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Learned Helplessness: How Comfort Zone Kills Your Potential

Split Tech City

Split Tech City


Life often throws challenges that drive us forward or make us feel powerless. When we consistently face obstacles without finding a way to overcome them, we might fall into a state known as learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is what social science researchers call when a person is unable to find resolutions to difficult situations, even when a solution is relatively easily accessible.

People who struggle with this problematic pattern of thinking tend to fall into a victim mentality and complain a lot and at the same time feel incapable of making a positive change.

History of Learned Helplessness

The term was coined by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier in the late 1960s during their experiments with dogs. They were researching animal behavior when they accidentally discovered the learned helplessness theory.

They observed that dogs, after being exposed to inescapable electric shocks, eventually stopped trying to escape even when they had the opportunity. The dogs had learned to be helpless.

The idea was extended to humans, replacing the electric shocks with loud noises, which led to a similar reaction. People who could not control the noise in the first experiment did not even try to do it in the subsequent trials.

This explained why people sometimes gave up in the face of challenges and led to a new understanding of trauma.

When experiencing abuse and other unpleasant situations, people learn to become helpless if nothing they do makes a difference. Consequently, they internalize that nothing will ever work in similar situations either.

It is important to stress that it’s possible to have learned helplessness only in certain life areas.

How to Recognize the Symptoms of Learned Helplessness

Even though everyone struggles with setbacks from time to time, learned helplessness is characterized by more lasting symptoms such as:

  • passivity, avoidance of taking actions or making decisions
  • lack of initiative in life
  • giving up easily when faced with challenges
  • procrastination and delaying tasks due to a fear of failure
  • low self-esteem and feelings of incompetency

Learned helplessness is not a mental health condition, however, its symptoms partially overlap with depression and anxiety.

People with depression tend to have negative, distorted thinking. Such thought patterns make a person attribute pessimistic outcomes to themselves or things outside of their control.

Causes of Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness often stems from repeated exposure to uncontrollable and traumatic situations. Lack of control over such events may lead to feelings of helplessness.

Common causes are:

  • overparenting and/or overprotection – Being overly shielded from difficulties can prevent children from developing problem-solving skills and resilience, leading to helplessness when they face real-world challenges.
  • abuse and/or traumatic experiences – Events that cause significant emotional distress can instill a sense of powerlessness and internalize the world as untrustworthy.
  • pessimistic explanatory style – Explanatory style is an individual’s characteristic style of explaining events. People with this style often think negative events are unavoidable and attribute failures to personal inadequacies rather than external factors.
Impact of Learned Helplessness on Children and Adults

Learned helplessness can particularly harm children, affecting their development and future success. For instance, children raised by unresponsive or unreliable caregivers believe they cannot succeed, which often leads to a lack of engagement in school and hopelessness.

Repeated experiences only reinforce such beliefs.

Frustration and a lack of motivation can also result in behavioral problems, including withdrawal or acting out.

In adults, especially those who struggle with independence and self-sufficiency, learned helplessness can manifest in various aspects of life, from careers to personal relationships.

Feeling trapped in a job without opportunities for advancement can result from the assurance that change is impossible.

Helplessness can also lead to dependence or passivity in relationships, causing strain and dissatisfaction. Consequently, the overall quality of life can diminish as people stop striving for their goals and settle for less.

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

While conducting his experiments, Martin Seligman found that around 10% of studied subjects seemed immune to the effect of learned helplessness. His partner, Steven Meier, concluded that the dogs were not learning helplessness, but failing to learn control.

Brains are wired to panic under pressure due to the fight-or-flight response.

Maier also discovered that a part of the brain regulates the response when it assesses the situation is under control. When learned helplessness kicks in, the brain does not perceive you are in control, which paradoxically leads to helplessness.

CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy is an excellent tool to combat this issue since it is focused on identifying, challenging, and replacing problematic thoughts.

That leads to optimism, better stress management, and creating solutions.

A therapist also helps identify the core beliefs and the root of the problem. Working with a skilled professional helps with recognition and redirecting your thoughts.

Another good tool is participating in activities you’re good at or building mastery in new hobbies. It can be anything from tennis, cooking, or writing poetry. Self-care helps reduce the symptoms and fosters a sense of control in life.

It is possible to unlearn learned helplessness, but it requires a proactive approach to change one’s mindset and behavior. A quote by Henry Ford sums up the very core of this pattern:

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

The article was written by: Ana Knezović


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