What is learned helplessness?
Perhaps you’ve had a goal for years now to stop smoking. It’s something that you’re very conscious of and how the risks of smoking threaten your health.
But, no matter which program you try, nothing seems to work.
Even if you get down to one cigarette a day, you still are smoking. So, what happens? You give up and throw your hands up in the air in frustration. You start to believe that it’s futile to try to change.
And, you keep smoking.
This pattern is called learned helplessness and smoking is just one of many learned helpless examples. Yet, you can break the cycle. The first step is understanding what is learned helplessness. That’s important because learned helplessness can play an important role in:
- Chronic Depression
- Complex PTSD
- Low Frustration Tolerance
- Loneliness and Social Isolation
What Is Learned Helplessness?
Learned helplessness was first developed by Martin Seligman and Steven Maier in 1967. These psychologists were studying behaviors observed in dogs. The dogs learned that they could not avoid electric shocks, so they gave up trying. This, even when later on they were provided an option to avoid the shocks.
Learned helplessness is seen in humans when they feel like they can’t control the outcome of the situation, even after repeatedly trying. They become frustrated, angry, and give up on the objective. That’s because they believe this is the only realistic option left to them.
Learned Helpless Examples
Trying to quit smoking and failing is a common example of learned helplessness. But there are many more. For instance:
- Losing weight.
- Retaking a class several times because you failed the first time.
- Trying to meet someone and spark a romantic relationship.
- Attempting to break free of addiction from alcohol or drugs.
- Applying for a job with many companies but never getting an interview.
These examples highlight a key point about what is learned helplessness. When you try to do something and it doesn’t work, you feel like a failure.
The Power of Failure
Failure is a powerful experience. To fail means that you didn’t achieve your goal or objective. Everyone has failed at something at some point. It’s a very common experience. In fact, failure can actually be very important for ultimately reaching your goal. A classic example is Thomas Edison and his attempts to invent the electric light bulb. He famously said,
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
In a way, Edison reframed failure a the journey toward success. He successfully discovered 10,000 ways in which a light bulb wouldn’t function. These failures eventually led him towards a functional light bulb. In this sense, failure was a powerful tool for success. But what happens when someone fails, and they see themselves as a perpetual failure?
The Shame of Failure
For people who struggle with learned helplessness, failure is not a setback. It becomes the definition of who they are as a person.
To fail is one thing, yet to be a failure is another. That label implies that they are somehow unworthy, undeserving, or less than. Why? The answer may lie in their past, especially if they experienced trauma when they were young. Traumatic experiences, such as those that come from abuse, leave an indelible mark on a child. Oftentimes, children are told they are worthless and unloved. And despite making efforts to have safe loving relationships with their parents, they may not be able to.
A child who is being abused or neglected then often starts to feel trapped and powerless. Eventually, they may give up in defeat, and have a deeply held sense that they can’t ever get their needs met.
These messages stay with these children into adulthood and complicate matters when they try to set and achieve goals for themselves.
Connecting the Dots
Without context, it can be very confusing when you see someone struggling with learned helplessness. Why don’t they try more?
The reason is that they have learned, through hard experience, that they don’t have any power or control to change the situation. Any effort they do make is met with failure. So why bother to keep trying?
Clearly, there is a way to overcome this problem. The way forward is through counseling. A compassionate and qualified therapist will help to connect the dots from previous experiences to “the why” behind your learned helplessness.
What is learned helplessness? It’s believing that you don’t have the power or ability to change anything in your favor. If you are struggling with this, you may have several learned helplessness examples from your own life. However, you don’t have to keep struggling with learned helplessness. Find out today how counseling, including trauma therapy, will help.