Learned Helplessness

Learned HelplessnessWhat Is It?

Learned helplessness is a very real phenomenon, wherein a person who would normally do everything he can to avoid a negative stimulus is conditioned instead to simply accept the stimulus, even if opportunities are available for that person to escape and evade the stimulus.

Put in layman’s term, even if opportunities for evading and escaping are available the person still behaves as if he is utterly helpless to change the situation and accepts it “as is”

The concept of learned helplessness was accidentally discovered by American psychologist Martin Seligman in 1967, who was initially interested in studying depression.  His colleagues and he worked with dogs and discovered conditions in which the animal, hurt by an electrical shock, will eventually cease trying to escape the adverse stimulus.  Instead, it starts behaving as if it was utterly helpless in changing the situation.  Even when opportunities are present to the animal to escape, it fails to seize upon the new opportunity, instead stoically accepting the pain rather than expending energy trying to escape what it has eventually perceived to be an inescapable situation.

Like our furry, four-legged companions, we also fall victim to learned helplessness.  Why does this happen?  Several reasons come to mind: victim mentality, depression, operant conditioning, and shyness.

In a person with victim mentality, he has over time learned to blame others for his current station in life.  Blaming others is far easier than taking accountability and action in one’s own life so as to affect change for the better.  Likewise, a person with depression is constantly in a general state of severe sadness, severe to the point that he feels doing anything is simply a waste of time.  So, why bother?  A person with operant conditioning is almost in the same boat in that he has incorrectly learned that “good things come to those who wait”.  Rather than take responsibility for himself, he has relegated his hopes and dreams in the hands of other people and the Heavens.  Shyness is interesting in and of itself in that the person is almost often too shy to take action, which unfortunately impacts many areas of his life.

Overcoming learned helplessness is difficult at best.  A person must first recognize he has this condition before he is able to beat it, just like trying admitting to oneself that he has the victim mentality.  It takes setting aside our egos, that proud mental force that governs our social status and our pride.  Our egos cause us to continue taking a course of action that may be wrong or even detrimental to ourselves.  It also takes an intelligent person to realize what he has become.  An interesting segue way I like to draw upon is a comparison between animals and people.  Why do cows aimlessly roam around a green field day in and day out, eating grass as the sun sets, without an appreciation for the beauty of the rosy red clouds, the sun low over the horizon, a tapestry of the vibrant golden hue all that envelops and overwhelms its admirer?  If that cow was a person, then certainly the beauty of a sunset is now much appreciated.  So, I am making an analogy here.  It takes an intelligent person, able to play the role a third party, acting as an observer upon himself, to recognize what situation he is in.

It also takes asking the right questions before the right actions may be taken.  The simplest question is do you often feel powerlessness?  Do you ask yourself questions, like “Why can’t I live where I want to live?  Why can’t I get a raise?  Why can’t I get invited to Mary’s parties?  Why can’t I…”

Notice a pattern here?  Every question begins with the phrase, “Why can’t I?”  A person with victim mentality asks this question all the time.  A person that recognizes this situation and wants to get himself out of it instead asks, “How can I…”  It’s quite change in mindset.  Instead of phrasing his situation as a rhetorical question to which his answer would be to a form of blame, this person now asks what he can do to change the situation.  The person realizes that some opportunity exists to get himself out of his current conundrum.

For now, take small baby steps.  Begin by recognizing that you may have learned helplessness.  It takes a lot to admit to ourselves that we are wrong, that we have faults.  Overtime, ask yourself the right questions, for asking the right questions oftentimes mean we can start looking for the right answers.  In the future, we will be revisiting this concept more, with different ways of looking at the same problem, and different ways of solving it.








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  1. It is so interesting to see an actual term for something I have witnessed so often. “Learned helplessness” is something that I never really tried to put a name to, but have had experience with. A good friend of mine constantly puts himself in bad situations that he could easily climb out of with minimal effort. However, he does everything in his power to avoid having to exert that effort and ultimately gets himself into a world of trouble. I really do not understand it, but it is nice to see that this is not an isolated phenomena and other people see it happening too. Thanks for the fantastic article!

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