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Why Air Conditioner Makes Me Feel Powerless

A really messed up experiment was done with dogs back in 1965. Martin Seligman set up an experiment where dogs were administered a light shock.

But the results of this study has led to us understanding something we now call “learned helplessness.” What this means is that if we condition someone to believe that their actions have no impact, then a person would not take action to change their negative circumstances.

In other words, if a person takes repeated action, but the action doesn’t result to a change in their circumstances, then the person would be less likely to take future action to change their circumstances. They learn that they are helpless, and therefore, won’t bother to do anything to change their circumstances.

But the problem is, a lot of us develop “learned helplessness” at a young age. As a dependent, we have limited impact and power in changing our circumstances, cause, you know, we’re kids. So when we grow into adults, we carry this sense of learned helplessness with us. Except, we’re adults now. And as adults, there is a lot we can do to change our circumstances.

And learned helplessness hits us even harder if we have marginalized identities. Here is my immigrant experience with hot summers and air conditioners.

I never grew up with air conditioning. The general approach by my mom is that air conditioners are too expensive. So we just never got one. For the most past, we learned tricks to keep the house cool. But every summer, there are always a couple weeks where the heat wave makes it impossible to keep the house cool. So we would sit in the house and sweat. Or go to my cousin’s, who had air conditioning.

We were immigrants after all. And we always had to sacrifice comfort for survival. Or sacrifice our comfort to help us manage our fears around scarcity.

I didn’t realize how much this affected my views of my personal comfort until this year’s heat wave. I rent a home that came with a portable air conditioner. But I never used it. Somehow, I convinced myself that the air conditioner would create more heat than it was worth.

For a week, I literally sat in my home and sweated, refusing to turn on the air conditioner. On the hottest day, I went to the library to cool off in their air conditioning. Just like how I used to go to my cousin’s house.

Then, one day, I turned it on. And I toyed with the settings to see what worked. And my home cooled. And I felt comfortable. A part of me criticized myself for being such an idiot for not trying it sooner. And so, I sat down and journaled. And realized that my attitude towards summer heat, accepting discomfort, and believing air conditioners won’t work…all of this was due to my learned helplessness as a child.

So much of this is related to our feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. At a young age, we learned that our circumstances – racism, controlling parents, abuse, etc. – are unchangeable. But as adults it’s not true. We now hold a lot of power to change our circumstances.

So harness that power, cause you can change the circumstances in your life. You can live the life that you want.

As always, thanks for tuning in. If you found this helpful, get my free Asian Survival Guide.

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Harry Au

Therapy for Asians

MSW, RSW | he/him

I help Asians go from feeling trapped to becoming self-liberated.

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