Can Learned Helplessness Be Unlearned?

helpless person, learn helplessness illustration

What is Learned Helplessness?

In 1897 Ivan Pavlov taught dogs to salivate when they heard a bell ring, giving birth to the idea known as classical conditioning. Pavlov’s dogs’ mouths watered when they heard the sound because they “knew” what was coming: a big juicy steak.

The bell continued to trigger their salivating long after their rewards ended.

Nearly 70 years later Martin Seligman did the experiment in reverse. Seligman gave dogs random shocks, and—at first—provided them with no means of escaping their crates. Later, he provided a simple way for the dogs to escape, yet they sat there and endured the negative stimulus anyway.

The dogs stopped trying. They had already come to believe that nothing they did mattered, so it wasn’t worth the effort. They made no attempts to escape even when the way out of their misery was within their reach.

This process is known as Learned Helplessness. And it affects people too!

Symptoms of Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness isn’t a disease itself, but it can certainly affect your mood and your motivation to make a change.

The best thing about Learned Helplessness is that it can be unlearned. Unlearning helplessness relies on the uniquely human ability to make choices in spite of the automatic, conditioned responses we’ve acquired over the years. Dogs and other animals can’t do this.

Before attempting to unlearn helplessness, let’s see if you’ve learned it in the first place. Not everyone has learned helplessness in an area that interferes with their everyday life. If you have learned helplessness, the consequences may manifest itself in one or more of the following ways:

  • Powerlessness. The belief that nothing you do matters, and that you lack the ability, resources, and influence to create any meaningful changes in your life.
  • Pessimism. The tendency to believe the worst possible outcome will happen, or to have a general lack of hope or confidence in the future.
  • Cynicism. The inclination to have an unhealthy level of skepticism for the context of a situation. For example, assuming that someone who had done a kind act had an evil motive (in the absence of evidence to support this).
  • Nihilism. The belief that life is meaningless.
  • Persistent Low Mood. Learned helplessness and the above thinking styles are associated with low moods that persist for extended periods of time.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and it’s possible that any one of these thinking styles can lead to learned helplessness, creating a reinforcing loop.

It’s possible to break this cycle.

How Learned Helplessness Happens

Abuse

The word “abuse” encompasses a lot of bad things that people do to others, and sadly the word itself is often abused. We will define it for this article as any act, or series of acts an individual does to cause harm to another.

Abuse is especially significant to learned helplessness if the abuser preemptively, or repeatedly blocked potential means of escaping the abuse.

Unpredictable, or emotionally unstable parents or caregivers can cause learned helplessness in a child, as she soon learns there’s no behavior that will consistently please them, and no specific effort that she makes produces a predictable outcome.

Circumstances

Not everything that happens to us can be attributed to negligence or willful misconduct on someone else’s behalf. When the bad things that befall us remain a mystery, it doesn’t stop learned helplessness from creeping its way into our psyches.

You may have worked for three companies in a row that closed their doors within months of starting your new job, or had a tree fall on your brand new car the day after you bought it, and again the day after you got the damage done from the first tree repaired. A series of unfortunate life circumstances can lead us down the path of learned helplessness, and/or the belief that we live in the shadows of “bad luck.”

Too Many Goals

While it’s true that having no goals, or setting the bar too low often yields lackluster results, aiming too high can also be detrimental. If you’re in the habit of setting unrealistic, or nearly impossible goals (or setting realistic goals without having a reasonable strategy to accomplish them), then plan on a little learned helplessness coming your way.

Learned, Learned Helplessness

Although we don’t necessarily buy into Jim Rohn’s theory that you’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, no one can deny that our peers influence the way we think.

Spending time with victims of learned helplessness can lead to our own learned helplessness, even if life didn’t deal us the same crushing blows it dealt them. We may easily incorporate the helpless attitude we hear from them into our own thinking.

We may also acquire a helpless thinking style from public figures whose work we greatly admire, such as artists, musicians, actors, and even fictional characters. If we relate to a character or a story on some level, we may adopt their portrayed helplessness as our own.

A skilled artist will take you into their world, but a skilled observer needs to know how to safely return from it.

Unlearning Learned Helplessness

Ground Rules

  • It’s not your fault. That’s right! You didn’t enroll in The School of Helplessness, and you had no idea the tuition could be so costly. Despite how you got your degree in the dismal field of learned helplessness you did so unintentionally, so set aside any temptation toward self hatred. That’s all behind you now.
  • It is your responsibility. Unlearning learned helplessness is unlikely to happen on its own. Your persistent sense of futility and low mood are holding you back from impacting the things that matter to you most. Don’t let another day go by without making a Little Change to how you think about things.

In his bestselling book, Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, Ph. D. tells us that helplessness (and the feelings that come with it) is largely the product of our explanatory style. That is, the explanation we give ourselves for the good and bad events that happen to us throughout our lives.

Whether or not we have hope depends on two dimensions of our explanatory style: pervasiveness and permanence.

Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope: Temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation.

On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all of your endeavors. Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.

Explanatory style doesn’t refer to the way you describe a single failure, but your habit of explanation for the things that happen in life.

How do you think about the misfortunes, small and large, that befall you? Some people, the ones who give up easily, habitually say of their misfortunes: “It’s me, it’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine everything I do.” Others, those who resist giving into misfortune say: “It was just circumstances, it’s going away quickly anyway, and, besides, there’s much more in life.”

Your habitual way of explaining bad events, your explanatory style, is more than just the words you mouth when you fail. It is a habit of thought learned in childhood and adolescence. Your explanatory style stems directly from your view of your place in the world—whether you think you are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless. It is the hallmark of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.

For a complete overhaul of your explanatory style we recommend that you eventually read Learned Optimism and do some of the exercises in the book. Since this is the Little Change blog, we know you are looking for something you can start doing today, and we aren’t about to disappoint you.

To prepare for the upcoming Little Change, consider the three dimensions of explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.

Habitual explanations for adversity that are permanent (e.g. “I’m always anxious”), pervasive (e.g. “life sucks”), or personal (e.g. “I’m stupid”) perpetuate helplessness. On the other hand, habitually explaining unfortunate events as temporary (e.g. “crowds make me anxious”), specific (e.g. “mowing the lawn sucks”), and non-personal (e.g. “he has a bad teaching style”) are associated with empowerment and optimism, and practicing this way of thinking will help you begin the unlearning process.

You might be surprised how many opportunities you’ll have each day to change the way you talk to yourself. I am now completing this article a day after the deadline. At one time I might have said to myself, “I can never finish anything on time,” which is a very permanent, pervasive, and personal statement, and would leave me feeling incapable of hitting future deadlines (helplessness).

Instead, the first thing that comes to mind now is, “I finished another Little Change article! Since this one is a day late, I need to get a start on the next one so I can get ahead.”

Little Change IconMake this Little Change

When adversity strikes, explain the event as temporary, specific, and non-personal. This type of explanation is often more accurate than its permanent, pervasive, personal alternative.

No one who is out to accomplish a goal should intentionally fail, but many believe when we do slip up, we need to focus on the the failure in order in order to prevent a future one. Research in Positive Psychology shows that ignoring the accidental slip up and persisting with the goal is far more likely to keep you on track. You can easily do this if you’re already in the habit of using an optimistic, non-helpless explanatory style.

For example, if your goal is to quit smoking, and in a weak moment you convince someone to give you a cigarette, you will likely feel badly for not sticking to your goal. This is natural. Taking it a step further by heaping harsh judgments upon yourself and wreaking havoc on your world is bound to delay your next attempt to quit smoking.

You might find yourself using a pessimistic explanatory style, telling yourself things like, “I’ll never quit, I have an addictive personality, and I’m just bad at making commitments.”

Did you notice the permanent, pervasive, and personal nature of the above statement? If you’ve been telling yourself things like these for many years, do you see why it’s so easy for you to believe them?

Contrast this with a more optimistic explanatory style, such as, “I went four entire days without a cigarette before I slipped up. I have the ability to go days at a time without a cigarette. Temptations are everywhere, but I’ve proven that I can resist most of them.”

Notice the temporary, specific, and less personal nature of this scenario. Wouldn’t it be better to just move on from this one-time slip up and continue forward on the path to becoming a non-smoker? Changing your explanatory style will help you get there.

The Little Change above is designed to get you started with changing your explanatory style from a pessimistic one (which results in helplessness), to a more optimistic one (which leads to empowerment) that feeds your ability to make significant, positive changes to your life.

If you want to become an optimist, and achieve the physical and mental health benefits that come with it, we recommend purchasing Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism.

Learned Optimism
Learned Optimism
How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
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