What Is Learned Helplessness? (and a Step-by-Step Plan for Overcoming It)
Have you ever felt powerless to the point that you pretty much give up even trying to gain control because you seem to fail no matter what?
Or do you feel like you simply can’t make any significant life changes?
If either sound familiar, then you might be dealing with a powerful, negative psychological belief that’s holding you back.
This is a concept that’s commonly known as “learned helplessness,” and has been observed in humans as well as other animals.
In this article, we’ll define the learned helplessness theory, provide examples of how it’s holding you back, and detail a step-by-step strategy for eradicating this mindset.
Let’s get to it!
What Is Learned Helplessness?
Learned helplessness (in people) is a phenomenon in which someone has been conditioned to anticipate discomfort in some way without having a way to avoid it or make it stop. After enough conditioning, the person will stop any attempts to avoid the pain, even if they see an opportunity to escape.
When people believe that they are powerless to control what happens to them, they start to act helpless. This concept is referred to “learned helplessness” because it is not something that anyone is born with—no one believes from birth that they can’t control their surroundings and that it is pointless to even try.
This learned behavior is conditioned through experiences where a person either actually has no control over their circumstances or believes this to be the case. It is one of psychology’s major theories, and has been associated with various psychological disorders.
There are two kinds of learned helplessness:
1. Universal helplessness is happening when someone believes that there is nothing that anyone can do to alleviate their unfortunate circumstances.
For example, the mother of a child with a terminal illness may try everything possible to save her child’s life, but the illness is incurable. When she realizes that there is nothing that will help to save her child, she is feeling universal helplessness.
2. Personal helplessness is when someone feels like there is a possible solution to their pain that other people may be able to find, but personally, they aren’t able to find a solution.
For example, a student puts forth all of their effort and spends an excessive amount of time writing a paper, yet they fail anyway. This would lead to a sense of personal helplessness because they believe that by working hard they would have gotten as good a grade on their paper as their classmates did. It is likely that internal traits lead to a sense of personal helplessness.
Background in Psychology
[WARNING: Mention of animal experiment and abuse.]
Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier are two psychologists who stumbled upon the idea of learned helplessness after observing the helpless behavior of dogs that had been conditioned to expect to feel a shock after hearing a tone.
Seligman and Maier found that when these conditioned dogs were given the option to escape an electric floor by jumping over a small barrier, they simply chose not to escape the shocks.
To further look into this concept, the researchers created another experiment that also involved dogs. Here, the dogs were separated into three groups:
Group 1: The dogs were secured in harnesses, but were soon released.
Group 2: The dogs were secured in harnesses, but subjected to electric shocks. But the shocks would stop if the dog pressed a panel with their nose.
Group 3: The dogs were secured in harnesses and subjected to random electric shocks that they were unable to control.
All three groups of dogs were then put in a shuttle box. The dogs from groups 1 and 2 were able to figure out that jumping the barrier allowed them to escape the shock. But the dogs from group 3 did not try to escape the shocks. Because of their prior experience, they had learned to expect that they were powerless to avoid the shocks.
The dogs in group 3 believed they were powerless. They were unaware that they had the option to avoid the shocks. These poor dogs simple dealt with the electrified floor because they thought they had no control. They learned to be helpless.
Examples in Personal Development
1. Weight loss
If you’ve consistently failed at losing weight through different diets and exercise routines, you will probably begin to think that you will never lose weight, no matter what you do. You have put forth so much time and effort to achieve this goal, but you see no results, so what is the point of trying?
You may even succumb to the “What the Hell” effect, which will cause you to slide down a slippery slope every time you mess up on your diet. For example, it may be someone's birthday in the office, and you eat a piece of cake. Since you already "messed up" for the day, you figure Why stop now? and indulge in a calorie-rich dinner.
2. Building good habits
If you grow up thinking that your bad habits (such as smoking, eating unhealthy food, or drinking too much) are just part of who you are and how you were raised, and you think there’s nothing you can do to change your habits, you are experiencing learned helplessness.
If you have done certain things for your entire life, it can be very difficult to change your ways and take control of your life. But learning how to break bad habits is an important part of overcoming learned helplessness.
3. Domestic violence
It’s not rare to hear stories about people who stay in abusive relationships. Many may feel that violence is a part of life, and some even use learned helplessness as a coping mechanism.
For example, if you are being abused in a relationship, you are probably constantly being told that you're incompetent or worthless by your partner, and are often shown examples to reinforce these claims.
Eventually, you start to believe these hurtful things, and the statements even become a part of your identity. Often, the abuser will even tell you that you are lucky to be with someone who will put up with your flaws.
In this example, the person being abused is experiencing learned helplessness because they believe they're inferior and feel a loss of control over their life. If, despite your efforts, you are constantly receiving the message that you are not good enough, feelings of weakness and powerlessness will probably surface. If someone feels like they don't have the power to change their situation, it may seem easier to stay in the relationship.
4. Learning a new skill
People often get stuck in their ways, to the point that they assume they aren't good at something they may not have even tried. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” reinforces the idea that once someone believes they are doing everything they can in life, they stop trying new things. But forming new neural pathways that deepen with repetition helps people develop new skills and behaviors.
With a growth mindset, you will always believe that you can learn new talents and improve on the skills and talents you already have. Having a growth mindset is an important part of overcoming learned helplessness.
5. Eating healthy
The idea of eating healthy may seem overwhelming to people who don't typically do it. Some may believe healthy food is expensive, or that it takes too much work to make, and that it is easier and cheaper to just stop by a drive-through for meals.
Learned helplessness also leads to the flawed thinking that you will inevitably go back to your old habits and you will not be able to resist your favorite foods down the road.
Additionally, if you try to eat healthily, you may have an internal conviction that any success you have is only temporary. You may believe you will always revert back to the familiar foods because you are unable to make a change. This can lead to giving up and not even trying to eat a healthier diet.
A Step-by-Step Plan for Overcoming It (If You Feel Like You're Suffering From It)
1. Recognize and accept your learned awareness and get to the root of it.
What is the origin of your feelings? What are some things that may have happened in your childhood that could be contributing to your mindset today?
This will help you identify the starting point of your feelings. Think about your behaviors throughout your life to see if you can identify a common denominator that has impacted who you are today.
2. Identify your limiting beliefs. Reframe them in a positive, optimistic light.
If your beliefs about yourself are overly negative, it will lead to a negative self-view and depression. Overcome your unhelpful thoughts by trying to find evidence to oppose them.
For example, if you think you are incapable of learning new things, look for evidence to support and to oppose this thought. If you have learned anything new recently, this is not a factual thought, and it negates the idea that you can't learn new things.
3. Watch your self-talk. How do you talk to and about yourself? Change negative self-talk into positive.
Start by articulating and identifying thoughts that are bringing you down and don't serve any useful purpose. Then, start asking yourself questions instead of giving yourself commands to help you make a change.
This is as simple as tweaking the way you talk to yourself. If you hear your inner critic being negative, consider how you can turn the statement into a question so you can open up some room for exploration and possibility.
For example, instead of saying, "I failed at that again," ask yourself, "What can I do next time to improve? Am I willing to do what it takes? When have I been able to do this before?" This type of self-inquiry will help open up the problem-solving areas of your brain and help you tap into your creativity. You're able to change negative thoughts into curiosity rather than defeat.
4. Improve your self-awareness through journaling.
People often lack the ability to turn their thoughts inward to find what is actually causing their belief systems and the learned helplessness that they have developed. While people can reflect on what they believe, they often fail to explore why they believe what they do.
Journaling, either in a book with completely blank pages just waiting for your thoughts, or one that has prompts and exercises to help lead you to deep self-reflection, is a great tool to help you discover yourself and figure out why you think in the ways that you do. This will help you make your life the best that it can be.
5. Set SMART goals.
SMART goals are specific, able to be measured, attainable, realistic, and time-sensitive. With these goals, you are able to clarify your thoughts and streamline your efforts, which will allow you to delegate your time to give you the highest chance of achieving your goals.
When you set realistic goals, you will be able to stay in control. To be realistic, your goal should encompass an objective that you are willing and able to work toward.
Even if you have set a high goal, that doesn't make it unrealistic. As long as you have the means and energy to put into it, your goal is achievable. Each time you hit a goal or a milestone, you will feel a sense of achievement and pride that will motivate you to keep going.
6. Change your environment in a way that helps you achieve your goals.
People often end up falling prey to their decisions because of the environmental cues around them. Environmental cues can trigger thoughts and desires that shape the way people behave.
For example, let's say you want to lose weight, but feel like you need to eat a certain amount of food in order to be satisfied. If the plates you use each day have a large area of space, you will continue to fill them up and eat more food than you actually need. Changing this part of your environment could then change your behavior.
Even if you have good intentions to complete a task, it's useless if your environment dictates you do otherwise. You likely look around at other people, objects, and how your environment is set up to determine your action.
Our lives are often made up of the same habits, so doing something out of the ordinary takes a lot of willpower. That’s why people often choose the path of least resistance. Because of this, changing your environment can help you change your habits.
7. Take one small action every day.
Making even the smallest changes each day can lead to great results. Every day, take at least one small action toward your end goal. These little actions will add up, and doing them every day will help you feel like you are actively making progress.
8. Celebrate small wins and important milestones.
Any time you reach a small goal, you have to acknowledge it! Celebrate in some way, and be happy that you are making progress. Each small win is one more step forward toward your end goal.
9. Learn and implement self-care.
If you learn how to take care of yourself, both inside and out, you will not feel helpless. You will feel strong and bold, and be able to conquer anything in front of you. Here are some great ideas to practice self-care. As you do these exercises, your confidence will grow and you will not feel as if you are powerless.
You Can Unlearn Learned Helplessness
It’s never too late to make a change.
As painful as it can be to experience learned helplessness, it’s not hard to overcome this limiting belief if you are determined to do so.
If you practice at least one of the nine strategies I just listed and turn it into a daily habit, you’ll start to notice that you’ll feel more in control of your life. Once you are in control, you have the power to make any change to your life that you choose. Whether it be leaving an abusive relationship or getting rid of all of the junk food in the house, you have the power to determine your future.