Learned helplessness is when we experience a sense of powerlessness arising from persistent failure to succeed or a chronic set of circumstances where we have been continually put down by someone in a position of authority, e.g. a parent or teacher.  It is the give-up response that follows the belief that whatever we do doesn’t matter. Learned helplessness was initially used to label the failure of dogs to avoid electric shock despite being allowed to escape, and it has now been applied to the inability of humans to utilize empowered responses. It is observed in those who seem to have given up hope that effective control over events is possible.

If we suffer from learned helplessness, we accept that bad things take place over which we have little control.  Experiences gained in these situations weaken potential learning and lead to passivity. Learned helplessness occurs when we continuously face a hostile, apparently uncontrollable situation and stop trying to change our circumstances, even when we could; for example, someone who had difficult schooling has little or no confidence to go on a training course as an adult.

The difference between those who show resilience and those who are susceptible to learned helplessness (and therefore experience low resilience) is how we explain what happens to us, which is known as a person’s ‘explanatory style’.  A pessimistic explanatory style is associated with the likelihood of experiencing learned helplessness, where we tend to view adverse events as inescapable and take personal responsibility for the negative events.  Martin Seligman, a psychologist, suggests that explanatory style can be broken down into three categories:

  • Personalisation (internal vs external). Those who feel personally helpless will look for internal reasons, which tends to occur when someone has low self-efficacy.
  • Pervasiveness (specific vs universal)
  • Permanence (temporary vs permanent).

 

Let’s say that you’ve been made redundant:

Your thoughts – Explanatory style

  • I’m such an incompetent administrator – Internal
  • I’ll never be able to find a good job now – Permanent
  • I won’t be able to contribute income to the family – Universal

Or, you might think:

  • My company downsized due to COVID-19 – External
  • The fluctuating economy means there aren’t as many jobs; however, things will get better – Temporary
  • At least I have my family, and we can pull together – Specific

 

Learned Helplessness and Resilience

Learned helplessness can undermine resilience by instilling a belief that challenges are insurmountable, eroding our ability to bounce back from adversity. Those with learned helplessness may adopt a passive stance when confronted with setbacks, avoiding efforts to overcome difficulties due to a perceived lack of control.

Resilience involves navigating through adversity, learning from setbacks, and emerging stronger. When we have high resilience, we enjoy a growth mindset, experience challenges as opportunities, and are more likely to seek solutions actively. Interventions that challenge negative thought patterns promote self-efficacy and encourage proactive problem-solving can help us break free from the cycle of helplessness, fostering a more resilient mindset. By breaking the grip of learned helplessness, we can cultivate the mental fortitude needed to confront challenges, bounce back from setbacks, and ultimately enhance our resilience in life’s adversities.

What Influences Our Sense of Learned Helplessness?

A complex interplay of psychological, cognitive, and environmental factors influences learned helplessness. For example:

  • Past experiences of uncontrollable and aversive events contribute significantly when we repeatedly face situations where our actions fail to produce desired outcomes or alleviate distress; then, we may develop a generalized belief that we lack control over our environment, fostering learned helplessness.
  • Cognitive factors play a crucial role, with negative attributions and distorted thinking patterns reinforcing helplessness, when we continually internalize failures as personal shortcomings and adopt a pessimistic explanatory style, attributing adverse events to external and internal factors. This cognitive framework perpetuates the belief that our actions cannot affect outcomes, reinforcing learned helplessness.
  • Persistent exposure to stressful environments, lack of social support, or modelling learned helplessness behaviours from others can contribute to its development.
  • Cultural and societal expectations may shape our perceptions of control and influence our susceptibility to learned helplessness.
  • Personality traits and coping styles play a role in developing learned helplessness. Those with a tendency towards neuroticism or who employ passive coping mechanisms may be more prone to learned helplessness.
  • The rules and negativity emphasized in our early family systems can impact a child’s performance development. Children who have a history of neglect during their childhood and adolescence can develop learned helplessness, resulting in the individual blaming themselves for the negligence, leading to learned helplessness, emotional distress, and inactive behaviour.
  • Learned helplessness can also show itself when parents do everything for their children. Parents who over-nurture their offspring by doing things for them may take these skills away, fostering a form of learned helplessness in their children.

 

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