Learned Helplessness Simplified — Understanding and Overcoming the Phenomenon

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon in which a person experiences a sense of powerlessness and a belief that they are unable to control events affecting their life. This can occur after repeated exposure to aversive events which they perceive as uncontrollable, leading them to feel hopeless and passive in future situations. It results in a reduced effort to escape or avoid negative situations, and decreased motivation and ability to take control of their environment.

The concept of learned helplessness was first studied by psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s. He conducted experiments on dogs where they were exposed to an unpleasant stimulus that they were unable to escape from, such as electric shocks. Over time, the dogs stopped trying to escape the shocks and became passive, even when presented with an opportunity to escape in the future.

Similarly, learned helplessness can occur in humans as a result of repeated exposure to adverse situations that they believe they have no control over, such as abuse, poverty, or discrimination. This can result in a negative outlook on life, low self-esteem, and a lack of motivation.

Examples of learned helplessness include:

  • A dog that is repeatedly shocked in an electrified cage and then fails to attempt escape even when the shock can be easily avoided. (This was the scenario in the first experiments that discovered this phenomena)
  • A student who consistently receives low grades despite their efforts, and eventually gives up trying to improve.
  • A worker who is frequently criticized by their boss and eventually stops putting in effort or speaking up in meetings.
  • A person who has experienced repeated traumatic events and becomes passive, feeling unable to change their circumstances.
  • A child who is repeatedly scolded for not doing their homework correctly, leading them to believe they are incapable of academic success.
  • An elderly person who is dependent on others for their daily care and begins to feel hopeless about their ability to live independently and stops doing the simple tasks they can easily still manage.
  • A victim of domestic abuse who feels powerless to leave their partner and repeatedly returns to the abusive situation.
  • A person with a chronic illness who feels hopeless about their ability to manage their condition and reduce symptoms.

While the emotional responses to these example situations are easy to understand and sympathize with, the important point that sets learned helplessness apart from just a basic human reaction is the element of giving up and becoming resigned to the idea that change is not possible. Quite literally, one has “learned” that they are “helpless” and remains in that mindset even when circumstances change and subsequent effort could yield different (better) results.

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However, it’s important to understand that learned helplessness is not a permanent condition and can be overcome. Here are some steps you can take to overcome learned helplessness:

  1. Recognize the problem: Acknowledge that you have fallen into the trap of learned helplessness and that it is affecting your life in negative ways.
  2. Reframe your thoughts: Challenge negative thoughts and replace them with positive, proactive ones. Focus on what you can control and take steps to solve the problem.
  3. Take small actions: Start with small actions that you can control and build from there. This can help to rebuild confidence and increase feelings of self-efficacy.
  4. Seek support: Reach out to friends, family, or a therapist for support and encouragement. Talking about your feelings can help you gain a new perspective and find new solutions to your problems.
  5. Practice self-care: Engage in activities that promote physical and emotional well-being, such as exercise, mindfulness, or therapy.

Learned helplessness can be a debilitating condition, but with awareness, effort, and support, it can be overcome. Remember to take small steps, reframe negative thoughts, and seek support in your journey towards a more empowered and fulfilling life.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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