What Is Learned Helplessness and How Do You Overcome It?
Do you know people who never seem to take action to change their negative situations for the better? For example, an alcoholic may repeatedly try and fail to quit drinking.
Have you ever felt you had no promising future?
Do you ever feel out of control and unable to address the unpredictability of your life?
Have you ever wondered what the cause of this behavior is?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, then you may be experiencing what is known as learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is when a person feels that their efforts no longer mean anything, and they feel helpless in their attempts to overcome these negative situations for the better. Instead, this perceived lack of control becomes a trained behavior in believing they are helpless and unable to experience joy or optimism in their life.
Last week, I wrote an article on the 9 simple ways to achieve a balanced life. In it, I discussed how the opposite of joy was not unhappiness but being helpless to our surroundings. I wanted to take that concept a step further by unraveling the psychology of learned helplessness and providing six steps through which you can break free from its hold and become your true self.
This article is based on a recent episode from Passion Struck with John R. Miles. Listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or on your favorite podcast platform.
Learning to be helpless
On a fateful day, a group of ivory-seeking poachers invaded a wildlife forest located in Central Africa that played host to large animals, including buffaloes, rhinos, and elephants. Their target animal on this day was the elephant.
They went through their discrete processes and were able to locate a mother elephant with her calves. Soon enough, they sadly killed the elephant primarily for its tusks. But since the calves were too young to have matured tusks, they decided to take them along and nurture them till they were grown enough so their tusks could be harvested.
After getting back to their camp, they tied one of the hind legs of each of the baby elephants with a very strong and thick rope that would be unbreakable. They took this action to crush the spirits of the baby elephants so they would follow their orders and always remain in their control.
After the baby elephants’ legs were tied with strong ropes to an iron pole, they made several attempts to break free but were unable to. They kept on trying this for weeks and then months and got hurt. Slowly they learned that they weren’t strong enough to break free from the rope and escape. With time, they finally stopped making any attempts to break free and simply accepted that they were incapable of doing so and doomed for life.
As they grew older, this mindset continued to grow with them. This is called the baby elephant syndrome. Knowing they had conditioned them to feel helpless, the poachers changed their ropes to thinner ones to accommodate their increasing leg sizes. However, the elephants still did not attempt to break free even though they were now stronger, bigger, and well capable of breaking the rope. The grown elephant clearly remembers the wounds caused by its struggle to break free and doesn’t try to dislodge the rope.
Then, it happened one day, the poachers brought in a new baby elephant that they wanted to breed for its tusk. However, this time, they unknowingly tied its leg with an old rope which was already very weak. So, as expected, the baby elephant made the first attempt to break free, but it couldn’t. However, because it wasn’t yet conditioned to give up attempting to break free, it kept on trying, and on the fifth day, the rope broke, and she began to run to its freedom.
The adult elephants who had been conditioned into helplessness saw this, and it dawned on them that maybe they also could break free. It just so happened that the male elephants were going through their yearly musth where they had heightened aggression and less predictable behavior associated with a surge in testosterone level. They all attempted to break the ropes binding them, and alas! They broke.
With this, they all began to run from the camp while demolishing walls, destroying homes, and trampling four of the poachers. After realizing the power they had and getting rid of their captors, they walked into the nearby forest to their freedom.
This story brings to bear a couple of questions:
- What does it mean to learn helplessness?
- How is helplessness learned?
- What factors affect our ability to help ourselves?
- What are the consequences of learned helplessness?
- How can we overcome the stronghold of learned helplessness?
What does it mean to learn helplessness?
Legendary bodybuilder, politician, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.”
Learned helplessness is a thought disorder (similar to a distortion) where a person believes they are powerless. It is commonly caused by either repeated failures or a traumatic event(s). It is particularly acute when people experience repeat bad situations and develop (like the elephants) a feeling that their lives are inevitable or unchangeable.
For example, if a student tries hard but continually fails in school, they may acquire a sense of personal helplessness because they believe they deserve a good grade by putting in the same effort as their classmates. When they don’t, their efforts drop because they believe they will never be able to succeed no matter how hard they try.
As in the case of the baby elephant syndrome, there are times when a negative situation passes, but its effect still lives on in our minds and controls our actions.
Learned helplessness is a powerful state that has major negative repercussions on many areas of our lives, including personal development, mental health, and even physical wellbeing. It is one of the underlying causes of depression.
Furthermore, these implications are frequently visible in the short term and long after people have left the setting that led to their learned helplessness in the first place.
How is helplessness learned?
Learned helplessness is, at its core, a sort of trained behavior. Conditioning is based on the premise that human behavior is learned through environmental associations and responses. Simply said, if we are rewarded for doing something, we are more inclined to do it again. Similarly, if we are punished, we are more inclined to avoid repeating the same action.
It only takes a little practice to unlearn this link and decondition the response. We’ll focus on ways to reverse this pattern of thinking and behaving to learn how to grow positively and be driven to take risks and try new things out.
Learned helplessness psychology: what factors affect our ability to help ourselves?
The learned helplessness psychology was first explained by Steven F. Maier and Martin E. P. Seligman. They experimented by giving animals shock treatments in three control groups. It was first hypothesized that the animals learned consequences were independent of their responses — that nothing they did mattered — and that this learning undermined trying to escape.
However, over the years, it was proven that the Maier and Seligman actually got it backward. It turned out that the animal’s acceptance of what happens in response to the shock was not learned. Instead, it is the unlearned response to extended negative events. It is mediated by the serotonin neurotransmitter activity of the dorsal raphe nucleus, located in the midbrain, which in turn inhibits escape.
This theory, which later became known as the learned helplessness model, is one of the most well-studied in psychology. Part of the concept explains how the process of “learning” specific outcomes occurs outside of a person’s control and results in three deficits: motivational, cognitive, and emotional.
Because exposure to the event isn’t enough to make someone feel helpless, the cognitive deficiency must exist, which is prompted by accompanying ideas about the meaninglessness of action. Naturally, this results in a motivational deficit, in which the individual has no drive to perform. Finally, the emotional deficit links to depression and depression-like behaviors that accompany feelings of powerlessness.
What are the consequences of learned helplessness?
Learned helplessness has been linked to low self-esteem, frustration, anxiety, phobias, shyness, loneliness, and depression. According to 2021 research published in Plos One, learned helplessness can cause symptoms of depression including loss of interest, feelings of worthlessness and indecisiveness, poor attention, being melancholy, exhaustion, and sleep issues.
Further research from the American Psychological Association discovered a substantial correlation between learned helplessness and various mental health issues, particularly depression. This is true in both people and animals, where learned helplessness promotes unsettling and anxious behaviors linked to mental illnesses.
Learned helplessness raises the risk of a variety of health issues and the possibility of drug abuse. Also, among hospital patients, the feeling of helplessness harms recovery.
Below are further issues that occur as a result of learned helplessness;
When you feel like you have no control over your outcomes, you are likely to feel powerless and inadequate about your ability to take action to reverse them. People who have learned helplessness feel bad about themselves and doubt their capacity to complete even minor tasks.
People who suffer from learned helplessness have a poor frustration tolerance because they believe everything is beyond their control. For instance, when they are dealing with people or engulfed in a project, they are quickly overwhelmed or upset.
“Bad things just happen to me” is a mindset that saps all drive to try to improve things. People with this mindset don’t put out much effort to avoid difficulties or boost their chances of success. They simply allow life to happen to them without any reaction.
Procrastination and decision avoidance can be caused by learned helplessness. People frequently fail to complete projects or jobs because they believe that nothing — or nothing positive — will happen if they do.
Nothing seems to work out for people who have learned to feel helpless. Even when they begin working on anything, they abandon it immediately. Learned helplessness makes it difficult to follow through and can make even minor setbacks seem insurmountable.
How can we overcome learned helplessness?
Martin Seligman, known as the father of positive psychology, identified a phenomenon that can effectively counter learned helplessness, published in his 1990 book titled Learned Optimism. Seligman argues that through learned optimism, we can cultivate a positive perspective. He argues that with a more joyful outlook on life, we are in a more favorable position to improve our well-being.
It is the polar opposite of acquired helplessness, which occurs when you internalize a sense of hopelessness about your situation. You begin to question your cognitive processes due to taught optimism, and your behaviors and outcomes alter as a result.
Let’s look at six practical steps that can be taken to overcome learned helplessness and improve your life:
See failure as an opportunity.
Failure is not a permanent condition, so when you fail, see it as an opportunity to learn, grow, practice, and try again, and with each successive failure, you learn better.
Find your passion
It’s not about everything being perfect. No one’s life will ever be. However, it’s vital that you feel like there is momentum in the right direction. You need to discover what you care about most and what drives you to wake up every day and take action. This will encourage you to fight for your dreams and overcome obstacles.
Practice acceptance and compassion
When you are compassionate and accept yourself and others, you will be strengthened to rise above obstacles and overcome situations that could put you in a state of helplessness. More so, others will be willing and kind enough to help you.
Choose your response
Psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Our brain’s often misinterpret events, come to incorrect conclusions and believe things that are just downright wrong. As a result, it is vital to try to step back for a moment and take a more realistic view of the situation you may find yourself in.
Challenge your helpless feelings
By being proactive, you will learn to recognize both foreseen and unforeseen situations that could potentially lead to feelings of helplessness. Once you recognize those helpless thoughts and feelings, it is time to start actively contesting and substituting them with more accurate, empowering ones.
Reframe your limiting beliefs
If you are overly negative about your self-beliefs, it will lead to a negative self-view and possibly depression. One way to overcome your unhelpful beliefs is by trying to find evidence to counter them.
Take action towards things within your control!
Mark Manson writes in the book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, “the problem isn’t that we don’t know how not to get punched in the face. The problem is that, at some point, likely a long time ago, we got punched in the face, and instead of punching back, we decided we deserved it.”
This is a self-explanatory statement that emphasizes the reason why many of us accept helplessness and refuse to take appropriate action to counter our negative situations. When we prevent ourselves from feeling the intent of pain, we deprive ourselves of the capacity to feel any meaning in our life at all.
According to military historian B. H. Liddell Hart, “Helplessness induces hopelessness, and history attests that loss of hope and not loss of lives is what decides the issue of war.”
As I wrote/spoke about last week, the opposite of joy is helplessness. When we feel helpless and see the loss of hope in our lives, we relinquish the capacity to feel joy and believe that life cannot feel more promising than its current state. These emotions often lead to a lack of interest in life — and, at its most extreme, can lead to suicidal thoughts.
We must be committed to ensuring we break free from the hold of learned helplessness by consciously taking the required steps so that we can become our best selves.
Finally, maybe more of us need to pray The Serenity Prayer, written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr which says: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
This prayer is a great reminder that we have the ability to choose calmness and peace in all matters of our lives. We possess the ability to understand when things are within our control and when things are beyond our control.
I wish you courage and strength in your journey to letting go of situations beyond your control and taking action toward things within your control!
- Are you having trouble prioritizing yourself? I discuss where you invest your love; you invest your life in Episode 104
- I explain why materialism is impacting your success and happiness in episode 96.
- Do you know the science of healthy habits? I explore this in-depth in Episode 108.
- Suppose you missed my interview with Jen Bricker-Bauer on Everything is Possible. Don’t panic! You can catch up by downloading it here.
- How do you strengthen your relationship with your best self? Explore episode 110.
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