What is Learned Helplessness and How Can We Overcome It?
There once was a young boy who loved the circus. At the circus, he was particularly fascinated by the elephants. At the end of the elephant show, he went to where the animals were kept and saw all animals in cages. All except one. The elephant.
Despite being the largest animal at the circus, the elephant was tied to a stump with a comparatively small rope. The little boy wondered to himself why the elephant would not just break free and run away. It clearly could with very little effort!
To satisfy his curiosity, he went home and asked everyone he knew if they knew why the elephant did not try to escape. One day, he finally got an answer. “You see, when the elephant is a baby, it is tied to the same stump, using the exact same rope. When young, the elephant is obviously too small and weak to escape. But it will still try and try and try with all its might. As time goes on though, the elephant will succumb to the strength of the rope and lose faith in escaping. Eventually, the elephant will believe there is no hope and it cannot escape. Even when it’s big enough and could physically break free, the elephant won’t even try”.
The story of the chained elephant by Jorge Bucay, summarised above, has beautifully illustrated the learned helplessness theory. There are many variations, but this story has become a strong metaphor depicting how unconscious restraining beliefs can hold us back, even after we are no longer bound. The repeated inability for the elephant to escape led the elephant to acquire learned helplessness.
What is Learned Helplessness in Psychology?
Learned helplessness is a state where people feel they have no control over a situation and behave in a helpless way. This can range from emotional dyscontrol to giving up.
Typically, we learn to feel helpless after repeatedly experiencing a perceived uncontrollable, negative event. Eventually we begin to believe we are unable to control the situation, so we stop trying- even if we have the resources and opportunity to change the situation.
The Theory of Learned Helplessness
In his quest to find out more about the process of association between a stimuli and the response to this stimuli (i.e. classical conditioning), Seligman noticed that if a dog repeatedly had been taught to believe it couldn’t escape from electric shocks, it wouldn’t even try to escape, despite being given a chance to.
Seligman's research progressed to investigating this theory in people. In doing so, Seligman and colleagues were able to observe that the way people view negative events can have an impact on whether people feel helpless or not.
Learned helplessness stems from attributions people make for the outcome of a situation. Being unable to prevent an aversive outcome leads to a sense of powerlessness which can lead to all-or-nothing thinking. An individual can then apply this way of thinking globally or internally (i.e. engaging in different explanatory styles). Both of which lead to deficits in motivation, thinking and emotions.
3 Common Examples
1. Continuously failing on tests and assignments for courses at university may cause a person to feel that no amount of studying or tutoring will have any effect on their performance. Anytime there is an assignment, experiences of helplessness start.
2. Being unable to lose weight after several attempts at dieting may cause a person to think they will never be successful and give up.
3. Someone who is shy in social situations may feel helpless and unable to overcome their nervousness. This lack of feeling in control could deter this person from engaging in social situations. Thus, a never ending cycle begins.
6 Symptoms of Learned Helplessness
1. Low self-esteem,
2. Negative feelings and emotions:3. Lack of effort,
4. Giving up,
5. Loss of motivation,
6. Inability to make decisions.
How To Overcome It
Learned helplessness can lead to several negative emotions and feelings. In addition, we can start to develop a more avoidant-style towards aversive events. These negative outcomes, at the extreme, can turn into increased feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. For some, it is related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Over time, learned helplessness can become a vicious cycle, feeding into itself. Fortunately, it is not an innate trait. We are not born to believe we are helpless, therefore, there are ways to overcome learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is more difficult when a person has not learned or developed adaptive responses to stressful situations. Therefore, it is important to develop an approach behavioural style. In developing this approach behaviour, you can gain self-empowerment. The goal in empowering yourself is to gain back control; what is lost when you develop learned helplessness.
5 Tips To Overcome Learned Helplessness
Address the issue early on. It is easier to decrease learned helplessness when it is in its early stages because it has not yet taken full control over us. However, long-term helplessness can also be reduced.
Find a therapy intervention that is effective in reducing symptoms of learned helplessness. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can be effective. CBT is beneficial in addressing patterns of thinking and behaviour that are common in learned helplessness. This form of therapy would identify negative thoughts patterns and replace/reframe them with optimistic, more rational thoughts.
Mindfulness and meditation may also have benefits.
Adopt an optimistic explanatory style (i.e. learned optimism). Remind yourself that it is not personal, not permanent and not pervasive.
Change any negative explanations of failure to external processes (rather than due to an inadequacy of the self) and specific problems (rather than a global view). In addition, change any explanations of success to internal processes (your strengths and efforts) and a global (a self competence to all areas) explanation.
Work on your self-esteem and self-compassion. Having negative thoughts, self-doubt and uncertainty are common learned reactions to learned helplessness. Self-esteem exercises can help counterbalance this.
Practice resilience. Resilience exercises help to engage you in effectively dealing with a difficult situation. These exercises can offer you the tools you need to improve your adaptability and coping response.
When we experience something negative, we assume that we can control everything about it and change it. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In cases where people feel they have no control, they tend to throw in the towel and accept their fate. This feeling of not having control and not being able to protect yourself is one of the worst things that can happen to us, as it handicaps one of our most basic needs of safety.
The key to developing a sense of resilience against learned helplessness is developing the right coping resources to use in these moments of difficulty. It is possible to overcome these feelings of helplessness. Gain back control!
“You’re strong. Your chains are weak. And you can set yourself free anytime you want.”
Written by Vainui Nicole, Intern Psychologist at AntiLoneliness.
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