What is learned helplessness?
3:44:9 2023-09-13 185

Learned helplessness is what social science researchers call it when a person is unable to find resolutions to difficult situations - even when a solution is accessible. People that struggle with learned helplessness tend to complain a lot, feeling overwhelmed and incapable of making any positive difference in their circumstances.

In 1967, Martin Seligman and his partner, Steven Maier, were researching animal behavior when they accidentally discovered the learned helplessness theory. They found that the dogs who had been exposed to a series of inescapable shocks stopped trying to get away from the electric shocks altogether.

When Seligman and Maier tried this experiment with human beings (replacing the shocks with loud noises), they found that people had a similar reaction. The ones that couldn't control the noise in the first experiment didn't even bother trying to control it in subsequent trials - even though the aversive stimulus was now escapable.

This research led to a new understanding of trauma. People that experience repeated abuse and other aversive situations eventually learn to become helpless if nothing they do changes it. It's as if they internalize that since nothing worked in that situation, nothing will work in similar situations, either. The trauma begins to erode two other critical aspects of mental well-being- self-efficacy and internal locus of control.

Self-efficacy is your level of confidence that you can tackle challenges and learn new skills. Internal locus of control is the degree to which you believe your circumstances are under your control. When these two traits are high, you feel confident and empowered, even when things get tough. Stressors seem controllable, and you know that you can trust yourself to do your best.

When learned helplessness takes over, though, you don't feel so sure of your ability to handle challenges. You don't believe that what you do makes a difference, and that makes it hard to see a way out — let alone a silver lining.

It's possible to have learned helplessness in some areas of your life but not in others. For example, a person could be doing well at work but have a hard time setting boundaries with their parents. However, since life doesn't fit well in boxes, each area eventually begins to influence every other.

5 symptoms of learned helplessness

Dealing with adversity can be tough, and not everyone feels like they’re always on top of their game. That’s common. However, learned helplessness runs deeper than that. Here are some symptoms that learned helplessness is taking the reins:

Low self-esteem 

With learned helplessness, people feel badly about themselves and doubt their ability to accomplish even the smallest task. 


Because they feel like everything is outside of their control, people dealing with learned helplessness have very low frustration tolerance. They get easily overwhelmed or flustered when working on projects or dealing with people.


Having an attitude of “Bad things just happen to me” saps away all desire to try to change things. People with this outlook don’t put much effort into trying to avoid difficulty or improve their odds of success.

Lack of effort 

Learned helplessness can lead to procrastination and decision avoidance. People often won’t try to complete projects or tasks, assuming that nothing — or nothing good — will happen if they try.

Giving up

Even when they do start working on something, they give up relatively quickly. Learned helplessness causes trouble with follow-through and can make even the smallest bumps in the road seem intolerable.


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