After having worked in a residentia..." /> After having worked in a residentia..." />

Using Self-Compassion to Defend Against Learned Helplessness

Close up of girl's face leaning her head on a wallAfter having worked in a residential treatment facility for abused and neglected girls for 8 years, I observed that the phenomenon of learned helplessness had become an all-to-common denominator for these children. It was very rare that an abused child was placed with us for a single incident of abuse. By the time these children reached our facility, many of them had already been physically or sexually abused numerous times throughout their childhood and adolescence.

Many times these children had been abused not by a single perpetrator but by several different people, including members of their families and outsiders from the community or in their schools, even after they had been removed from danger. One might assume that once children have been delivered from such abuse, they would immediately take advantage of their sanctum by staying away from dangerous situations, choosing more trustworthy friends and safer boyfriends. Yet again and again, these victims of abuse continued to find themselves with partners that would ultimately perpetrate on them or take advantage of them in some way. Once children are taught they have no control in their lives, it is extremely difficult to learn they can ever have it or that they even deserve to have any control at all.

In a demonstration to a group of high school students (, a researcher and developmental psychologist at Penn State, Charisse Nixon, Ph.D., showed how easily learned helplessness can take effect. She handed out a list of three anagrams to each student. The students were asked to use all the letters in the anagram to spell a single word using all the letters. She asked the students to raise their hands once they had completed the first word before moving on to the second. Half of the students raised their hands almost immediately and the other half continued to struggle with the puzzle, looking around self-consciously at their classmates who had so easily completed the task with such ease. The researcher asked them to go on to the second word and to again raise their hands when they had finished. The same students who were stumped the first time were still stumped on the second word, while the other half of the students sat patiently with raised hands. Nixon asked the class to go ahead and move onto the third word, and after a few moments, half the class raised their hands while the other half of the class sat rather deflated.

Nixon then explained to the class that half the class received the words BAT, LEMON, and CINERAMA. The first group easily scrambled BAT into TAB and LEMON into MELON, and finally CINERAMA into AMERICAN. The second half of the class received the words WHIRL, SLAPSTICK, and the third word was the same as in the first group: CINERAMA. The second group’s first two words were intentionally unsolvable, but why couldn’t they solve the last anagram as easily as the first group did? Because they had experienced learned helplessness. After failing the first two attempts, they assumed the third word was going to be just as difficult, so they made no effort to solve it. Students in this group reported feeling stupid and frustrated with themselves when they couldn’t do it.

If two failed attempts to solve a silly anagram can induce learned helplessness in a typical high school population, imagine the effect on an emotionally vulnerable child at the hands of a pedophile. To add insult to injury, girls face unbearable pressure to remain silent. So when they are shut down in the wake of abuse, they are less likely to learn new ways of responding, and they are less likely to stand up for themselves or to even show anger.

I spent a lot of time and energy attempting to develop self-esteem in these young women. No matter how much positive feedback, reframing, and even engineering successes occurred for these kids, the positive results did not seem to take, not in the long run. What did last was helping them to develop skills, not in the achievement-based, egocentric inflation of self-esteem, but in fostering self-compassion. Helping them learn how to nurture themselves in the face of disappointment or failure not only created new tolerance for the reality of pain, it moved them closer to emotional self-sufficiency and away from requiring external validation, which unfortunately (or fortunately) is never guaranteed.

Failure and pain are universal and implicit in the human condition. Through mindfulness and acceptance skills, we can open up to and make space for that reality without liking it or agreeing with it. And the more acceptance we cultivate toward reality, no matter how ugly, the more balanced and grounded we will be, giving us the freedom to respond by choice, rather than habits and knee-jerk reactions. We don’t always have to be perfect or even successful in order to benefit from self-compassion. Because we know that we are only human, with limitations as well as strengths, we can be kind to ourselves when we fall short, instead of being harsh and self-critical. We can love ourselves when we feel pain or loss, just like we might be inclined to when we see someone else suffering and in need.

Related articles:
Can Therapy Affect the Brain?
Growing Tenderheartedness
Self-Compassion after Trauma

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jiovann Carrasco, MA, LPC-S, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • ella

    January 27th, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    personally I would have a really hard time dealing with children who have been taught that they have no control over anything that happens to them and this helplessness is an integral part of who they have become
    it’s not that I would be made at them, but instead that I would be so sad that some adult in their lives has taught them that this is all that there is out there for them

  • Brynn

    January 28th, 2012 at 5:33 AM

    I’ll bet it’s hard to teach kids who already feel like they are not in control of the world around them to feel good about themselves and to teach them to not beat themselves up for feeling this way.

  • Shannon Oveland

    January 28th, 2012 at 8:25 AM

    Great article! I agree with helping your clients learn how to love and accept themselves. I work with children also, what kinds of exercises do you utilize in order to help them learn to accept themselves? Again, I enjoyed this article.

  • Michael

    January 29th, 2012 at 1:19 PM

    It’s easy to say that once a person trips he or she would learn.But for a child to have gone through abuse is something totally different.Yes,it can make them vulnerable even more as observed here in the article.A dark episode that has ended does not necessarily mean that it would not only calls for stricter and better protection of the child and thus it is so important to act quickly in such cases,both legally and medically.

  • Jiovann

    February 2nd, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    @Shannon, many of the strategies I use include sensory integration to help kids self-soothe and bolster their distress tolerance. Role play is another strategy that works to re-create or invent scenarios in which they can create a variety of skillful responses as they process what is happening in their bodies as they address painful content. The purpose it to gain familiarity with discomfort without reacting automatically to avoid it, but instead apply mindfulness and acceptance skills to allow it to pass. Now decision making can be facilitated with greater awareness and compassion.

  • Sandra

    May 15th, 2012 at 1:51 PM

    Speaking from experience of a physically and mentally abusive childhood learned helplessness can take on other forms. Such as defiance anger isolation brick wall, all methods used to hide the inner knowledge of total helplessness under your abusers. And no one wants to attract more abusers when they grow up so the hostility caution brick walls are to keep them away. But this doesn’t work, the hunters always know how to spot their prey, and the others who are not abusive interpret your behavior as aggressive unpleasant and avoid you. Once you see it for what it really is, as an adult work through the leftover neural scars from childhood, via self love and nurturing you can be self sufficient strong independent and loving. It takes work and help from the right people but can be done. ;D

  • Imperialism sucks

    June 21st, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    This is a bullshit story for ric Westeners. I can tell you that many countries in the Eastern Europa and in the s k 3th world are learned that they can not change their life to the better because of the Western Imperialism. So this is rather a political ressult. Not a family culture. Or acccident.

  • Jeni

    September 25th, 2012 at 5:35 AM

    Thank you Jiovann, this is a very useful article and has stimulated me to read up more on learned helplessness.

  • Grant Spencer

    September 26th, 2012 at 10:29 PM

    In response to Imperialism Sucks: This article relates to behavioural habits individually learned from an oppressor who is proximal. Political oppression is certainly alive and well and your concerns are more than valid but this is not the forum for such a discussion. Perhaps how Political Oppression operates at an individual level would be more appropriate?

  • Laura

    March 14th, 2013 at 3:31 PM

    Yes, I am one of those girls! I am 27 now…It is so hard to stand up for myself, even when I recognize the evilness of an abuser or manipulator – I was never naiive, I can always see what is happening, but i was always taught not to bring attention to their faults or call them out on their wrong doings, or else! It’s true, the abuse “vibration” is carried and an abuser has the ability to pick out an easy victim for more than one traumatic experience. This has always stuck with me. I wish there was a class I could take that would teach me how to say “NO” and to be able to shout and get mad, allow my anger to come forward to establish proper boundaries, as well as acknowledge myself, and not second guess myself, or allow another to convince me easily that they are okay to do as they please with me.

  • Jiovann Carrasco

    March 14th, 2013 at 4:29 PM

    @Laura there may be depending on where you live. But a good trauma therapist can definitely help you with these patterns of response and will most likely have better results than education alone.

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