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Learned Helplessness

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 Research on Learned Helplessness

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The term was coined in 1967 by the American psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier. The pair were conducting research on animal behavior 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 later developed the concept of learned optimism: By explaining events to ourselves in a constructive manner and developing a positive internal dialogue, people can break free from their cycle of helplessness.

How do we learn to be helpless?

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.

Does overparenting lead to helplessness in children?

The concept may also manifest in educational settings when children feel they cannot perform well and therefore stop trying to improve. The experience is characterized by three main features: a passive response to trauma, not believing that trauma can be controlled, and stress. When parents do everything for their kids, helplessness can follow. Kids do not learn to take care of themselves, and they lose personal agency. A good example of helplessness: When parents do their children’s chores for them.

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Overcoming Learned Helplessness

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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.

I feel stuck and helpless in my relationship. What can I do?

People who feel stuck in a relationship sometimes give up. They are unable to improve or work on their relationship and they are also unable to end it. Sometimes, a partner can feel that they invested a lot in the union, and moving on does not feel right. Yet fixing the problems seems just as daunting. Instead, they slide into a state of helplessness: What is the point in trying?

How can I learn to be less helpless?

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.

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