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Learned Helplessness: You’re Not Trapped

Boy hanging upside down

Do you find yourself stuck in bad situations, feeling as if there’s no way out? Do you tend to give up before trying in order to avoid the pain of self-perceived, inevitable failure? Do you blow off your successes, assuming it was an accident things went so well? If so you might have a well-known psychological condition known as learned helplessness, which causes emotional or physical pain every day for millions. The good news is that you are not stuck. Help is available.

Learned helplessness often begins in childhood for those who’ve experience neglect or abuse, or who’ve witnessed a parent show signs of this condition. Perhaps as an infant, their cries for their mother were met with silence. Eventually they learned that there was no reason to cry, since their mother would not come to their aid.

Maybe this child sought help from a parent to keep them away from an abuser, but the mother did nothing to help. In families with learned helplessness it’s not unusual for these mothers to respond either with silence, or to say there are no other options available and they just have to live with it. The mother allows the abuse to continue because she feels there’s no place to go, no money to support her children and herself. She settles. The child learns to do the same.

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When a child works hard in school, bringing home good grades, yet continues to receive nothing in the way of praise from their parents, they give up in their efforts—realizing that it is a futile effort if they expect to gain love, praise, and attention from their parents. If a good teacher is involved, sometimes this can keep the child motivated to accomplish their best.

When children perform to receive love and other signs of positive feedback from their parents and their needs are unmet, they often give up due to learned helplessness. Abusive parents punish their children for not doing well enough or for not doing enough. It’s not about the child. It’s about the parents’ own unresolved issues. Sometimes the parent messes up, but blames it on the child. Either way, this teaches the child that no matter how hard they try, they can never do well enough. They give up, again due to this sense of learned helplessness about their situation in life.

People who struggle with learned helplessness blame themselves for everything. They struggle, as a result, with low self esteem and depression. When a parent tells their child (literally or through unspoken words) that their life is as good as it will get—that they cannot and should not expect their life to improve—the pattern then carries to another generation. This is why we sometimes see families who become more and more unhealthy, generation after generation. They give up, assuming any efforts put forth on their part will be futile.

As this child becomes an adult, they continue using this psychological approach in their adult efforts, with fear as the driving force behind these attempted efforts. These adults may fear that success is impossible, so they give up before they get started or they stop before they succeed. They may be fearful that others will judge them—or worse, they may judge themselves harshly for not being good enough. This condition is called perfectionism. Adults in this situation either give up on attempting important milestones in their adult lives, or they give up before they can complete these milestones. These include dating, receiving higher education, choosing a mate, choosing a career, being a parent, etc.

In most cases, feeling they will never achieve better, no matter how much they try or how hard they work, these individuals end up settling. They feel they have no control over their situations and surroundings in life. Research has shown that learned helplessness inhibits ones emotional growth and development and can leave a person struggling with depression, anxiety, and guilt. These individuals feel that they should achieve more and feel stupid, lazy, worthless, and non-deserving of accomplishing more. In addition, any failed attempts serve as reminders to the person that they are stupid, lazy, worthless, and non-deserving of accomplishing more in life. A self-fulfilling prophecy unfurls, leading many to finally give up altogether since the pain of not succeeding—in these individuals’ eyes—is too painful to face.

If you feel like a failure much of the time, experiencing depression, anxiety, and guilt because you feel that you avoid risks and personal growth, consider speaking with a licensed therapist. Sometimes the hardest part is realizing this is an issue for you. You can overcome this way of experiencing life; the past does not have to dictate your present or future.

Children have no power or control in their lives, but adults do, even when they don’t yet realize it. With the help of a knowledgeable and compassionate therapist, you can explore where these feelings of learned helplessness originated from, overcome this unhealthy way of thinking—replacing the old beliefs with new and healthy beliefs—and learn to have compassion for yourself.

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Comments
  • Francis W. January 19th, 2010 at 3:04 PM #1

    What an inspiring read! Thank you for sharing that, Joyce.

  • jordon January 19th, 2010 at 4:01 PM #2

    Such individuals need to be told and shown that they are capable of getting a good result and can believe in their own abilities to achieve things. Its not that they will always meet with failure, and that whenever there is a failure, they should try ahrder again an not just give up.

  • luke J. January 20th, 2010 at 3:48 AM #3

    Positive thinking can make a person capable of doing something even if he was initially incapable of doing it. Similarly, if a person is pessimistic, he will not be able to do things even if he has the potential to do it… this just goes out to show how important the mind is…

  • Brandii January 20th, 2010 at 8:36 AM #4

    If you are guilty of learned helplessness, do you tend to choose a partner that is too?

  • Joyce A. Thompson, MS, LMFT January 20th, 2010 at 9:11 AM #5

    Thanks to each of you who have taken the time to comment on my article. I’m happy to hear that the article has provided inspiration to you Francis! That was my intention. I had a very difficult childhood myself and for years I suffered with learned helplessness…But once I found the ‘right’ therapist who ‘got it’, I was able to resolve those old issues and go on to accomplish much! I have wanted to be a therapist since childhood, and I have now fulfilled my dream so that I can go on to help others who feel there is no hope for them. I cring at the thought of saying someone is “guilty” of learned helplessness, since they didn’t ask to be so short-changed in their life as a child (or in an abusive adult relationship) and since it’s a condition which causes so much emotional suffering. But Brandii, I do understand what you are asking. It is true that people tend to choose a partner near their own level of emotional functioning. Threfore, those who suffer from low self esteem, a lack of confidence, and learned helplessness do tend to pair up with someone who struggles with the same issues.

  • Georgia January 20th, 2010 at 12:04 PM #6

    This is so sad to me that there are kids who have to learn from a very early age that they either have to fend for themselves or els eno one else is going to do it for them. No wonder there are so many screwed up people in this world! I would bend over backwards to help my own children and often wonder why there are other parents out there who do not feel the same. It makes me feel even sadder to know that they have to carry this sort of experience around with them for the rest of their lives because so often the things we learn and become in our childhood dictates and controls so much of our adult lives. I hope that reading this will encourage those who feel that this was the way that they were raised to seek help from a professional, someone who can help them unravel this kind of mess and make them feel happy like they too deserve to be.

  • Rosalee January 21st, 2010 at 4:48 PM #7

    I know a middle aged woman that blames her deceased parents for the state of her adult life today. I wouldn’t mind if she didn’t refuse to do anything to change her thinking on or release that pain. There’s always an excuse to not do anything I or her family feel could help her. This will sound selfish but it gets tiring listening to the “poor me” stuff. She doesn’t see her own refusal to change her life is the problem and not the suggestions.

  • Belle January 21st, 2010 at 6:13 PM #8

    Why tell yourself you’re not good enough when you can tell yourself you are? :)

  • Brandii January 22nd, 2010 at 5:36 PM #9

    Hi Joyce, thanks very much for replying to my question. I’m so sorry I asked it in such a tactless fashion. Guilty wasn’t the best word I could have used. I’m relieved that you knew what I meant despite that. Thank you again.

  • themuse January 23rd, 2010 at 8:44 PM #10

    I believe anything you can learn you can unlearn. Having your heart in experiencing true change is what makes the difference. Some get so comfortable in their misery they don’t want to relinquish it so choose the known over the unknown.

  • Ken February 2nd, 2010 at 4:46 PM #11

    I know that nobody wants to hear this but not everybody can be successful. We need people at McDonalds and waitress’s at bars. We need underachievers as much as we need overachievers…I think that a shift in social attitude of not looking down on those jobs and people would be much better benefit to society as a whole.

  • Helena September 7th, 2010 at 5:33 PM #12

    I disagree with you Ken. Firstly, you should think of the structure of society as malleable rather than as being in a fixed state, and secondly, my best friend is a part time waitress and is using the income to fund her education to become a psychologist. Not everybody in a low paid job is a chronic under achiever. And nobody is looking down at anyone here, as the point of the article was to educate and support those who experience learned helplessness.

  • Joyce Thompson, MS, LCMFT May 18th, 2011 at 12:43 PM #13

    I received an email from a reader, expressing her anger with me for writing this article. She felt I had written the article from a “naive speculation of the subject”. Actually, I wrote the article based upon my own personal history as a trauma survivor, upon the history of many of my peers (both past and present), from many peers in the past who have been with me in support groups for childhood abuse issues, and from my own client base (since I do extensive work with trauma survivors). The person who contacted me was a psychology student who felt that I had attempted to make the subject of ‘learned helplessness’ worse than what it really is. From my personal experiences with this topic, I feel that the subject can truly be crippling for many. My intent was to offer hope to the readers. I believe that most anyone can heal from this learned behavior and can overcome much. I am wise enough to know that learned helplessness can come from a variety of experiences. But in my own experiences, I oftentimes see it coming from childhood issues. I just wanted to clarify this matter and I invite readers to send me an email if they have further questions or concerns.

  • Ash May 19th, 2011 at 1:09 AM #14

    Angry writer here,
    my email to you was in concern, due to the fact of if everyone was treated with therapy upon speculation alone, whether it be naive speculation, or speculation from someone who has been through this themselves, imposing your own thoughts on a topic without sound experimental evidence can be risky. If all therapists did this there would be a world within which it’s impossible to get the same level of treatment anywhere, as everyone won’t be on the same page.
    After all Seligman Freud would have put any psychological problem of learned helplessness in a woman down to penis envy. Did he have proof? No and his thoughts were also down to speculation and his experiences of his patients.

    The view of you’re parents are the main cause for learned helplessness, seems to be an extremely narrow view on the subject, with it often coming from schooling, work, families or anything! The article just seemed to be from the point of view that the soul point of view that it is the parents fault, although i’m glad its recognized this isn’t the case.

  • Lola December 4th, 2011 at 1:24 AM #15

    Thank you so much for this article. It really inspired some hope in me, and I related to some of your examples. Thanks again.

  • Lynne January 2nd, 2012 at 3:49 PM #16

    Do you have any advice for a parent with an only (adult) son who fits the profile of learned helplessness? He still lives with his dad and seems to be carrying on a learned-helplessness tradition, according to what I’ve just read. He has two degrees, has never had a job, and has said he can’t seem to do what he needs to do to move on with his life. I had never heard of learned helpless until seeing a reference in the newspaper this morning – fascinating! Thanks.

  • Karin March 13th, 2012 at 7:48 AM #17

    This comment is mainly for “Ash” – If you are going to attempt to leave a somewhat intelligent response, by name dropping pioneers in the field, can you please at least show enough respect to get their names correct? Sigmund Freud would appreciate it!

    That being said, I would like to know how to support a person with Learned Helplessness. I have a close friend, as well as a student, who suffer from this. It is an interesting parallel as I am afforded the opportunity to see this from both ends of the spectrum. However, the student has now taken on such severe LH that his behavior comes across as lazy and unmotivated. He does not see the value in learning anything and at the ripe old age of 9, believes he knows everything he needs to know in order to be able to take care of himself as an adult.

    The adult, on the other hand, has a lead a very successful professional career, but suffers from such low self esteem from always being told (since childhood) that everything he does is always wrong, he is very difficult to console at times and does not believe that someone could possibly have positive, loving feelings for him. His experiences have taught him that he deserves to be ill treated, because that is how he has been treated consistently in the past. He does not feel he is good enough to be treated any other way. He is in counseling,and encouraging that may be the best I can do for him. But I thought I would ask anyway.

    So – what suggestions can you give to get my student and hopefully my friend on a path of recovery? I do not want my student to get lost in the system. Yet I am unsure of what strategies I can use in the classroom to even motivate him enough to take the first step. Are there any journal articles you have come across that you would recommend I could read? This is not uncommon territory for me, as I have started my PhD.
    Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

  • Amy January 7th, 2013 at 12:01 PM #18

    This article describes me to a T. I first heard the term while watching a an excellent lecture on youtube about depression (youtube.com/watch?v=NOAgplgTxfc). I can say that yes, it is truly debilitating. I am dumbfounded by the contradiction of knowing I am smart yet accomplishing so little. Knowing that there is a name for my struggle is such a relief. Are there any books on the subject you can recommend? Thank you again.

  • sheila February 9th, 2013 at 11:43 AM #19

    Thanks, this information is very helpful to me!

    Sheila

  • Yvonne April 29th, 2013 at 4:55 PM #20

    Thank you for this article. I will try to remember to talk to my therapist about this, as you suggested. It is extremely crippling. I can empathize with what Amy said (Jan. 7).

  • Bora May 20th, 2013 at 2:28 AM #21

    @Karin,

    Ash probably did not attempt to write the first and last name of Freud. Seligman is the first person who coined the term “learnt hopelessness”. Ash is maybe a victim of a poorly formed sentence :) Check this out: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Seligman

    I agree with Ash that it’s dangerous to suggest counselling for anyone who feels underachieving in life. Counselling should not be equalized so easily with, for example, taking pain killers. Not that the author attempts to do that necessarily but Ash is probably trying to warn people that seeking for counselling blindly (and passively) will not solve the issue and it might be even more depressing to see that even counselling doesnt work. So one must be careful when considering it.

    I also thank the author for igniting the discussion around it. Obviously, there are many people who suffers from this problem given the cruel meritology in which the society established its norms to describe the “successful” and “loser”.

  • Sarah November 19th, 2013 at 2:13 AM #22

    I recently had an epiphany that I have suffered from learned helplessness, much of my life. A rotten childhood, verbal, physical and sexual abuse all do a number on a kid, and that is carried into adulthood. Learned helplessness IS WITHOUT A DOUBT, CRIPPLING. Years of therapy helped, but I’ve suffered a major “relapse,” due to being ostracized and scapegoated, by my sick siblings, after my mom died. I am the one who refused to keep secrets, any longer and I stood up to my narcissistic/psychopathic elder brother and the evil/psychopathic elder sister, who also breached her fiduciary duties to me in distributing my mom’s estate. Taking her to probate court, will help me to overcome this renewed struggle with learned helplessness. I am very smart, have been exceptionally pretty, and should have had all the confidence in the world. I spent so many years just working through the garbage that was heaped upon me by sick people. Knowing why I have felt so helpless, for so many years is very healing. I’m NOT helpless! I am strong and powerful, I SURVIVED! I will continue to be a survivor, and to win back my SELF, my self respect, my self esteem and reach and be who I really am supposed to be, now that I am free, FREE of those abusive, mean, ruthless, people who made my early years a living hell, and tainted so much of my experience of the world. I will help myself, as I am worthy and capable! Thank you for your article.

  • DG November 29th, 2013 at 6:12 PM #23

    If the state of being powerless is such an illusion, and there’s an escape in therapy … why can’t I afford therapy? Is my lack of funds a product of my own imagination, too?

    I find this view surprisingly convenient to the profession that espouses it. It’s also rather selective about the experimental data … other experiments with canines show that they have a social structure which is hierarchical and at the bottom of the hierarchy is the omega. The omega is excluded from resources and socialization, and becomes a sort of scapegoat for the rest of the pack. Every pack will generate its omega, regardless of the nature of the members; the pack needs an omega and it will have one. This, too, explains a lot about how people become powerless, but it forms no part of therapy … because the rest of the “pack” in human society has no incentive to change and consequently won’t spend any money on therapists to do so. But the “omegas” do have an incentive to alter the situation, and are willing to spend to change it.

    How convenient that it’s all actually their own fault that they continue to be in that position. If it weren’t, there would be a terrible loss in sales for the profession.

    I noticed too that the conclusions derived from the Seligman and Meier experiment extend way, way beyond anything that was empirically verified by the experiment. The dogs may have failed to try to escape the electric shock, but there’s no evidence that there was any transfer of behavioural response to unrelated stimuli, such as cold water. There’s absolutely nothing in the empirical evidence from that experiment to suggest that the dogs adopted some sort of globalized helplessness, only that they could be conditioned to a particular stimulus. Pavlov already demonstrates this and Seligman-Meier tells us little we don’t already know.

    Just in case this lump of coal is seen for what it is, the author includes a caveat emptor to relieve the profession of any responsibility to produce results: you might have to see a bunch of different therapists before you find the “right one”. This is like me selling you computer after computer which doesn’t work, promising that eventually, one will. You show me your working computer and say, “see? mine works.” Forgive me for not being inspired with much confidence in your product here.

    But by far the most interesting part about all this, is that the theory directly contradicts itself. It places all the responsibility for change on the victims. Presumably because … we are helpless to change society! We just have to accept the way things are, stop trying to resist, and give alms to the high priests of therapy for our salvation. What a farce.

    Medicalize social problems, trivialize the victim’s experience, for fun and profit. All based on a cruel and pointless animal experiment. No wonder the Scientologists hate therapists so much … they’re competing in the same scam and the Scientologists haven’t been nearly as succesful at it.

    Well, I’m reminded of an old ditty titled “The Preacher and the Slave” and part of it goes like this:

    Long-haired preachers come out every night
    Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
    But when you ask how about something to eat
    They will tell you in voices so sweet

    You will eat bye and bye
    In that glorious land above the sky
    Work and pray, live on hay
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die

    Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out
    And they roll and they jump and they shout
    Give your money to Jesus they say
    And you will eat on that glorious day

  • Karen September 20th, 2014 at 6:12 AM #24

    I am 54 years old and just had that epiphany this morning. Early in life I sought counseling on several occasions and I’m baffled that the topic of learned helplessness was never mentioned. I grew up in a very emotionally and physically abusive home. My mom was the abuser. My two sisters and father all suffered her wrath daily as well. I seem to have found ways to deal with depression but now my battle is to quit smoking. I have health issues directly related but am hard core and have felt helpless to stop. Maybe I’m not so helpless in that area either.

  • Krish October 5th, 2014 at 8:00 AM #25

    Wow! Thank you. That’s so clarifying. It’s a phenomenon that can as easily be called taught helplessness. Some scientists hurt some dogs and as a result the dogs felt unworthy of change. It’s so obvious. That’s me! Blessings!

  • Anon December 13th, 2014 at 1:17 AM #26

    I’m in mourning over the years of my life I spent trapped and believing there was no way out. Friends tell me that I should just remind myself that I deserve more, but I don’t feel undeserving. I’m very proud of who I am and I feel like I deserve a lot. That was never the problem. The problem was every time I wanted more I felt like I was being ridiculous or unreasonable – life isn’t supposed to be fun, personal fulfilment is for rich people etc. All the stuff I was told as a child. I’ve been in abusive relationships, I spent four years with someone I didn’t find physically attractive who didn’t treat me well, I’ve been with gay men, despite being a high achiever in education/career, I don’t go for opportunities. The reason isn’t that I feel I’m not good enough – I feel very strongly that I am – it’s that I believe nothing good will happen or when good things happen I still won’t be happy so what’s the point? Trying to get out of this mindset by pushing myself into things more – I don’t want any more regrets – but I feel like I’m going to need the world to give me some proof before I’ll really start to believe that I’m not just a hamster in a wheel.

  • Anon December 13th, 2014 at 1:32 AM #27

    @DG Have you tried looking for charities that deliver therapy? Have you absolutely, definitely, checked all resources and all opportunities to have therapy? Before you say yes, just think about it for a second. I will be very surprised if there are no charities that deliver therapy. I’m in the UK where technically I could get free therapy, but the NHS waiting list is too long for my needs so I phoned charities and asked their advice and was signposted to people who could help. Now I have two therapists. For free.

    Also, the evidence on dogs (in this case wolves). Wolves have omegas only in certain situations. They react differently in captivity than they do in the wild. Wolf packs aren’t that way because ‘that’s what society is’, they are that way depending on the environment they are in – they are adaptive. Society is also adaptive, which is why we no longer need a social hierarchy and there is much greater social mobility (for those who try all options).

    The evidence from this experiment may or may not be confined to electric shocks. But if it is, that doesn’t disprove anything. Everybody in the world will have some degree of learned helplessness. They will believe there is something they can’t have or can’t do. For some it might be confined to one particular issue (I’m not good at science so I’m just not going to try, I’ll never be able to understand it etc.) – these people had the experience (probably at school) that they didn’t understand science despite trying multiple times. Other people have a more generalised learned helplessness – these people are likely to be from homes where core needs were not met (love was not received, support was not given, they were not attended to, some may even have been abused). As a child, you are pretty much powerless so you accept life ‘as it is’, believing there are no other options. When you get older you carry those beliefs with you. These people will have a more generalised learned helplessness and be more negative all round. Without social support/love we are all unhappy because these are core needs. The person who does not believe they will be supported is constantly unhappy because they are lacking a core need. This person has generalised learned helplessness and will believe that nothing will make them feel better and will find reasons outside of themselves to explain this away.

    As for the victim being the one responsible for change. I can honestly say, I’ve never seen myself as a victim. I see myself as a survivor. I don’t care if the world changes to suit me, I’m going to take control of what I have control over. I choose who I want to be around (if I don’t get social support, I walk away), I choose my career (I hadn’t gone for every opportunity), I choose how I want to look at life (your thoughts are your reality), and I choose not to be the person I was brought up to be. I choose to be my own person and to challenge all the beliefs I was raised with and test whether they are really true.

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