We can feel helpless and hopeless when we experience chronic abuse or repeated obstacles. You may feel stuck in poverty or an unhappy relationship. You might or be dealing with your own or someone else’s dependence that feels helpless to change. You may be experiencing a painful health condition or replicated school, connection, or work failures.

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It’s easy to feel when you think there is no exit from persistent and unhappiness. Frequently, there are alternatives and measures we can take to change our situation and relieve pain, but using a hopeless outlook and”learned helplessness,” we do not seek or accept help and can sink into melancholy. Learned helplessness was a term coined by Martin Seligman from the 60s to describe a mindset in which you don’t attempt to escape a negative situation because previously you heard that you’re helpless.

In Seligman’s experiment, he rang a bell and then gave a dog a mild shock to state them to expect a shock after hearing the bell. He discovered that after some time when hearing the bell, the dogs responded fearfully as though they had been shocked, although they had not been. Human behaviour is similar. For instance, if you had been lied to or betrayed, you become distrustful. You might imagine you are being deceived in a new relationship when you are not.

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You then might react to your ideas, become mad, and falsely accuse your new partner or perhaps breakup. We think of this as projecting our previous experience onto others and current conditions. Seligman went farther and place these dogs in a cage which was divided so the shock would only affect one side. The dogs could easily step over a fence on the other side and avoid the shocks. However, the dogs didn’t! Instead, they gave up and put down. He then shocked different dogs at a divided crate who had not previously been conditioned with all the shock and bell.

These dogs immediately jumped to the other side of the fence to prevent the shock. This proved that the conditioned pair of dogs had learned to be helpless. Another instance of this is the practice of chaining young elephants into a post. As adults, they do not run away when the chains are eliminated. How we interpret events matters. People attribute causation to external and internal elements. Research shows that people who always make international internal attributions to adverse events, meaning they blame themselves no matter the situation develop learned helplessness. When they believe they are always the issue, they lack the motivation to improve, to try again, or try new things.

This negative self-talk reflects internalized shame and perpetuates it. They discovered that we perform better by simply thinking we have control over damaging stimuli, even if we do not exercise it. Power imbalances typify abusive relationships. Abusers seek power and blame their behavior on other folks. They undermine their spouses’ self-esteem with psychological abuse, like belittling, withholding, and covert manipulation. When confronted, they frequently escalate or endanger greater abuse or become violent.


The undermining of self-esteem and persistent abuse create learned helplessness in sufferers, who over time adapt the abuser with avoidance and compliance to minimize misuse and feel protected. When at first they may have gotten angry and protested, finally they realize that this strategy is usually counterproductive. They numb their feelings, become stressed and/or depressed, and might develop physical symptoms. As shame and fear grow, they do not think they can leave and become a shell of their former self. This routine is exacerbated by occasional reinforcement where lodging becomes an addictive behavioral pattern.

Many codependents develop learned helplessness in childhood. As young children we are actually determined by our parents for survival, not just physically, but also emotionally. We immediately learn strategies to remain safe and minimize our parents’ displeasure. When a parent is neglectful, emotionally absent, critical, controlling, or abusive, we not only feel insecure and create feelings of inadequacy and shame, we feel helpless to be heard and make an impact. A narcissistic mother or dad, some other mentally ill parents or teenagers dismiss, shame, or restrain their kids, sending the message that their feelings, needs, and wants are insignificant.

Children’s anger, distress, or demonstration could also be shamed or punished. They feel helpless, internalize their pity and rage, and frequently turn to drugs or addictive behaviours. Some kids rebel, but that may lead to further repressive measures. They develop learned helplessness and negative internal attributions that follow them into adulthood. Sometimes, they experience freedom in their late teens and early adulthood, but may marry somebody who reproduces their painful family play.

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Before long, their learned helplessness returns. This may also occur when a more potent sibling abuses or teases a poorer one. I remember being tickled with my older brother until I was breathless and in tears. This established a I was helpless and did not fight back when I could. Learned helplessness produces a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop which could damage our health, job satisfaction, and our relationships. It may cause unhealthy habits where we fail our nutrition and regular exercise. We might not find proper medical and dental care, get help for addiction or handle our finances.

Learned helplessness may affect people stuck in poverty or who experience unremitting prejudice. Beliefs can be passed down through generations, creating a cycle of passivity and poverty. Students who do not perform well in college attribute failure for their own inadequacy. Their optimism and self-esteem suffer. They do not think they could do better and to fail. They stop trying and often drop out. Similarly learned helplessness and related shame restrain us from progressing professionally and raising our earning potential. It results in depression and ill-health. In reality, research indicates that a pessimistic outlook can negatively affect inflammation, our immune systems, and risk heart health.

The fantastic thing is that this condition isn’t a sentence. Low self-esteem is learned and so is healthful self-esteem. Our brains are malleable, but it requires treatment to battle negative internal attributions and cognitive distortions. Change requires treatment that addresses our thinking and beliefs. Cognitive-behavioral treatment is successful in overcoming shame and changing our mind and attitudes. A therapist also supports us in risk-taking new activities that change our negative preconceptions. As our self-esteem and confidence increase, we become self-empowered-self-esteem in actions. Pent-up is unleashed. We create a positive feedback loop, where we anticipate positive outcomes and experience them. When we do not, we refrain from self-shaming. We believe make external attributions and change what we can.