Amy Przeworski Ph.D.

Don't Worry, Mom

When You Feel Like Giving Up

Combatting learned helplessness

Posted Feb 27, 2014

I've written about this feeling many times: the sense that nothing that you do really has any effect on the what is happening in your life. I've experienced it many times as well—during the postpartum period, when my colicky daughter would not stop crying no matter what I did, at times in my career when it seemed like I worked hard and nothing came of it, and even in trying to find a mate. There's a sense of powerlessness as you realize that you can try to solve a problem but that all you are doing is banging your head against a wall that does not seem to move.  That sense of powerlessness is learned helplessness.

A prominent depression researcher once did a study on dogs where he put dogs in a cage that had two sides separated by a wall. He shocked the floor of the cage, which led to dogs jumping over the wall to the other side of the cage to escape the shock. Then he took some dogs and strapped them into a hammock that gave them the shock. At first, the dogs tried to jump to avoid the shock, but they could not escape from the shock since they were strapped into the hammock. Later, even when he took these dogs out of the hammock and put them in the cage with the possibility to jump over the wall and escape the shock, these dogs laid down and passively got shocked without even trying to escape. The dogs had learned that nothing that they did allowed them to escape the shock so they gave up even trying.

Obviously, there are ethical issues with this study and the animal lover in me feels sick over the idea of dogs being shocked. But trying to put that aside, the study has an important message: that life can teach you that you are ineffective and that your behaviors don't have any effect on what happens in your life. And if you learn that lesson, you give up trying. You have learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is associated with depression. It describes that quality of depression where you retreat to you bed and just give up on trying to impact the world. You give up your agency, sense of purpose, and feeling of hope and find yourself deep in a hole. Once you are down that deep, it is hard to dig your way out of it—especially if you don't even try to dig. So learned helplessness can maintain depression.

So how do you dig your way out of this pit?

1) Do not accept your helplessness. You must continue to try to escape the shock because you never know--maybe something that you do will work. You must attempt to climb out of the pit of despair even when you feel as though you have no solid footing. It may be clumsy and feel awkward and it may take many attempts to get out, but the only way out is to try. If you simply accept what you believe is your fate, you won't go anywhere. 

To try to make change in the face of so much information teaching you that you are ineffective is difficult. It takes a leap of faith and some degree of hope and optimism. It requires even a bit of belief in yourself or at least the willingness to try to make change. And it requires some problem solving because you must identify something that you can do that you have not yet tried. It is necessary for you to fight one of the most basic processes that impacts our behaviors—learning—and unlearn helplessness. For some, that can seem too high a mountain to climb and they remain lying on the floor of the cage continuously getting shocked.

But if you can do it, if you can dare to take a chance that you can climb out of the pit, perhaps it will work. The only way to unlearn helplessness is to learn that you can affect change. If you cannot do it alone, ask for help. A therapist can teach you skills to combat learned helplessness so ask for help if you need it.

2) Change your thoughts. If you believe that you cannot affect change, you will not even try. So if you find yourself saying "I can't," or "There's nothing that I can do," try changing your thoughts to "I can at least try," and "This may not work, but I'll try it." That at least allows the possibility that you can affect change.  For more about combating negative thoughts:

3) Try and try again. Once you try to make a change or to find a solution to problems in your life, don't give up if the first solution doesn't work. Try something else and if that doesn't work, try something else. Perseverance may be the key to you unlearning your learned helplessness because if you only try once and it doesn't work, you may have only strengthened your learned helplessness. So try anything that you can think of, no matter how little you believe that it will work. Any attempt to escape the shock, even if it fails, is better than no attempt.

Throughout my life, when I have felt helpless or found myself thinking that nothing that I could do will affect change, I have thought of those poor dogs laying on the floor of the cage and continuously getting shocked even though they could have escaped the shock simply by jumping over the barrier. And I have asked myself if I am willing to be one of those dogs.  Are you?

Check out my related posts:

Monster Mommy:

“I Can’t” and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves:

Becoming an Optimist

Copyright Amy Przeworski.  This post and all portions of this post may NOT be duplicated or posted elsewhere (including on other websites) without permission of the author.  However, a link to this post may be posted on your website without the need to request permission.

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