Learned Helplessness – A Matter of Perception

Photo by: L. Thibault

There is a truly fascinating concept in psychology known as Learned Helplessness

Decades ago, a psychologist by the name of Martin E.P. Seligman conducted experimental tests on animals.  He shocked them repeatedly without giving them any avenues of escape from the trauma.  What he noticed was that, after a while, the animals would stop trying to get away from the shocks.   They became disheartened by the lack of control of the situation and would simply lay down and stoically accept the unavoidable punishment as it came; passive and resigned.  In other words, they gave up.

Psychologists believe that some humans react in the same way under repeated and difficult situations where there is a perceived lack of control.  Like the animals in the experiment, these people simply give up in the face of adversity making the incorrect assumption that they have no control over the event or situation.  When they feel certain that there is nothing they can do to change things and that there is absolutely no way out, they just accept what comes.  You see this in abusive relationships where the abused individuals start to believe that they are powerless to change their lives and after a while make no attempt to remove themselves from the difficult circumstances.   

That`s a fairly extreme and unfortunately common example, but you can see Learned Helplessness in many other facets of life.  For example, some people lose their jobs and hold the firm belief that they must be completely incompetent.  They become so downtrodden by this thought that they stop making efforts to find work, convinced they have no chance.  Others believe they are born with certain attributes that cannot be changed so they don`t even try.  Still others think they are intrinsically bad at certain things and that it`s futile to even try to improve themselves.

It`s all about Learned Helplessness.

One of the factors having an impact on Learned Helplessness is what is known as Explanatory Style.  In its simplest form, this comes down to whether you think like an optimist or a pessimist.  People who have a pessimistic way of thinking will tend to see things in a more negative light.  They may castastrophize events so that the issue becomes all-encompassing and ultimately highly discouraging.  Such a person will believe that if they fail at one thing, they are globally incompetent.  This type of thinking often leads to Learned Helplessness because the individual is overwhelmed with negative thought and will feel he has no control or power over the situation; that it is unchangeable.  And this leads to a lack of perseverance.  The pessimist, or the Me, Always, Everything person, automatically, reflexively believes that he caused the problem (me), that it is lasting and unchangeable (always), and that it will undermine all aspects of his life (everything). 

The optimist will see things very differently.  When problems arise, the Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything optimistic person believes that other people or circumstances caused the problem (not me), that it is fleeting and changeable (not always), and that it will not affect much of his life (not everything).

For obvious reasons, pessimists tend to be more prone to depression and anxiety, and have more difficulty facing and dealing with setbacks.  Optimists on the other hand tend to be happier, healthier and more successful.  There is a middle-ground here – the ideal being the flexible optimist who will tend to be more positive than the pessimist, but who also considers and understands the reality of a situation.  In other words, the flexible optimist will take a peek over the rim of his rose-coloured glasses every once in a while in order to keep things real.

The all-important theme seems to be the control factor.  Human beings need to feel that they have some control over their lives in order to feel happy and secure.  A perceived lack of control can lead to stress and anxiety, fear, poor health, and Learned Helplessness.   It`s really all about perception because the reality is, unlike the animals in the test, we all have control over our own lives most of the time.   

There will always remain situations in life where you will in fact have little or no control; where the lack of control is not just perception, but reality.  In such cases, for your own peace of mind, its best to go find that little bit of serenity that will help you to accept the things you cannot change… 🙂

By becoming aware of the pitfalls of Learned Helplessness we can start to understand, and more importantly, believe that we do in fact control our own lives and destinies.  That belief will then go a long way in empowering us to re-learn how to help ourselves.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
Marcel Proust

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