Carrying our lives with limiting beliefs could very well divert us from the path that leads to our goals and keep us from achieving them. Overcoming learned helplessness as one of the most subtle and lingering limiting beliefs is essential to success. It is crucial to break out of the chain of the illusionary helplessness that is ingrained in our minds.

This sense of powerlessness is often learned – As we will see next- and to be free from this state of mind is to unlearn it through the methods that we will describe in this article.

What Is Learned Helplessness?

The inability to act in the face of difficulty is sometimes genuine, but often it is just a construct of our minds. Believing each time that taking matters into our hands is futile feeds the illusion of powerlessness.

There is, of course, real powerlessness, but we must also realize that powerlessness is often in our heads, an idea that grew out from bad experiences

The following short video, used by some coaches, is a good illustration of this and is sure to make you laugh. Despite the ridiculousness of the situation depicted, the fact remains that this video illustrates well how it happens that we are confronted with adverse events and have the certainty that we can do nothing, that the solution escapes us. Instead of taking control, it is as if we were in a hypnotic trance, and we are convinced that the answer should come from the outside. First, take a look at it. It’s an excellent introduction to this article about one of the most painful feelings there is: helplessness.

It is well known that one of the primary sources of stress in the mandated change or adversity is the feeling of not having control or influence over the situation.

Learned helplessness as a syndrome has fast gained entrance in our lives without us knowing, which called out for many scientific studies to overcoming learned helplessness.

Many people have developed mindsets of helplessness even when there is help and good opportunities to grab in order to grow and move forward. It is a behavioral pattern exhibited by people who have learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities to help oneself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or by gaining positive rewards.

How Does Learned helplessness Slip Into Your State Of Mind?

Dr. Charisse’s Class Experiment

Charisse Nixon is a psychologist who made her students experience learned helplessness in under just 10 minutes!

Charisse wanted to make her class aware of these negative thought patterns. During an experiment conducted in 2008, she invited her students to find the anagrams of the words BAT, LEMON and CINERAMA, whose solutions were, respectively, TAB, MELON and AMERICAN, in increasing order of difficulty.

Whenever they had the answer, students were invited to raise their hands.

However, three students in the class were trapped with a copy of which the first two anagrams had no solution: WHIRL, SLAPSTICK.

Not surprisingly, when these students saw the rest of the class succeed when they had failed, they missed the third anagram (CINERAMA), yet not particularly hard for their level. In other words, they had convinced themselves that they did not have the skills to succeed in the exercise.

Worryingly, about ten minutes are enough to induce learned helplessness that is basically the “cannot-do” attitude that the students experienced.

The Case of The Elephant

The elephant, being this huge animal with extraordinary strength, yet always remains attached to a small stake planted in the ground and connected to a chain wrapped around its legs.

tied elephant - overcoming self helplessness
An elephant attached to an anchored stake by a chain

I wondered, but how come such a powerful creature capable of uprooting a tree do not pull out a small stake to free itself?
I found it surprising and baffling that the elephant does not even try to do so.

The answer lies in what the elephant has learned from past experiences.

The elephant does not escape because since childhood it has been conditioned, it has been attached to a similar stake except that it was much stronger and firmly embedded in the ground.

When the elephant was young –not having yet enough power– he tried tirelessly to free himself but was unable to do so. He tried daily without respite until the day he finally accepted his helplessness in front of the chain and resigned himself to his fate.

elephant being conditioned to learned helplessness
A young elephant being conditionned to a limited range of motion.

When the elephant grows up, it is clearly strong enough to break the chain or uproot the stake, yet it won’t even try. Once it has learned that struggle is useless, it will no longer even attempt to do so.

It is the same thing that happens to many of us. We are all constrained in our thinking and abilities by our beliefs and failures in the past.

Dr. Seligman Psychological Studies

Seligman’s experiments and the theory of learned helplessness

The theory of learned helplessness was crafted in the late sixties and early seventies by psychologists Martin Seligman and his colleague Steven Maier.

Dr. Seligman is a very prestigious psychologist. He was selected as President of the American Psychological Association by the highest number of popular votes in the history of the organization. And is the 13th most frequently quoted psychologist in psychology texts.

Martin Seligman on beating learned powerlessness experiment
Dr. Martin Seligman

Although his experiments have led to the founding of Positive Psychology –a new psychology field of study– some readers may find his experiments upsetting.

Those experiments would face tremendous resistance from the general public if done today. Nonetheless, they were more prevalent in that period of time.
That said, what we’ll focus on next is the results from these experiments.

Seligman and Maier were experimenting with dog’s responses to electrical shocks (not cool, man!).

Experiment n°1

In a first experiment, three groups of dogs were attached to a harness.

In the first group, the dogs are simply attached to their harness for a short period of time and then released. Groups 2 and 3 remain attached.

Group 2 was intentionally subjected to an electric shock, which the dogs can stop by pressing a lever.

Each dog in group 3 is attached in parallel to a dog in group 2, suffering a shock of the same intensity and duration, but those in group 3 do not have the possibility to stop the shock. The only way for a group 3 dog to escape the impact is for a group 2 dog to operate its lever. Group 3 dogs cannot therefore act on their own to escape the shock.

In the end, the dogs in groups 1 and 2 recovered quickly from their experience, while the dogs in group 3 learned to be helpless and showed symptoms similar to chronic depression.

Experiment n°2

In the 2nd part of Seligman and Maier experiment, these three groups of dogs were put in a new device with a small low wall (a shuttle-box) that has to be jumped to avoid the shock.

overcoming learned helplessness experiment
Dogs were expected to jump over the small barrier to the safe chamber, but surprisingly some dogs falsely learned from previous experience that they could do nothing to stop the shocks and remained passively motionless.

For a considerable part of the course, the dogs in group 3, who had previously learned that nothing could stop the shocks, remained passively motionless and moaned (Sorry). Although they could easily have escaped the shocks, the dogs did not try.

Let’s just take a second and stop here for a moment before we continue onward. Here is a gif of cute puppies, I think we all need it after this last paragraph.

puppies!!

After being observed in other animal species, this phenomenon has begun to be studied in humans. The experimental protocol was slightly similar to that used for animals. Even though exposure to unpleasant noises or insoluble problems has replaced electrical discharges, the effects of the phenomenon remained.

After experiencing uncontrollability (i.e., the uselessness of their efforts), individuals exhibit a variety of motivational, cognitive or emotional deficits (for a review of these studies see, Mikulincer, 1994; Peterson, Maier & Seligman, 1993).

How Can This Phenomenon Be Explained?

Martin Seligman explains that we are incapable of reacting to painful situations because at a certain point along the way and after having tried to change the course of things without obtaining the expected results, we inhibit ourselves and fall into a state of passivity.

In other words, when we feel helpless and we believe there is no solution, we throw in the towel, to such an extent that we are unable to see the opportunities for change that come our way. It is as if we put the blindfold of the past on our eyes and let it determine our future.

In a certain way, the learned hopelessness is a kind of psychological adaptation mechanism as it reaches a point where our patience and perseverance abandon us and we are not able to continue processing so much pain and suffering, so that we lower the activation level to conserve the few resources that we have left.

In fact, the inability to react is always the result of a profound psychological deterioration.

In Free Your Brain, Idriss Aberkane reminds us that “our brain makes our past failures weigh on our future attempts. So, if a series of small, easy victories gives impetus to our success, a series of failures break our morale. In short, and as psychologist Idries Shah rightly puts it: “You fear tomorrow, yet yesterday is just as dangerous.”

This rule is well known in geopolitics. The German battleship Bismarck, before attacking France, began by galvanizing his armies by defeating Denmark. Ahmad Shah Massoud formed his battle groups in Afghanistan by first offering them small, accessible victories.

Hal Elrod, the author of the best-selling book The Miracle Morning, expresses the same idea. “Our subconscious mind is equipped with a mirror through which we constantly relive and recreate our past. We mistakenly believe that we are still the person we were. By referring to the limitations of our past, we prevent our current potential from being expressed. As a result, we filter each choice we make according to the limits set by our past experiences. We want to offer ourselves a better life, but sometimes we are unable to perceive it in any way other than through what it has given us so far.”

Thus, like Charisse Nixon’s students, many people, because they have failed some exam, feel that they are definitely committed to subordinate tasks and are heading for a mediocre life. They give up instead of starting anew either in the same direction or, if necessary, in a new one.

Do I Suffer From Learned Helplessness?

First step to overcome helplessness is to be aware of it
First step to overcome helplessness is to be aware of it.

How does learned helplessness manifest in our life

Learned helplessness affects our lives in four fundamental areas: motivational, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. Which gives rise to a series of characteristic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It can be identified if:

  • The person has lost the motivation to continue fighting, has thrown in the towel surrendering to the circumstances. In other words, it assumes the role and mentality of the victim, which is manifested at the behavioral level through deep apathy.

  • The person does not learn from mistakes, believes that he can do nothing to improve his situation, and assumes his destiny as immutable. Mistakes cease to be tools of growth and become demonstrations of fatality.

  • The person plunges into a deep depression, develops a pessimistic view of the world and hopelessness, assuming that he is unable to get out of that situation. It can often feel like leaves moved by the wind or puppets of fate.

  • The person does not make important decisions because he considers that he cannot change the course of his life and that he has no control. As a result, he locks himself in and suffers passively in the present circumstances.

In fact, learned helplessness has been associated with different psychological disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and phobias.

For example, a shy person in social situations may begin to feel that there is nothing they can do to improve their symptoms. This sense of lack of control can lead her to avoid social situations, which can worsen her shyness and trigger a social phobia.

Learned helplessness and the feeling of permanence

The first hallmark of learned helplessness is the feeling that the situation we are experiencing is permanent. It is expressed in our language in words like always, never, nothing,etc.

Generalizations that give us the feeling that “it will always be like this,” that “it will never be the same,” that “there is nothing I can do.”

In fact, one of the first things you can do is to question these generalizations. For example, if you think you can’t do anything about a problem, ask yourself if it’s really true. Is it accurate to say that you can’t do anything at all?.

So find exceptions to these sentences that limit us by asking perhaps what’s ridiculous about it? As the best selling author Robert Kiyosaki said: “A question opens the mind, a statement closes the mind.”

Learned helplessness and victimization

The second characteristic of the learned helplessness is the feeling of always being a victim. This can be expressed in sentences like “It’s not my fault!”, “It only happens to me!”, “I don’t have a choice!”.

We don’t live in a society that promotes accountability, but rather in a world afflicted by “It’s their fault.” “It’s not my fault, it’s my boss’ fault, it’s my spouse’s, my parents’, weather, government…”

This victim mentality is a personality trait that leads to harmful thought mechanisms and unhealthy coping strategies.

Learned helplessness and the sense of overwhelming powerlessness

The third characteristic of the feelings of helplessness is the sense of being overwhelmed by the adversity we face. We then have the certainty that all areas of our lives are affected by our inability to solve a specific problem.

For example, if I have a failure in a given area, I feel like I am a failure, or that my life is over. By repeating this kind of negative explanatory style, the belief develops and becomes for us a certainty that we no longer even question.

We all face adversities in our environment that require us to adapt, whether at work, at home, at school, or in society in general. And the meaning we attribute to them is mostly determined by the beliefs we have developed about ourselves, our ability to react and act, the people we are surrounded by, and our mindset.

Remember that it is not the events that happen to us that shape our lives and what we become, but the meaning we give them, the interpretation we make of them.

The multi-award winning video “Wind,” by director Robert Lobel, is perfect for understanding the helplessness learned at the social level with a touch of humor. It is important to be attentive to this type of learned helplessness because when many people share that feeling, it ends up becoming a nefarious destiny that nobody questions.

Questionnaire

We’ve put up a comprehensive questionnaire to assess how much learned helplessness is manifested in your life.

Click here to download the questionnaire.

How To Overcome Learned Helplessness?

helplessness is a behavior that we have learned through lived experiences. Therefore, overcoming learned helplessness is either to unlearn it, or to acquire a healthy type of behavior that is incompatible with helplessness.

How to unlearn learned helplessness
Unlearning learned helplessness is about taking back control of your life.

Here are ten powerful steps to overcoming learned helplessness:

1. Identify in what areas of your life helplessness is manifested

Introspection is the first step to overcoming learned helplessness. When identifying in which area helplessness is holding you back the most, you may face some internal resistance at first since you have been behaving this way for a long time. Do not worry about it, it’s totally normal.

To make this identification easier for you, you can ask yourself the following questions for each area of ​​your life:

  • What are my goals?
  • How do I should act to work toward my goals?
  • What is stopping me from reaching my goals?
  • Why am I not acting differently?
  • Do I have control over this situation?

These questions will help you become aware of how you behave in each situation and, most importantly, if you are satisfied with that behavior or would like to change it.

2. Seek external help

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a strength. The people who ask for help are mature enough to understand that the help of others is an important impulse to get out of a current situation.

Help from others is very useful to identify the areas of your life that are hostage to some negative thought patterns of helplessness. People are often blind to their own shortcomings, an external eye is sometimes necessary to show us what we are incapable of seeing in ourselves.

With the help of your loved ones or the right professionals, the change will be easier and less expensive.

3. Do exercises or activities that promote the feeling of control

The activities or exercises to be performed can be varied. You may choose them according to your tastes and preferences.

Start with simple activities or small easy-to-achieve daily goals in which you perceive that you have control. As an example: a fifteen minutes jog to get your heart pumping and shake off laziness, reading just the first ten pages from that book you’re still putting off, take a pen and a paper and start writing your goals and a rough plan to get there …

4. Restore your self-esteem

In general, people with learned helplessness are experiencing a feeling of low self-esteem and self-worth.

Restoring positive thoughts of self-regard should help you avoid the constant feeling of frustration and powerlessness.

As in the previous point, you should choose the self-esteem exercises with which you feel most comfortable. As an example, write a list about:

  • Things that you love about yourself.
  • skills that you possess.
  • Achievements which you are proud of (no matter how small they are).
  • Occasions where you have overcome adversity.
  • People who have helped you.
  • People who you have helped.

5. Seek empowering actions that restore positive reinforcement

People who suffer from learned helplessness usually have a lack of positive reinforcement, both from outsiders and from oneself.

We all need positive reinforcement, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. In her book Learning and Memory: The Brain in Action, Marilee Sprenger said that “positive feedback may be the single most powerful influence on the brain’s chemistry.”

Studies show that positive reinforcement works best when received immediately after the desired behavior, or as soon as possible.

So don’t hesitate to reward yourself or accept positive feedback from others when you succeed. Similarly, when you fall short of your goal, notice that the effort and perseverance you demonstrated are worthy of a pat in the back, and restart again.

6. Dedicate time for yourself

It is very easy to be caught up in a routine in which you forget yourself; you feel like you are a mere spectator of what happens to you, without the possibility to enjoy nor to lead your own life.

This is because it is sometimes so difficult to take time for yourself under life pressures and the speed of the events you are going through, which seems to move at 200 mph and that you are running behind your own life.

As a result, You can quickly get lost in work or in a toxic relationship that you feel powerless to change.

However, to settle down and refocus, to do things that we like and that give us pleasure are so important! It is the key to our development and well-being, both physical and psychological.

Taking time for yourself is absolutely not selfish. There is no reason to feel guilty about thinking about yourself and cultivating your well-being. For those who would still feel guilty, tell yourself one thing: it is vital and essential to be as happy as possible with your family and friends afterward.

Dedicating time to yourself is a way to take back control, to reclaim your role as the captain of your life. This time can be used in many ways: doing some hobbies, doing sports, taking care of your appearance, meditating, etc.

7. Learn new things, get involved in new projects

Is there any activity that you have always wanted to do and so far you have not dared? Go ahead, now is the time!

Carrying out a novel activity has many benefits: Interacting with new people, learning new things, having fun, extending your comfort zone, getting to know yourself better, etc.

All these benefits are going to impact you in many ways: you get positive reinforcements, you are able to take new actions, you have control over what you set up to do … thus diminishing the harmful effects of learned helplessness.

Learning to intervene in the environment in which we operate and obtain results, whether positive or not, allows us to understand that we have a certain degree of control and that external variables are not always responsible for what happens to us. After all, we can always choose the way we react to situations.

8. Change the way you talk to yourself and others

Martin Seligman defines explanatory styles as “our tendency to offer similar explanations for different events.” In other words, they are the little stories that we tell ourselves to give meaning to our lives.

Those stories matter very much. Negative explanatory styles are the most common reason why we fall into the pitfall of learned helplessness.

Surely you are not aware of the number of negative messages that you say to yourself throughout the day: “I always do everything wrong,” “I can not do it,” “I do not know what I’m doing” …

However, research shows that individuals with a propensity towards a pessimistic explanatory style are more likely to experience prevalent and chronic symptoms of helplessness when faced with uncontrollable adverse events (Eisner, 1995). Also, these negative self-told stories can fuel issues such as depression by creating a cycle of negative thought that perpetuates the problem.

It is necessary to gradually develop a solution-oriented strategy rather than a problem-oriented one. See the situation as it is, of course, then ask yourself how you’re dealing with it and making it better than it is.

An optimistic explanatory style assumes that situations will work out for the best in the end. For example, some possible alternatives to the statement above are: “this is costing me, but I can do it,” “if I do not get it, nothing happens,” “no one is perfect,” “the important thing is to do your best” …

optimistic explanatory styles are associated with higher levels of motivation, achievement, and happiness.

You could be thinking to yourself that it’s common sense, given that motivated, high achieving, happy people will consequently adopt an optimistic view of life. But scientific research proves that it’s the other way around!

Read more about explanatory styles.

9. Develop tolerance to failure

Individuals do not react in the same way to adversity; some will start to show signs of learned helplessness, while others become more resilient. Our philosophy of life and the coping strategies that we can activate in those precise moments play a crucial role.

Tolerance to failure protects us from feelings of hopelessness.

That is why Seligman himself defends the need to fail. We need to feel sad, angry, and frustrated to develop perseverance and immunity toward those emotions. Avoiding negative emotions at all costs –like not even trying to succeed in fear of failure– makes us more vulnerable to them because we do not learn to persevere.

In his book Failing Forward: Turning mistakes into stepping stones for success, John C. Maxwell states that the difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure. Because in life, the question is not if you will have problems, but how you are going to deal with them.

We may not have chosen the adverse circumstances that life throws at us, but we can choose what we deal with it all, how we will react to it, and we can select the state of mind we want to maintain.

The ability to be resilient is based, fundamentally, on the confidence in our ability to overcome adversity, and it only develops when we have the possibility to fight and become the architects of our life.

Developing an internal locus of control is fundamental to facing the worst circumstances as it allows us to be aware that, although circumstances influence, ultimately they do not decide the course of our lives.

10. Allow yourself to be inspired by others’ achievements

You have just embarked on the path of change. Be patient and be realistic, because the road to change is bumpier as you think.

Remember that the longer you have been in the situation of learned helplessness, the more tricky the process of changing those behaviors will be.

Looking for inspiring people that achieved so much undeterred by similar adversities to what you are facing at the moment can be a huge motivation. It is also a revelation that the helplessness you’re feeling is not a death sentence, and you could overthrow the chains it placed on your life.

Chantal Petitclerc is a Canadian wheelchair athlete who suffered a spinal cord injury at age 13 that will deprive her of the use of her legs and confine her to a wheelchair. In an inspiring interview, she said that “We each have our own path… our responsibility is to make it a beautiful path, not to be a victim of that path… I like to think I built the life I wanted myself.”

She is an independent senator, and the only athlete in Canada to have won medals at the Paralympic, Olympic and Commonwealth Games.

Use inspiration to hold expectations about how far you can go, and to encourage you to continue working daily to change the negative thought patterns of learned helplessness you once acquired.

Finally, I can only remember the phrase of the French writer Honoré de Balzac “surrender is every day’s suicide” and encourage you to start your journey to overcoming learned helplessness.

Summary and Final Thoughts

Responsibility is the price of freedom. Overcoming learned helplessness, is to to decide to take control and take responsibility for what happens to us and the response that promotes positive change rather than blame and discouragement.

Learned helplessness is not a life sentence. We must remember that nothing is eternal, although when we are going through a bad patch, everything turns gray. The change occurs when we begin to become aware, rebuild self-esteem, and find a new meaning to life so that we can gradually unlearn learned helplessness.

unlearn learned helplessness
Choose to be free from the mental chains.

Further readings:

Books:

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