What Is The "Learned Helplessness" Psychology Definition?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
"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."
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.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What Is The Concept Of Learned Helplessness?
Learned helplessness occurs after a person or animal has been forced to exist under conditions that were painful or disagreeable. A person will then avoid similar conditions, even if they are able to overcome them now, since they have feelings of helplessness about specific stimuli. In some cases, they may be unable to avoid unwanted circumstances, which means learned helplessness is unlikely to be eliminated in these cases. However, it is important to remember that learned helplessness can be reversed. Many people who experience learned helplessness overcome it through counseling.
What Are Some Examples Of Learned Helplessness?
An example of learned helplessness, which may have also contributed to the theory of learned helplessness, is a dog that has been abused by its owner but refuses to leave, even if a gate or door is left open for it to run away. In this case, the dog has learned helpless behavior and does not feel that it can overcome the situation. Learned helplessness in humans is a bit different but still revolves around not escaping or not being able to remove one’s self from undesirable stimuli.
How Do You Fix Learned Helplessness?
If you want to fix learned helplessness properly, you should consider visiting with a mental health professional. They are likely to have information relating to studies on learned helplessness, so they can teach you how to change your behaviors and overcome learned helplessness. This may be hard to do or take a long time, but it is possible. The alleviation of learned helplessness is possible, and you can do it with the proper assistance. Learned helplessness is not something that you have to live with for the rest of your life.
Who Studied Learned Helplessness?
The concept of learned helplessness was studied by Martin Seligman as well as Steven Maier. Learned helplessness was discovered when they looked at dogs’ behaviors. They did much research on learned behaviors and helplessness in order to develop the model of learned helplessness. This theory of learned helplessness in humans is thought to be due to learned behaviors. The good thing about this is that behaviors can also be unlearned.
What Are The Three Elements Of Learned Helplessness?
The three elements of learned helplessness are contingency, cognition, and behavior. Contingency means that a subject thinks there is a relationship between what is going on and the way they act. Cognition means they are able to figure out these relationships, and behavior refers to the actions that result in the figuring out of the contingency. The model of learned helplessness dictates that all three must be present. These aspects were noted when it comes to learned helplessness in humans but may also show up in animals. Keep in mind that learned helplessness continues to be studied, and even after you develop learned helplessness, you are able to unlearn the behaviors associated with it.
What Is The Opposite Of Learned Helplessness?
The opposite of learned helplessness may be learned mastery or learned optimism. In other words, when you learn that your actions can change your situation and you can overcome stimuli that you are faced with. Alleviation of learned helplessness may also result in feelings of optimism. Remember that you can overcome learned helplessness when you are experiencing it. If you start to develop learned helplessness about a specific circumstance, you can also develop learned optimism about something else.
How Do You Overcome Learned Helplessness?
Anytime you are experiencing learned helplessness, you can reverse it. You can overcome learned helplessness, but you will have to work at it. The best way to get over learned helplessness is to work with a counselor to address the issues pertaining to learned helplessness. They may be able to help you determine what feelings of helplessness you are experiencing and how you can change your thought patterns. Learned helplessness may develop over a long or short period of time, which is something to keep in mind.
Can Learned Helplessness Be Unlearned?
Yes, learned helplessness can be unlearned, but this probably will not happen overnight. If you experience learned helplessness, you likely learned this behavior over an extended period. You will also need to unlearn this behavior over time. The most beneficial way to do this is by seeing a counselor. Some people develop learned helplessness in a short amount of time, while others are exposed to it for longer periods of time.
What Does Learned Helplessness Look Like?
Learned helplessness and depression can look similar, especially when it comes to learned helplessness in children. Children may show signs of depression and not want to try new things or approach new situations when they experience learned helplessness. Symptoms of learned helplessness in children include procrastination, frustration, avoidance, and low self-esteem. Kids can still overcome learned helplessness, but it may take a while. When kids are experiencing learned helplessness, you should do your best to get them the help they need. This can lessen the learned helplessness feelings and the symptoms mentioned may disappear over time.
Why Is Learned Helplessness Unethical?
The original experiment that was conducted by Martin Seligman on learned helplessness was unethical because it essentially required the mistreatment of animals. Dogs were shocked during the experiment, which is something that would be illegal today. Today we would have to find a different subject to test the learned helplessness model on. Learned helplessness would also need to be tested in a way that was ethical to people and animals. Some people may feel that the original experiment undermined helplessness as a theory, but there have been other experiments since then that have tested learned helplessness. Helplessness in humans is still being studied as well, so we are still learning the effects and how to reverse the negative symptoms associated with it.
What Do You Mean By Helplessness?
Helplessness, when it comes to learned helplessness, refers to someone not being able to help themselves. Helplessness occurs when someone feels they are powerless about a situation and there is no hope for overcoming it. The good news is that helplessness in humans can be overcome and worked through with therapy. Learned helplessness is not just something you have to contend with. There is hope for you if you experience learned hopelessness.
Is Learned Helplessness Operant Conditioning?
The concept of learned helplessness was discovered when scientists were studying classical conditioning but were employing techniques that used operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is conditioning that has either a punishment or a reward for behavior. Learned helplessness does employ aspects of operant conditioning. You can ascertain this by looking at learned helplessness in children and how learned helplessness is characterized by a sense of helplessness regarding parts of their life or specific behaviors. Helplessness in humans may relate to operant conditioning of some type.
What Can Learned Helplessness Lead To?
There is a possible relationship when it comes to learned helplessness on depression development. In other words, learned helplessness in humans can cause depression in some people because their feeling is that hope is gone, and they have no control over situations in their lives. Different effects of learned helplessness can lead to depression or other mental conditions. There is research being conducted regarding depression and helplessness in humans.
When Was Learned Helplessness Discovered?
Learned helplessness was discovered in 1967, which makes it over 50 years old. At 50 years old, the concept was looked into, and helplessness at 50 insights was discussed in an article in the Psychological Review. These insights suggest that there is likely an impact of feelings of helplessness on depression. The review of learned helplessness at 50 also suggests that the concept of learned helplessness can be used when it comes to treating depression. This article also offers a helplessness in humans critique, which you may be interested in. This retrospect lets us know that the theory of learned helplessness is still relevant today, and those who experience learned helplessness can be helped because this concept is continuously studied.
What Is Operant Conditioning In Psychology?
Operant conditioning involves learning behaviors through a system of rewards and punishments. Depending on whether you are rewarded or punished for a certain behavior, your mind will make assumptions based on the outcome. This is much the same way that learned helplessness works. This also suggests that learned behavior plays a large role when it comes to learned helplessness in humans. The helplessness model shows that when someone is experiencing learned helplessness, they are unable to see any rewards for certain behaviors and may only note punishments, which subsequently leads to total avoidance. Those that experience learned helplessness may have a hard time seeing the positive aspects of situations.
Which Situation Best Describes The Phenomenon Known As Learned Helplessness?
Learned helplessness in humans refers to a situation where someone must bear negative or unwanted stimuli, and they are unable to avoid them. In some cases, it can be avoided, but it is not because a person will think they are unable to overcome the situation. Learned helplessness can lead to depression, and learned helplessness in children can lead to problems with self-esteem. Many people who experience learned helplessness will have to take advantage of therapy to escape the effects of learned behaviors. Learned helplessness can be seen in people of all ages.
What Is The Hopelessness Theory?
The hopelessness theory revolves around depression and suggests that symptoms of depression will occur when someone feels that the circumstances they face in life are negative or undesirable. You can tell by this definition how hopelessness can contribute to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness also involves negative circumstances that are thought to be impossible to overcome. When a person starts to experience learned helplessness, they may feel down or defeated, which is like symptoms seen in depression.
Is Helplessness An Emotion?
Helplessnessis considered to be an emotion. Learned helplessness occurs because of negative or stressful experiences that we go through in our lives. Some people may be able to overcome these things, while others will develop issues related to learned helplessness. The idea of learned helplessness can be quickly learned, or it may take a while to develop learned helplessness, depending on the stimuli that a person was presented with. Of course, learned helplessness in humans can be treated and reversed in many cases. If you feel that you are affected by learned helplessness, it is important to get help to eliminate the effects.
How Do Biological Constraints Affect Learning?
There are numerous ways that biological constraints affect learning. For instance, a dog will not be able to learn the same things that a human can learn. It is beneficial for every person or animal to learn things that will help it succeed and survive. Learned helplessness goes against this a little bit by influencing people or animals to avoid certain behaviors or situations. Behaviors associated with learned helplessness can be unlearned, however, so there is an upside.
What Is Shaping Behavior?
Shaping behavior goes along with operant conditioning. It involves reinforcing behaviors until the wanted behavior is reached. If you think about how to train a dog to do a trick, you will understand what shaping behavior looks like. If unhealthy behaviors are used to teach shaping behavior, it may lead to learned helplessness in humans. Helplessness in man is something that can be reversed, but it may take a lot of work to do so because learned helplessness often takes a while to develop.
Is Depression A Learned Behavior?
There is a theory that suggests that depression is a learned behavior, although everyone may not agree on that point. If this is true, it means that you can overcome learned helplessness when it comes to depression. In other words, because there is likely a relationship between helplessness in depression development and your depression symptoms, there is a chance that these things can be unlearned. Talk to your doctor about this theory if you want to learn more about it. If you do research on learned helplessness, you may also be able to find information pertaining to this that is useful for your purposes. Learned helplessness is a topic that many people may not know about but may be interested in.
What Is Learned Helplessness In Sport?
Learned helplessness in a sport takes place when someone performs so poorly at the sport that they think they will never be able to play or succeed at it. For example, if you experience learned helplessness and you have tried to dunk a basketball many times while you are playing on your team, you may think that there is no way you will ever be able to dunk. This may cause you to want to give up on basketball or sports altogether. However, with practice and determination, you can develop learned mastery instead, where you are able to dunk a ball more often than not. This fact suggests that learned helplessness can be reversed. If learned helplessness affects you in this way, keep trying, because you might be able to change things.
How Do You Unlearn Bad Behavior?
You can unlearn bad behavior when you talk to a psychologist about how to change certain behaviors. It may also do some good to attempt to determine why you are exhibiting specific behaviors. If you have developed learned behaviors that you want to change, this is entirely possible. Studies on learned behaviors suggest that they can also be unlearned, so don’t give up hope when it comes to behaving better. It is possible to reverse learned helplessness.