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Learned Helplessness
What is it and how does it work ?

Learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable...

Learned Helplessness
What is it and how does it work ?

Learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they have the ability to do so. For example, a smoker may repeatedly try and fail to quit. He may grow frustrated and come to believe that nothing he does will help, and therefore he stops trying altogether. The perception that one cannot control the situation essentially elicits a passive response to the harm that is occurring.

The term was coined in 1967 by the American psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier. The pair were conducting research on animal behaviour that involved delivering electric shocks to dogs. Dogs who learned that they couldn’t escape the shock stopped trying in subsequent experiments, even when it became possible to avoid the shock by jumping over a barrier. The researchers later realized they had picked up on a slightly different behavior, learning control, but studies have since confirmed that learned helplessness occurs.
Seligman subjected study participants to loud, unpleasant noises, using a lever that would or would not stop the sounds. The group whose lever wouldn’t stop the sound in the first round stopped trying to silence the noise subsequently. Not trying leads to apathy and powerlessness, and this can lead to all-or-nothing thinking. Nothing I do matters. I always lose. This phenomenon exists in many animal species as well as in humans.

Sometimes victimhood can feel like a never-ending state. This person never feels in control of their life, and this loss of control is compounded as time goes on. They are powerless, and they engage in negative self talk, putting the self down, and having no self-worth. Being helpless can get the victim what they need, namely sympathy and attention.

In the real world, learned helplessness can emerge from and contribute to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. During a depressive episode, for instance, someone may believe that nothing will end their suffering, so they stop seeking help completely.

Learned helplessness typically manifests as a lack of self-esteem, low motivation, a lack of persistence, the conviction of being inept, and ultimately failure. It is more common for people who have experienced repeated traumatic events such as childhood neglect and abuse or domestic violence. When we're helpless, we have no control over our lives; our actions are futile. Nothing will change, so why bother? In this mindset, change seems unfeasible. However, it is always possible to take action; we just have to be open to the possibilities.

People can push back against learned helplessness by practicing independence from a young age and by cultivating resilience, self-worth, and self-compassion. Engaging in activities that restore self-control can also be valuable. For example, an elderly person who feels helpless in the aging process can engage in small exercises that they know will restore a sense of control.