Identifying learned helplessness in adults involves recognizing behavioural, cognitive, and emotional patterns which are indicative of a perceived lack of control over circumstances, for example:

  • Behaviorally, helplessness may include passivity and resignation towards challenges. We might avoid taking action or making decisions, even when we can influence outcomes. Other behavioural symptoms might consist of putting less effort into tasks, not asking for help, attention seeking, giving up easily, reduced persistence and approval seeking.
  • Cognitive helplessness includes a pervasive negative explanatory style and low expectations of success. If we are experiencing learned helplessness, we tend to believe our efforts are futile and incapable of effecting change. This cognitive distortion reinforces the sense of helplessness.
  • Emotionally, learned helplessness often correlates with frustration, despair, and low self-esteem. We may display a lack of motivation and reduced interest in activities we once found enjoyable. Chronic stress and a heightened vulnerability to depression are also common emotional manifestations, as is the fear of being wrong.
  • Socially, if we’re experiencing learned helplessness, we may struggle to seek or accept social support, assuming that others will be equally incapable of making a positive impact.

Recognizing these signs is crucial for intervention, as addressing learned helplessness involves reshaping cognitive patterns, fostering a sense of self-efficacy, and promoting proactive coping strategies to empower ourselves to overcome challenges.

Imagine you have an idea to streamline your work process by implementing a system where staff do quality checks on themselves. When you introduce the concept, someone might say, ‘We tried that last year, and it didn’t work.’ Another example is of a staff member failing to report bullying from a colleague, enduring the harassment in silence instead. Or a manager perpetuates a culture of overwork, believing that a work-life balance is impossible and that long hours are just part of the job. These scenarios are examples of learned helplessness, a concept first described by psychologist Dr Martin Seligman and Eurologist Dr Steven F. Maier in the 1960s.

In the workplace, learned helplessness can develop in employees being exposed to constant negative stimuli beyond their control, such as chronic toxic behaviour, high-pressure work environments and unrealistic expectations. Situations that prompt learned helplessness can cause us to feel frustrated and ineffectual. We may feel plagued by low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. Problems appear impossible, and efforts to improve a situation feel futile.

Signs of learned helplessness at work happen over time and can be challenging, including chronic negativity, hopelessness, and a sense of stuckness.  We may experience feelings of defeat or deflation. With strong negative emotions, it can be challenging for the cognitive processes of problem-solving to kick in, and levels of resilience in adversity are likely to be impaired.  If staff feel helpless, their ability to get work done effectively and efficiently and embrace engender change will be compromised.


Learned Helplessness Thoughts

Here are six typical thoughts associated with learned helplessness:

No matter what I do, I can’t change my situation. If we’re experiencing learned helplessness, we may believe that external events or circumstances dictate our lives, and our actions have little impact on outcomes. This perception of a lack of control can lead to passivity and a sense of powerlessness.

I’m just not good enough; it’s all my fault If we have learned helplessness, we may attribute our failures or setbacks to internal, stable, and global factors. We may believe our shortcomings are innate, permanent, and applicable to various aspects of our lives. This negative self-perception reinforces the feeling of helplessness.

Things will never get better; it will always be like this Learned helplessness often involves a pessimistic outlook, where we expect adverse outcomes regardless of our efforts. This expectation can lead to a reluctance to try new things or make changes as we anticipate failure or disappointment.

I only notice the bad things; nothing good ever happens to me If we are experiencing learned helplessness, we may selectively focus on negative aspects of our experiences while ignoring or downplaying positive events. This cognitive bias reinforces the perception that the world is consistently unfavourable and contributes to a cycle of helplessness.

If I fail at this, I’ll probably fail at everything Learned helplessness often involves generalising helplessness from one specific situation to others. We may conclude that because we cannot control or improve one aspect of our lives, the same will be valid for various other areas, leading to a sense of helplessness.

Why bother trying? It won’t make a difference A common manifestation of learned helplessness is a state of learned inaction, where we refrain from making efforts or taking action because we believe it won’t lead to any positive outcomes. This mindset reinforces a cycle of passivity and lack of motivation.


Perceived Payoffs for Remaining Helpless

Remaining helpless can offer certain psychological payoffs that may unintentionally reinforce the pattern of learned helplessness.

  • One significant payoff is the avoidance of responsibility and decision-making. When we perceive ourselves as helpless, we may escape the pressure of taking the initiative or making choices, as we believe our actions won’t make a difference. This can alleviate the stress associated with decision-making and the fear of failure.
  • Another payoff is the preservation of a sense of consistency and predictability. Learned helplessness provides a stable, albeit pessimistic, community or worldview where outcomes are expected to be uncontrollable and unfavourable. In this state, we may find comfort in the predictability of failure, avoiding the anxiety that uncertainty and change might bring.
  • Staying helpless can elicit sympathy and support from others. Most people offer assistance and care when they perceive someone as helpless, reinforcing a victim role and providing a sense of connection. This social reinforcement can unintentionally incentivize the continuation of learned helplessness as we subconsciously seek the emotional benefits derived from the concern and support of others.

Recognizing and understanding these payoffs is crucial in breaking the cycle of learned helplessness and encouraging ourselves to embrace personal agency, responsibility, and resilience.

In some people, a toxic environment may cause childhood issues surrounding learned helplessness to resurface. We spend a lot of time worrying about things we can’t control, sometimes as an avoidance behaviour so we can’t make a mistake or fail as we may have done when younger.

We all have an innate level of resilience, which varies from person to person, but our attitude to life plays a significant part in our resilience. This is primarily shaped by our life experiences, both good and bad. You may think those who have experienced good fortune would find it easier to take a positive ‘glass half full’ approach, while those who have suffered some hard knocks along the way would find it harder to keep picking themselves back up again. It is often only in tough times that we discover the true extent of our resilience.

Often, marginalised or persecuted groups demonstrate enormous resilience in the face of adversity – those who have lived through wars, faced abuse or been unfairly treated find the strength to keep going and fight for their cause. Their strength, dignity and belief that they can build a better future demonstrate resilience.

Open-minded people tend to be more curious about the world around them, are open to new concepts, and feel empowered to shape their future paths through their resilience.  Closed-minded people, by contrast, feel less able to steer their ship. They believe life happens to them, and they must find a way to cope with the setbacks, living life reactively rather than driving towards their goals and ambitions. This is ‘coping and surviving’ mode rather than ‘thriving’. Are you open or closed-minded?

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