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Learned Helplessness is The Psychological Reason You Are Stuck in a Bad Situation

“The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away-it can only be forgotten.” — Greg McKeown

Have you ever felt powerless to the point that you pretty much give up and stop trying to change your circumstances?

If you’ve ever convinced yourself that everything wrong with your life is doomed to repeat itself, or you will screw up again no matter what you do, you experienced learned helplessness.

According to research, when you learn over time that you have no control over your life or career, no matter what you do, you are likely to give up or pursue anything that may be even good for you.

It’s the reason most people are stuck and unhappy in life.

People who perceive events as uncontrollable can show a variety of symptoms that threaten their mental well-being. They experience stress, depression, disruption of emotions, and passivity in life. They are less likely to change unhealthy habits because they feel everything is out of their control.

If you’ve consistently failed at losing weight through diets and exercise routines, you will probably begin to think that you will never lose weight, no matter what you do.

This thinking pattern has a powerful psychological impact and sometimes continue to affect people even long after they have stopped experiencing initial negative behaviour.

Learned helplessness is the concept based on the idea that human behaviour is learned via associations and responses. It keeps people in bad careers, poor health, and terrible relationships despite how easy it may be to escape.

“ Simply put: If something is reinforced/rewarded, we are more likely to repeat that behavior again. And likewise, if we are punished, we’re more likely to avoid that same behavior in the future,” explains Psychology Compass.

Common symptoms of learned helplessness include low self-esteem, poor motivation, lack of effort, frustration, and procrastination.

Learned helplessness is a mindset that was discovered by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier. They observed the behaviour in both humans and animals.

In their study, they found that those who have experienced depression in the past are more likely to accept depression in their future and therefore less likely to attempt change. The same holds true for individuals in domestic violence situations. Those who have been unable to escape violent situations in their homes are much more likely to refuse help and accept future violence as inescapable. This is true even when presented with real options to avoid future violence.

Many similar studies have also found that a person’s perception of control has everything to do with how likely they are to quit bad behaviour.

The psychologists also found that even when you are told there is nothing you can do about any situation, you are more likely to not try or to try less diligently than those who are not given this advice (Maier & Seligman, 1975).

People who suffer from chronic health conditions are more likely to develop a feeling of helplessness, due to their inability to take action which improves their condition.

The researchers also noticed that the more you witness failure either in yourself or others, the less likely you are to attempt change, even if the situation changes dramatically.

Perception was key in their findings.

The phenomenon was reliably strong, reliably broad (that is, transferred from one situation to another), and reliably difficult to change once it set in. It was motivational (you no longer even try), emotional (you whimper and grow resigned), and cognitive (you generalize one experience to apply to a broader existence),” writes Maria Konnikova of The New Yorker.

Learned helplessness is the reason many people feel like they can’t control the forces affecting their fate. Once they convinced themselves of this false perception, they stop taking action, they choose to stay in the same negative situation which then affects their happiness and overall well-being.

They continue to make choices (even small one) in life that hold them back. The crushing weight of helplessness makes them lose hope and stop living. Life, to someone with learned helplessness, becomes meaningless.

If you feel like you aren’t in control of your destiny, you will give up and accept whatever situation you are in.

The real truth is, your ability to choose can only be forgotten. It cannot be taken away. Greg McKeown could not have said that any better.

In all situations in life, you must fight back your behaviour, or learn to fail with pride and keep going. Failing is not an end in itself. It’s a detour.

Remember, progress is not linear.

Everything many seem harder if you fail, but there is always a way out. Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure.

Overcoming learned helplessness comes down to differences in optimism vs. pessimism. “Pessimistic labels lead to passivity, whereas optimistic ones lead to attempts to change,” says Martin E.P. Seligman.

“Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling,” he writes.

“Accordingly, in order to avoid acquiring learned helplessness, you want to change the way in which you view your successes and failures in life. Specifically, you should strive to frame your failures as external, specific, and unstable, and to frame your successes as internal, general, and stable,” says Effectiviology.

Learning how to break bad habits is an important part of overcoming learned helplessness. Psychologists believe that you can change learned helplessness behaviour by changing the way you look at the causes of events in your life.

Take this survey adapted from Dr Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, to find out your perception about life.

Key takeaway

Learned helplessness is a dangerous state of mind for anyone. It can be detrimental to your mental health, emotional wellbeing, and self-care.

But anyone can break an “I — give-up” habit, develop a more constructive explanatory style for interpreting any behaviour, and experience the benefits of a more positive outlook in life. Learn to dispute the automatic helplessness thoughts by convincing yourself with contrary evidence.

“While you can’t control your experiences, you can control your explanations, Martin E.P. Seligman argues.

Learned optimism can help avoid stress, build better habits, boost your immune system, and eventually make you happier.

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Thomas Oppong

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Founder at AllTopStartups | Author | Creator of Thinking in Models and Kaizen Habits | Featured at Inc. Magazine, Business Insider, Forbes, Entrepreneur, etc.

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.