What Is The "Learned Helplessness" Psychology Definition?

Updated January 19, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Some people feel helpless. Helpless in their circumstances, in their health, or even with regard to their mental wellness. Helplessness is a feeling of being powerless or trapped. In most cases, however, there is help available and the illusion of feeling trapped can be shattered by developing a better understanding of one’s condition and seeking treatment. Every person has the ability within themselves to be in the driver's seat of their life.

Learned Helplessness Can Be Unlearned

What Is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a mental state of being in which someone feels incapable of not revisiting or returning to repeatedly painful experiences. Something shifts in a person's state of mind that makes them genuinely perceive a painful experience as inescapable. Their return to the scene of these painful moments does not feel like a choice and hence, they may feel helpless. This dynamic can happen to people at various stages throughout their lives, and it is a condition that can be overcome.

Origins Of Learned Helplessness

Martin E.P. Seligman was an American psychologist who conceptualized and developed the theory of learned helplessness in the 1960s and 1970s at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman's work began when he was researching classical conditioning and found that some dogs who had been subject to inevitable electric shocks refused to take action in future situations where electric shocks were present, even if they were capable of avoiding or escaping them. In subsequent studies, the dogs would be placed in an enclosed box, and an electric shock would be administered. If the dogs jumped to the other side of the box over a barrier, they would be able to evade the shock. Dogs who had not previously been subject to inevitable electric shocks had little to no trouble avoiding or escaping the shock, but the dogs who had previously been unable to escape from shock simply remained and endured the pain. A few eventually did move, but they did so much later than the dogs who had not previously been exposed to the shock.

After this discovery, Seligman conducted a similar study with humans, using loud noises instead of electric shocks. The results were the same, and he articulated the concept that he called "learned helplessness," the false belief that one cannot control future outcomes.

Since Seligman coined the term, learned helplessness has become a crucial element of behavioral theory. This theory is used to explain why some individuals may accept or remain passive in harmful situations despite their ability to alter them.

Effects Of Learned Helplessness

While the feeling of helplessness itself is difficult to overcome and can impede daily activities, it also creates other harmful effects. Seligman himself explained in his book Helplessness that the belief in one's incapability leads to low self-esteem, sadness, chronic failure, and physical illness. It has also been proposed that clinical depression, premature aging, poverty, parenting, domestic violence, academic success, alcohol consumption, and drug use may also be impacted.

The symptoms of learned helplessness and depression are very similar, including sadness, anxiety, and alternating passivity and hostility. Some believe that learned helplessness and depression are so entwined that there is even a "hopelessness theory of depression." In fact, there are a growing number of clinicians who believe that depression does not exist on its own but is a culmination of many disorders, such as learned helplessness. This would explain why some forms of depression are so difficult to treat, as different disorders stem from different causes and require varying forms of therapy.

How To Overcome Learned Helplessness

If you believe that you are struggling with learned helplessness, it is crucial to address the problem. Here are some steps that may help you on your journey:

Awareness

While it is difficult to overcome something as complicated and serious as learned helplessness, the first step is to be aware of your struggles. Once you realize the symptoms in yourself, try to discover what the cause might be.

Because learned helplessness can result from one situation where you were put in inevitable emotional or physical harm, no matter how large or small, it can be difficult to discover the origin point. It is helpful to think back to childhood events or developmental events that may have caused the problem. Sometimes speaking with someone who knew you at a younger age can help you find the source. Common causes are abuse, neglect, or seeing someone else with learned helplessness and adopting it for yourself.

Whether or not you can identify how your learned helplessness began, the next step is to be aware of your current negative beliefs and how learned helplessness is following you throughout your day. Try examining your behavior and questioning the beliefs behind how you behave. Examine your language to detect helpless or self-harming words. Keep track of all the negative thoughts you have throughout the day. Being aware is the first step in being able to stop.

Change

Now that you are aware of some tendencies regarding your perceived helplessness, it's time to change them. If you have found that your thoughts are constantly negative, that can potentially lead to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. To stop this cycle, try performing a "reality check" on every thought. For example, if you think, "No one will ever love me," ask yourself if this is factual or not. Thinking rationally about the fact that you could meet someone at any minute negates that debilitating thought. Approaching many other fallacies, in the same way, can help you to think more clearly and assign yourself more agency.

Learned Helplessness Can Be Unlearned

If the reality check doesn't work, try to look for other explanations for your worries. If you are convinced your boss is mad at you and you're going to get fired, you might not be able to do your work properly. So, think about any other reason that they might have ignored you this morning. They could be busy, they could be having a bad day, or they simply could not have heard you say, "Hi." Not only can this be empowering, but your stress is likely to decrease, as well.

When you do encounter issues in life that are not simply events of learned helplessness, it is important to use them as learning experiences instead of reasons to give up. Give yourself daily affirmations of what you are good at and what you want to improve. Don't let the "improvement" process be debilitating. Frame growth as a movement toward strength. For some, it helps to write out a list of things they like about themselves or even to ask others what they admire about you. They might say something positive you didn't realize previously.

If you spend a lot of time with others who also have learned helplessness, it may be time to take a break, as you can have a depressing effect on each other. Once you are both on your journey of recovery, consider reconnecting again.

Take Control

Moving past helplessness can begin by setting realistic and achievable goals. For someone who is accustomed to feeling helpless, setting goals can feel like taking control --especially when you achieve them. Try setting small goals throughout the day that you can achieve, as well as more complex, long-term goals that you can constantly be working toward. Use the "SMART goal strategy" to ensure your goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.

Next, celebrate! Be sure to reward yourself during your path of recovery. If you accomplish a small goal throughout the day, let yourself have a break  or any other type of small reward. If you accomplish one of your long-term goals, like getting a new job, throw a party! Many people who experience learned helplessness believe their accomplishments are not valid or worthy of praise, but they are. So, make sure you celebrate!

It is important to develop a support system so that you will have positive relationships to turn to throughout your journey. Spending time with optimistic others with "can-do" attitudes and growth mindsets can have a contagious effect, enforcing your newfound belief in yourself. If you don't have people like this in your life already, try finding some at organizations or clubs.

Finally, take care of yourself. If you need time on your own, take it. If you need self-care, set up a spa day. Make sure you are putting yourself and your journey to recovery first, and don't hesitate to contact a professional you feel like you could benefit from some support.

BetterHelp Can Assist You In Overcoming A Fixed Mindset

One of the most effective ways to treat learned helplessness is to seek help from a therapist. It's okay to ask for help; becoming empowered can be hard to do on one's own. If you have other conditions combined with learned helplessness, seeing a therapist can be effective in changing your life. Feel free to register with BetterHelp to be paired with a qualified mental health professional. Many of our professionals have helped people with similar conditions.

One of the most common ways to treat learned helplessness is with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a type of talk therapy where you identify your negative thought patterns and behaviors and work to reframe them into healthy thought patterns and behaviors. Because it’s such a common type of therapy, researchers have also spent a lot of time looking at if it can be as effective online as it is in person. So far, the studies indicate that CBT is as good online as it is in person.


If the idea of therapy makes you nervous, online therapy might also be an easier first step, because you don’t have to drive to an office. A traditional office might also put you on a waitlist, while BetterHelp connects most people with a counselor within 48 hours. If you’d like some more information, here are some recent reviews by BetterHelp users about working with their counselors:

Counselor Reviews

"Pamela is in the process of helping through multiple complicated hardships in my life and I always feel very comfortable opening up to her and knowing she'll have the best tools for me to cope with the day to day issues I face. She talks to me like a friend and I appreciate the reassurance she gives when I'm hesitant about opening up or when I feel like I've talked too much. I came into this feeling as if I was a helpless case and Pamela has made me feel normal and validated. This experience was scary for me to step into but has only been positive since the day I started."

"I feel extremely comfortable talking with Shannon Francom. She has a very warm personality and has been working with me to help me feel more confident in standing up for myself and improving my self esteem in all areas of life."

Takeaway

The best way to overcome helplessness is to identify the source of these thought patterns and habits. A qualified counselor may be the right helper to guide you through this process. Discussing your feelings and thoughts with a professional is a powerful way to find meaningful help. It is possible to live a fulfilling life in which helplessness doesn't hold you back - all you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.

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