What Is Learned Helplessness And How To Effectively Overcome It


If you repeatedly find yourself in similar stressful situations, to the point that you feel nothing you can do will help make it better, you may be experiencing learned helplessness. 

But what is learned helplessness in the first place, and how do people get it? Is there a way to unlearn helplessness? Will you be able to conquer learned helplessness on your own, or will you need individual therapy? Read on to find the answers to these questions in the article below.

How to Conquer Learned Helplessness

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon in which repeated exposure to failure can make a person feel a sense of powerlessness or an inability to succeed. People with learned helplessness may believe that they will not be able to fix or control their situation, so at some point they stop trying, even when opportunities for change become apparent.

Prof. Martin Seligman, one of the psychologists credited with discovering learned helplessness names three features that characterize learned helplessness:

  • Passivity when exposed to trauma
  • Difficulty learning that adaptive responses can change or reduce trauma
  • An increase in stress levels

Learned helplessness can manifest as:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of effort towards challenging tasks
  • Passivity towards trauma
  • Poor motivation
  • A tendency to give up
  • Difficulty asking for help

What Causes Learned Helplessness?

According to an article from the MedicalNewsToday, learned helplessness happens when a person is not exercising or learning how to use adaptive responses to repeated stressful or difficult situations. They usually just accept that bad things happen and that the situation is already out of their control. 

This persistent experience of failure and the subsequent feeling of powerlessness is thought to be one of the underlying causes behind depression, anxiety, phobias, loneliness, and shyness.

The following are examples of learned helplessness:

  • Partners who stay in abusive relationships because they believe they cannot do anything to escape or change their situation
  • Children who experience prolonged abuse or neglect may be conditioned to think that they “cannot do anything right”; this mindset may persist and cause difficulties well into adulthood
  • Students who repeatedly fail tests may feel that no amount of studying can help them perform better on exams
  • People with persistent substance abuse problems may stop trying to kick the addiction after relapsing a number of times; they may feel that they are unable to change or help themselves

Why Does Learned Helplessness Affect Some People But Not Others?

Learned helplessness can be influenced by a person’s upbringing or past experiences. More often, persons who undergo repeated traumatic events such as childhood abuse or domestic violence are more prone to developing learned helplessness.

However, this is not absolute. Not everyone who experiences abuse or violence goes on to have learned helplessness.

A person’s explanatory styles also affect learned helplessness. When a person has a pessimistic explanatory style, it causes them to view negative events as inevitable and as a result of their own shortcomings or failures.

They ascribe the blame for events to themselves, whether it is in their control or not, and begin to think that bad things happen because they are not smart, strong, hardworking, etc. enough.

How To Effectively Overcome Learned Helplessness

The good news is that learned helplessness is not an incurable illness. There are many different ways that can help you effectively overcome this thought pattern. Here are a few.

Practicing Learned Optimism

There are usually two explanatory styles, the pessimistic and optimistic. An explanatory style is how one explains the things, events or situations that occur to them to themselves.

People with learned helplessness tend to have a pessimistic explanatory style, meaning that they tend to view the things that are happening to them in a more negative light.

On the other hand, a person who has an optimistic explanatory style would frame their thoughts in a more positive way. For instance, instead of saying “I will never kick my drug habit”, they would say “I am going to learn better coping skills for my grief or anger.” 

Practicing learned optimism means consciously training yourself to look for places where you can make a positive change next time. By explaining events to yourself in a proactive, constructive manner, you can slowly untangle yourself from a cycle of helplessness.

Taking Back Control

Part of learned helplessness is feeling like you have no control over your circumstances. This constant feeling of powerlessness

To combat this, it is recommended that you find small activities in which you can make a change. For example, if you find that affecting change among management in your workplace feels like a futile exercise, you can take on initiatives among small circles of your workmates instead. 

Being able to achieve tiny changes directly negates the thought that you are unable to influence your world. This can help boost your self-esteem, as well as teach you new problem-solving skills that may help tip the scales in the aspect of your life where you are experiencing learned helplessness.

Undergoing Individual Therapy

If trying to overcome learned helplessness is difficult to do alone, then it’s best to seek help from the professionals. As mentioned previously, learned helplessness can become the root of many other mental disorders, and battling learned helplessness may mean struggling with depression or anxiety that have sprung up from it as well.

A therapist can help you identify the emotional root of your learned helplessness, going straight to the heart of the problem. Working with a therapist will not only provide you with treatment plans to help overcome your learned helplessness, but they can also support you in managing the issues that stem from it.

For instance, if you find that you are experiencing learned helplessness due to a substance abuse problem, your therapist can recommend substance abuse counseling as well. Therapy can resolve the emotions that led to your substance abuse, while counseling can help you take concrete steps to wean yourself off drugs or alcohol.

The small victories that ensue from this can help you directly overcome learned helplessness.

Help Yourself

Learned helplessness, from its name, is learned. It is not innate or permanent. Thus, with effort over time, it can be unlearned.

If you live in Redondo Beach, you can visit South Bay LA Therapy to take the first step towards conquering learned helplessness. The clinic offers mental health services such as substance abuse counseling, trauma therapy and more. If you are ready to seek help, call us today.