Learned Helplessness: What Is It And How Can You Overcome It?
When people are constantly exposed to situations that seem uncontrollable, they feel helpless. Let’s find out what learned helplessness actually is.
The parable of the elephant and the rope has stayed with me since the first time I heard it. There are many variations to the story, but most follow the same premise. One day, a young boy visits a circus. He’s amazed by the tricks and skills the animals display, especially the elephant, who is able to stand on two legs, and interact with the clowns.
After the show, the young boy’s curiosity gets the better of him. He goes backstage, and there he sees a host of animals in cages, from monkeys to zebras. But then came a surprise: the elephant, the biggest animal of all, wasn’t in a cage. Instead, he was tied to a tree by a small rope, his body language slumped, obviously unhappy.
The boy was sure even he could break the rope and roam free! So he wondered why this huge, intelligent elephant didn’t move. As he thought this, one of the trainers walked by. “Excuse me, sir,” the boy said. “But why does the elephant stand there? Why doesn’t he run away and find his freedom?”
“Ah,” the trainer replied. “You see, when the elephant is just a baby, we tie him to the same tree, using the same rope. At that age, he’s too small and too weak to escape, although he tries. Day by day, he feels the might of the rope, and loses faith. Eventually, he becomes resigned, and believes he’ll never escape. By the time he’s big enough to break the rope, he doesn’t even try.” The repeated traumatic events (the inability to escape) led to the elephant to develop learned helplessness.
In the self-development field, this parable is the chained elephant syndrome. It’s a metaphor for unconscious, limiting beliefs that continue to hold us back, long after we’ve outgrown them. In psychological terms, this is learned helplessness.
In this article, we’ll explore the depths of helpless behavior through the lens of modern clinical psychology, before providing practical steps to empower yourself to free yourself of the chains of such behavior, leaving past experience and heightened anxiety behind, overcoming your limitations.
What is Learned Helplessness?
Psychologists J. Bruce Overmier and Martin Seligman first explored the original theory of learned helplessness in 1967. The pair noticed how some people, having been exposed to stressful situations that were outside of their control, developed a resigned approach to future events. As a result, they stayed in negative situations, even when it was in their power to change them — just like the elephant.
The nature of learned helplessness is passive. Someone may have tried and failed numerous times, and instead chooses to stop trying to change the situation. Or someone may have been in a situation where they expected pain, suffering, or discomfort, and couldn’t escape. One psychological definition is:
“The pattern of attributions and behaviors that leads an individual to see no connection between the behavior and the outcomes resulting in feelings of hopelessness, depression, and passivity.”
The key word is learned. Maladaptive behaviors are formed over a period of time, but aren’t innate. These traits appear in animals and humans. Indeed, early experiments involved giving dogs electric shocks, but we’ll leave it at that, as the elephant parable is sad enough without the image of puppies being harmed in the name of science and experiencing a similar form of posttraumatic stress disorder.
The Learned Helplessness Model
The theory, which evolved into the learned helplessness model, is one of the most well-researched in the field of psychology. Part of its hypothesis explains how the process of “learning” certain outcomes is outside of the person’s control leads to three deficits: motivational, cognitive, and emotional.
The cognitive deficit has to occur for someone to feel helpless, as exposure to the situation alone isn’t enough, but is sparked by accompanying beliefs about the meaninglessness of action. Naturally, this leads to a motivational deficit, where the person has no desire to take action. The emotional deficit links to the depressive state and depression-like behaviors that accompany such an experience of helplessness.
As well as depression, learned helplessness has been associated with low self-esteem, frustration, anxiety, phobias, shyness, and loneliness. However, research has shown that this isn’t always a catch-all experience.
The areas of life someone experiences learned helplessness may be specific, rather than across all areas — working in a similar way to confidence. For example, someone may have learned helplessness around their ability to learn a new language, whilst feeling they’re in control of learning other skills that require a similar approach.
When Learned Helplessness Occurs
Learned helplessness is in the field of behavioral psychology, as it’s strongly related to environmental factors. Interestingly, studies showed people across all demographics were prone to experience the above deficits after a number of setbacks, suggesting this to be a universal trait.
In 1978, the original model was expanded by Seligman, Lyn Yvonne Abramson, and John D. Teasdale to include attribution theory. How someone will view negative events influences whether learned helplessness will occur across three “scales”:
- Internal to external: An internal attribution links events with the person, rather than the outside world. A student might believe they’ve failed a test because they’re not smart, rather than the test itself being difficult.
- Stable to unstable: stable attributions are fixed, and don’t change. If someone believes they’re stupid, that is a fixed statement about their ability, rather than noting they didn’t study well enough for a specific exam.
- Global to specific: the first sees factors attributed to all situations and contexts, whilst a specific attribution looks at the isolated incident.
People with a tendency towards internal, stable, or global attribution are more likely to experience depression and learned helplessness. A pessimistic outlook and pessimistic explanatory style tend to lead to certain behaviors — fuelled by beliefs such as “it’s my fault,” “this will never change.” A form of prolonged aversive stimulation is created as a form of stress management, and through his research, Seligman realized that learned helplessness has a big role in depression.
Learned Helplessness and Major Depressive Disorder
Here’s where we add a few more technical terms. Putting all the pieces of the jigsaw together, the attribution theory and three deficits of learned helplessness can, in certain circumstances, create a perfect storm of depression. Seligman and his colleagues outlined two types of learned helplessness: universal helplessness and personal helplessness.
Those experiencing universal helplessness feel that there’s no solution to the problem. Those more inclined to personal helplessness, however, might believe that other people could find a solution, but they themselves are incapable. Personal helplessness tends to create more of an emotional deficit, being more of a risk factor for depression.
That’s because there’s an element of making things personal. If there’s a problem no one in the world can solve, it makes it easier to accept. But if you believe there are others who would handle the situation better? You’re opening yourself up to comparison and viewing the situation as a reflection on you, personally.
In addition to these two types, Seligman also identified a difference between chronic helplessness and transient helplessness. The first is present over a long period of time, like the elephant. The second is a more fleeting experience that doesn’t tend to recur. As all of these behaviors exist on a spectrum, it’s safe to say most of us have experienced times of learned helplessness, to various degrees. I know I have!
Learned Helplessness in Children
Learned helplessness often originates from childhood. Like the baby elephant, we’re at our most vulnerable when we’re young, and need protection. Learned helplessness can begin at a very young age in response to cries for attention. A study by Dr. Wendy Middlemiss of the University of North Texas looked at babies aged 4-10 months who cried without any support from a caregiver.
After just three days of experiencing this form of neglect (or “sleep training” according to some parenting perspectives), the babies cried for a shorter period of time. However, on a chemical level, their bodies still released the same level of the stress chemical, cortisol. It’s important to note, despite these findings, that research suggests sleep-trained babies do grow up to be healthy adults.
Children as young as 4 or 5 can be affected by learned helplessness, too. Carol Dweck, who theorized the growth mindset, discovered that children around this age responded in much the same way as older children and adults. Dweck’s findings were compounded by a later study, which found 41 percent of 4-6 year-olds failed solvable puzzles after three failed attempts at an earlier, unsolvable, puzzle.
The impact of this can’t be understated. Dweck’s research discovered that children who developed learned helplessness had poorer outcomes in a wide area of domains, including academic achievement, relationship satisfaction, and moral development.
Examples of Learned Helplessness
It’s tempting to think big, traumatic experiences are the precursor to learned helplessness. Any form of neglect or abuse can make this a risk. But learned helplessness covers a wide range of situations, and as explored, can be transient, chronic, or specific. Some examples of learned helplessness include:
- Studying for class: students who attempt to study, but lack the proper tools for effective learning, may give up completely and “rebel,” believing their effort has no impact.
- Changing lifestyle habits: an ineffective diet or lack of commitment to a workout routine might lead someone to think there’s no hope, and instead give up on introducing healthy habits.
- Political apathy: feeling that voting at elections won’t lead to significant change causes people to avoid voting altogether.
- Dating: learned helplessness can even interact with romantic pursuits, too. Multiple “failed” dates can lead to someone feeling they’ll never find a suitable partner.
- Emotional abuse: someone who is a victim of emotional or physical abuse may struggle to leave a partner, resigning to being in the relationship, even if abuse escalates.
- Childhood neglect or abuse: as noted above, infants are entirely dependent on their caregivers during the early years of life, and if cries for help aren’t met, it can reinforce that there is nothing to do to control a situation.
Unsurprisingly, a 2018 study linked learned helplessness with environmental inaction. “It’s a significant finding because researchers often view environmental concern as being an important predictor of taking action,” Dr. Arnocky, Associate Professor of psychology at Nipissing University, said. “If people feel helpless to make meaningful contributions to environmental quality, it appears they may be much less likely to engage in these positive behaviors, even if they are very concerned about the environment.”
This is an important point. Learned helplessness doesn’t mean someone is unconcerned about a situation — they lack belief their actions will cause any significant change. It feels like we’re living at a time where societal issues feel so huge, and institutions so ineffective, that there’s a form of collective learned helplessness about dealing with these issues in a skillful, practical way.
In these instances, it’s useful to know what is within your power to control, and what small steps can be taken to help. Ironically, the more people who believe in the ability to enact change, the more likely it is to happen. Look at the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements as prime examples. People started to believe they could make a difference.
A Note on Victimhood and Empowerment
Before diving into the steps to overcome learned helplessness, I want to touch upon the term empowerment. It feels oversubscribed in the self-development field, with lots of misconceptions about what it means. With the above context taken into account, learned helplessness could be described as disempowerment. When circumstances feel outside of our control, and we feel resigned, we give our power to those circumstances.
The concept of victimhood, too, can be seen in a different light with the above context taken into account. Victimhood, in the field of self-development, is powerlessness — it’s a trait linked to those qualities of internalized, stabilized, and generalized attributions. Equally, empowerment doesn’t mean always taking 100 percent responsibility for external events.
One of my favorite quotes, from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, shines a light on these nuances:
“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.”
Sometimes the test is hard, sometimes we didn’t study enough, sometimes it’s a mixture of both. It’s a practice of trial-and-error. With that, let’s move on.
6 Steps to Unlearn Learned Helplessness
We’re not only here to highlight problems, but to offer solutions. The good news is learned helplessness can be unlearned. It’s not a fixed, permanent life sentence. Seligman would agree. After his research findings, he wrote Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. “While you can’t control your experiences, you can control your explanations,” he writes, echoing Niebuhr’s wisdom.
Bringing all of this together, below are 6 steps that draw upon experts from the fields of psychology, on how to overcome learned helplessness, empower yourself, and learn the self-serving attitude of optimism:
1. Become aware of the thoughts related to resignation
“First, you learn to recognize the automatic thoughts flitting through your consciousness at the times you feel worst.”— SELIGMAN
Self-awareness is an essential starting point for overcoming learned helplessness. We know that the contributing factor is the cognitive framing of the event. By becoming aware of the linked thinking processes and beliefs, you’re better able to challenge them, and move away from the self-sabotaging script.
This means, anytime you feel downbeat or like giving up on a situation, take time to reflect on your thoughts. Are there any beliefs that surface, such as “I’ll never succeed” or “what’s the point in trying”? Bring these to the light by journaling and getting them down on paper. Then, work to reframe them. Is there another point of view?
2. Do an inventory of your limiting beliefs
It can be difficult to be self-aware enough to stop habitual thinking patterns when in an emotional state. That’s where reflection comes in, during the times where learned helplessness isn’t as present. You can view this exercise as the “unlocking the chained elephant,” or, in other words, exploring the source of certain beliefs you have about your ability.
Like the elephant that grows, unaware it could easily break the rope, so many of our beliefs remain fixed across a period of time. They don’t update or reflect our potential or who we’ve become. You can uncover your beliefs upon reflection of moments in your life; for example, if you have an awkward social encounter, you may tell yourself “I’m no good at social interactions.”
Alternatively, begin by exploring the areas where you feel limitations. Let’s say you want to start a business, but you have doubts. You can frame this to yourself in the following way: “I can’t start a business, because…” and then see what your subconscious presents in response.
3. Reframe from ability to effort
Carol Dweck’s research led to her discovering a way to help undo the restraints of learned helplessness. When Dweck encouraged children to view their performance results as a result of effort, rather than ability, their later results improved. While discussing her growth mindset, Dweck notes:
“Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”
That’s the key when it comes to reframing towards effort. It’s encouragement to try harder, to work smarter, to give it another shot. And, even if you don’t quite reach a goal the next time around, you’re more likely to succeed with that attitude. To distill this into action, when it comes to goals you care about, be vigilant of beliefs about your ability, and instead of believing you’re no good, look for ways to improve.
4. Be specific when it comes to your challenges
Returning to the words of Seligman: “Some people can put their troubles neatly into a box and go about their lives even when one important aspect of it—their job, for example, or their love life—is suffering. Others bleed all over everything. They catastrophize. When one thread of their lives snaps, the whole fabric unravels.” This brings us back to universal helplessness, and the value of contextualizing perceived setbacks.
I’m someone who is great at catastrophizing if given the chance. This is one area I’ve done a lot of work on. Excuse my language, but my partner has, in the past, referred to this as the “everything’s f***ed” attitude. We have an argument or a disagreement, things feel difficult, and everything else starts to fall apart.
Over time, I’ve found much better grounding and I’m better able to compartmentalize issues, to give them the relevant amount of attention. Seligman also notes the value of this approach. “People who make universal explanations for their failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area. People who make specific explanations may become helpless in that one part of their lives yet march stalwartly on in the others.”
The takeaway here is to always focus on specifics. If you feel helpless, focus only on that life area. The zoom in even more. If you struggle keeping on top of your life admin, focus on one letter, or one email, or one new habit that will help you keep on top of things. Let the problem be about the problem, rather than becoming a symbol for your perceived failure as a person.
5. Reattribute from pessimism to optimism
The beauty of seeing trends and patterns of human behavior — both positive and negative — is that it shows what traits to adapt for a healthier outcome. Earlier, we looked at attribution, and how the trio of internal, stable, or global attribution was most likely to lead to depression. The opposite of this is true.
“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault,” Seligman writes. “The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case.”
Optimists are unfazed by defeat or perceived failure, viewing such experiences as challenges. When going through a setback, remind yourself — this too shall pass. Even if you feel like you’re going through the motions, learn what you can from the experience, and reframe it as temporary.
6. Practice acceptance, validation, and compassion
As touched upon with learned helplessness and the environment, a lack of action or motivation isn’t a direct link to how much you care, or your level of concern. This can’t be overlooked. To start building momentum, first you have to give yourself a helping hand. Jonathan Rottenburg, a psychologist who explores depression in-depth, offers a great insight into this phenomenon.
“Depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are under committed to goals. They end up lying in bed because they are overcommitted to goals that are failing badly,” he writes in Psychology Today.
This is a crucial point. Whether you’re depressed or stuck in anxiety-ridden procrastination, know it’s not a sign of your character, or how much you care.
A powerful practice is to focus on a three-step process — acceptance, validation, and compassion. The first is to accept where you’re at. That means taking an honest look, letting go of any judgments or stories about how things should be, and being true to your present situation. The next is to validate. Think of this as framing the situation with understanding. For example, “it’s understandable you are lacking the motivation to search for a new job, after a few rejections.” The final step is to extend compassion, by approaching your situation as if giving support to a loved one.
If you’re feeling stuck, or there are areas of your life where learned helplessness is active, that’s okay. Give yourself a break and know that you can, and you will, find the power to change. That starts with acceptance. It includes exploring the ways you’re framing events, working to overcome limiting beliefs, and taking action when necessary. This is the power of positive thinking.
Hopefully, the research and accompanying insights shared in this article will give you the motivation to start taking the steps to unlearn learned helplessness. And you never know.
Once you start walking and start to regain control, you may realize how weak the chains of limitations are, and break free, moving towards new horizons of your potential.