Learned Helplessness

What is it?


The theory of learned helplessness was initiated by Martin Seligman an American psychologist who had an interest in depression initially experiment focusing on dogs, later research focused on human beings.


Learned helplessness is thought to be something which develops when a person finds themselves in repeated situations of threat and/or has endured repeated physical, mental, emotional or psychological abuse.  A person suffering pain which s/he has not been able to avoid or escape feels threatening to our life and eventually this person will give up even trying to escape.  Woman and men who have been in a violent relationship and repeatedly abused by partners and found they can not control the situation nor can they stop the abuser learn to be helpless; this is another reason why people suffering domestic violence find they cannot leave the abuser and they may have other dynamics in force such as trauma bonding. 

Those who have a perception that they have no control over what's happening to them in their life and feel threatened mentally and/or physically show emotions which are disruptive to their well-being and this has implications for their short and long-term health.  For example, they may have passive-aggressive tendencies, mood swings and experience high levels of stress, They may be depressed and often express feelings of helplessness and feel unable to control how they do things.  Psychologists have found a strong association between learned helplessness and depression; this has a snowball effect which can result in weak immune systems due to a pessimistic attitude and people who suffer depression may have painful interpersonal relationships or find it difficult to connect to others.


Learned helplessness can also lead to poor decision making and have implications on a persons social interaction, their motivation to achieve for example; children who repeatedly do not come up to the adults 'expectations' may just give up trying to achieve.  Some adults affirm this 'won't amount to much in life' attitude towards the child who has given up.  Children who are abused sexually, physically or neglected may develop a victim mentality by being repeatedly exposed to threatening and painful situations and they may utilise coping techniques such as dissociation to manage their survival.  The child may just give up and behave passively due to feeling helpless and so the circle is set. Children who are passive get overlooked by their peers this leads to stress, maladaptive behaviours in the child and as teenagers they may become self-haters, self-harm and have suicidal ideation.  


Children grow into adults and their patterns follow them, children who were abused may find themselves as adults in interpersonal relationships with abusers.  For example due to their vulnerability they  are targets for Narcissists and those who wish to control others.  Adults may still feel helpless and not able to control what happens in their relationships so feel unable to make informed choices and/or leave the abuser.  This all has a detrimental affect on the adult who often feels trapped, has low self-esteem, little sense of self, low confidence in their own abilities to cope with the conundrums of living or to grow, develop and flourish in life.  


Learned helplessness and all that goes with it can be changed with effort and support.  If you feel vulnerable and/or suffering  in an abusive relationship or feel your patterns of relating are holding you back from being who and what you want to be.  Consider contacting me to discuss your needs and together we can unravel and work towards  the start of a healthy, fulfilled and peaceful future.


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