeling in control, people in flow also recognize the complete lack of control over everything around them. Interestingly, gains in flow come just like gains in post-traumatic growth – they are paradoxical in nature. By letting go of the attempt to control the environment, we gain greater control over our own actions, by facing our greatest risks, we realize our greatest strengths, and time seems to both expand (going on forever) and contract (standing still).


By realizing the paradoxical nature of growth, we also come to realize something that is a tremendous asset in the face of setbacks – dialectical thinking. Described as the ability to see things from multiple perspectives, dialectical thinking is how we find opportunities for growth amidst what seems like a hopeless situation. It is how we see the possibility disguised in every adversity, and it is how we find the creativity necessary for the novel solutions that adversity demands.


Perhaps most importantly, dialectical thinking is how we resolve the many contradictions that setbacks face us with. Especially when setbacks shatter our very reality, we are confronted with one very powerful contradiction – they aren’t supposed to happen. We don’t ever plan on discovering our spouse has been having an affair, losing loved ones, or having a horrible car accident, but when these things happen, we must face them, and more importantly, we must face the reality, that what we believed – that people are supposed to be honest, that loved ones should not perish before their times, and that driving on the freeway is safe – is no longer true.


And how we resolve these contradictions, is through seeing things from multiple perspectives. The world is safe and unsafe, life is precious and fleeting, and all people have good and bad qualities. But what we also come to see is that when what we believed no longer applies, or what we were doing no longer works, the only thing to do is adapt our response.


Tim Harford, the author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure draws on historical data from successful businesses to make the point that success in business is like success in evolution – it follows no pattern. What does determine success is the ability to adapt to the changing and unpredictable environment.


As Harford points out, some of the greatest innovations come from what Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, Fooled By Randomness, Antifragile, and several other bestsellers, calls “positive black swans.” While these innovation projects, Harford argues, do not have a known payoff or a fixed probability—in fact, no one ever really knows what ideas will work or even why—they cannot be predicted or planned. For this reason, their very existence depends upon our ability to vary our approach, even trying the opposite of what we might think will work, in service of research and development. By being able to see things from multiple perspectives, we become open to trying new approaches, which is a fundamental component of post-traumatic growth. In fact the traits of openness, along with extraversion, are the two traits most closely associated with post-traumatic growth.


In flow and in adversity we face our greatest challenges. Challenges that come with all of the possibility of high risk and complete failure. But it is these challenges that require our absolute all, that also pay dividends unlike any other. Not just do we come to realize the very control that allows us to escape learned helplessness in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds, but also realize that growth depends on one sole factor: our ability to try harder even when success seems impossible.

From Helplessness to Empowerment Via The Flow Channel

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2016). From Helplessness to Empowerment Via The Flow Channel. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Nov 2016
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