Have you ever found yourself in a fixated state of adversity and wondering why the heck you can’t seem to get out, even when you have all it takes to transform that situation?
This ‘fixation’ often occur after a repeated attempt to take control of a situation, without success.
Well, you just might be dealing with learned helplessness.
History of Learned Helplessness
Learned helplessness is a concept that sheds light on some human behavior that might seem unproductive, but is nontheless adhered to. It was a discovery pioneered by two psychologists: Steven F. Maier and Martin F. Seligman.
And although the experiment was carried out in dogs, it is a common human behavior that has long existed.
In 1967, an American psychologist, Martin F. Seligman, instigated research in learned helplessness, as an offshoot of his interest in depression. He, alongside his colleague, Steven F. Maier carried out an extensive experiment among dogs placed in separate chambers of a shuttlebox, with electric shock administered on the floor of one side of the box and not the other.
The experiment which was carried out at different stages, explained that the dogs who were initially administered electric shock unpredictably (and without an option of escape), learnt to adapt to the situation, and resisted help even when they later had the option of escaping from the situation.
Thanks to these men who discovered and put a name to learned helplessness. Until then, and as now, learned helplessness is confused for passivity, laziness and apathy.
What is learned helplessness?
Learned helplessness is a resignation to fate, in relation to a person’s exposure to difficult circumstances, after failed attempts to break away from it over a period.
This occurs when he or she feels strangely attached to the unfavorable circumstance, even when presented with a favorable option.
In psychology, learned helplessness is a mental state in which a person who faces an unpleasant situation develops a cognitive expectation to ‘live with it’.
This is marked by an ‘unwillingness’ to break out of the circumstance, even when they are escapable, because they have come to believe they cannot, due to their previous failed attempts to escape it.
To further shed light on this, Kendra Cherry makes a valid point. She explains that the inaction of people when they think they cannot control a situation, can lead them to overlook opportunities for relief.
In summary, learned helplessness theory suggests that a person or animal is conditioned to endure or remain stuck in an undesirable situation, as a reflection of their negative belief of inescapability.
Although they desire to escape it, but they unconsciously, have a love-hate relationship with their adversity.
Examples of learned helplessness
- Learned helplessness in education occurs when a person performs poorly in a subject and believes he or she cannot improve as all their ‘effort’ proves abortive. Therefore, they develop an aversion to putting in more efforts.
- An adult who lacks the skill of self-reliance or self-responsibility just might be dealing with learned helplessness. This happens because they were never taught or allowed to learn the skill. Worse still, they were always told what to do.
- When people consistently place themselves at the mercy of other people even when they have the capacity to improve their lives.
- In a child, this condition is often triggered when he or she is faced with a task they have not tried before or previously failed at. They may react with apathy, passivity or fear.
- When a person believes that there is a predictive relationship between their action (quest for solution) and the outcome they derive (continuous failure, more abuse), given the repetition of that outcome for a long time, it explains a classic case of learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness in children
The effects of learned helplessness is seen with a profound impact in children.
Lack of motivation
Fear of trying
Fear of asking for help
Children who are exposed to volatile situations in forms of abuse (physical and emotional neglect, sexual abuse etc) develop learned helplessness from infancy.
To overcome learned helplessness in children:
- Help the child collect memories of their past successes (big and small), this would be crucial in helping them combat the negative ideas or the feeling of helplessness.
2.Teach them that failure is a learning curve and necessary for any form of growth. This way, they do not feel frustrated or shrink towards learning, instead it helps them open up to try again.
3.Avoid doing everything for them, especially when they volunteer. Give them age-appropriate tasks. This helps them learn gradual independence and self-reliance.
When they make a mess, let them join in, in the task of cleaning-up (as appropriate).
Common causes of learned helplessness
Learned helplessness is most likely to be associated with abuse or trauma in childhood or adulthood. In adult relationships, it is often exemplified in domestic violence.
With abuse or trauma, a person learns to condition himself or herself to endure, as they believe they have no power over such situation or that nothing they do, can ever change the situation.
This conditions a child to be dependent on others for direction or help, as attempts to exercise their independence is often truncated by their caregivers.
Learned helplessness in children can spring from unpredictability in adults or caregivers around the child. A child needs to be able to predict their environment in order to feel safe.
A boundary that heralds another without a follow up with the previous one, teaches a child to give up expectation of consistency. That however, leads to difficult behavior from the child.
It is important to note that children have trouble when a boundary is initiated, however, it is double tragedy for the child when a new one is created without follow up with the previous.
This can create a disruption within the child’s mental space.
A person with an unidentified learning difficulty can experience throes of failure that can degenerate into fostering learned helplessness.
Repeated events of failure
At the root of learned helplessness is hopelessness and powerlessness. It leads a person to shrink and become afraid of trying again.
This is especially when the people around them condemn them for failing. They assume that given the repeated events of failure, it is pointless to try again.
Low self-esteem is likely to promote learned helplessness. It stems from the belief that a person is inadequate, given their ‘inability’ to deal with an adverse situation.
This is also how learned helplessness can lead to depression.
Learned helplessness, depression and anxiety
Learned helplessness is most closely associated with depression, anxiety and isolation. This is because, of the hopelessness people attach to it, given their inability to escape the situation they live with.
People who experience learned helplessness also experience anxiety for the reason of the recurrence of the negative thoughts.
However, they have a proclivity to do nothing about it. This is either because they’ve become accustomed to such adversity and consider it a norm or they are afraid of trying to get a solution, given their pessimism.
For this reason, they develop hopelessness, which leads to depression, and in turn, can lead them to isolate from other people or not identify opportunities for change.
Learned helplessness symptoms
Both learned helplessness and depression are marked by the following symptoms:
How does one overcome learned helplessness?
The basic strategy for overcoming learned helplessness is to:
- Acknowledge that you have a challenge that you need to get to its root.
- Identify it for what it is- Learned helplessness.
- Get into the memory of situations you have conquered before, and use it to de-condition the mental space generating memories of failures and perceived weakness or powerlessness.
In other words, when the memory of failures rears up, counter it with the memories of the colossal or small victories you have previously amassed; one that brought you pride.
This enables you to learn optimism, which is the opposite of learned helplessness, one that rightly declares, “I can create another success just as I did before.”
- Understand that you are a powerful being (one which you truly are).
- Get into therapy. A licensed professional can help you see what you do not see and get to the place that you might not. Moreover, Seligman strongly endorsed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which focuses on changing the thought pattern in order to change the behavior, as a treatment for learned helplessness.
Although the treatment can be on a long-term (for adults), it has a profound ability to improve the condition.
Among all afore-mentioned lists, acknowledgement is the most crucial of it all, as it underpins any effort to overcome this situation.
Learned helplessness is transferable from one generation to another. While it is not genetic, it can be inherited through modeling and relationship. Dynamics like being raised by a helpless parent can advance its transference.
This psychological condition is responsible for the barrier people find between them and their life goals, as they are not just afraid to explore opportunities around them, they are also afraid to take a big bite out of what is presented to them.
There is also the aspect of health implication from learned helplessness. It creates stress that often leads to aggressiveness or passiveness, which can interrupt the free flow of cognitive functions.
Learned helplessness is all about negative thinking.
Do you feel trapped?
Do you feel incapable of escaping difficult situations? This might just be your cue.
How would you like to improve your life?