Have you ever come across people who are stuck in a situation, but they refuse to act whatsoever and fail to see that there exists an escape route? I have come across many such cases in my personal as well as professional life while dealing with domestic/emotional abuse and even workplace related abuse. I have seen an office employee not applying for a new job even when his boss constantly hurls abuses on him on a daily basis. He simply thinks that he won’t be able to get a new job even if he tried (without trying). I have seen a woman in an emotionally abusive relationship for 5 years, but did not even consider confronting her partner or walking out of it. She simply thought that she won’t be able to find anyone better and it’s better to not confront him regarding the emotional abuse to maintain a relatively peaceful relationship. In both the cases, we see one parallel. Both of them think that the situation is not in their control and they accept whatever comes their way no matter how unjust it may sound.
Martin Seligman who is commonly known as the founder of positive psychology is a leading authority in the field of learned helplessness, depression, optimism, and pessimism. Seligman’s groundwork in the field of learned helplessness started with an experiment that he used in the future to explain certain characteristics of depression.
Seligman’s Depressed Dogs
In the experiment, Seligman put a group of dogs in a box where he presented a tone followed by a harmless but painful electric shock. This group of dogs was leashed because of which they could not escape the painful shock. The dogs were conditioned to fear at the sound of the tone. This group of dogs and another group of dogs who were not conditioned to this situation were placed in a box with a low fence which divided the box into two compartments. The dogs were not leashed in the new situation. The dogs could easily see over the fence and escape by jumping over. The new group dogs immediately jumped over as soon as the shock occurred. But the first group of dogs meekly sat where they were even though they were now unleashed and now free to jump over and avoid the shock. It was observed that they were distressed at the sound of the tone but did not attempt to escape the situation, even when the shock occurred.
The dogs that had been leashed and conditioned had learned that the tone will be followed by the shock but they cannot escape the shock. So even when they were placed in a situation where they could escape, the dogs did nothing because they had learned earlier that they would be helpless in this situation. Seligman called this ‘learned helplessness’
Learned helplessness is observed when a person has undergone stressful situations repeatedly. It leads them to believe that they do not have control over their situation and they cannot do anything to change it. They continue to feel helpless even though new opportunities for change come their way.
Seligman used the theory of learned helplessness to explain few behavioral characteristics of depression. Some people continue to stay in uncomfortable situations like a bad work environment or a difficult marriage instead of escaping from such an environment. He proposed this behavior as a form of learned helplessness in depression. Depressed people experience a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. I have talked about it in the article Bermuda Triangle of Depression.. Seligman drew a parallel between this behavior observed in depressed people and what he observed with the dogs in the experiment. He observed some key features that had common grounds in learned helplessness and depression such as increased levels of stress, becoming submissive to the trauma, and difficulty finding it in self to work against the trauma. Over the period learned helplessness has shown itself in the aftermath of various conditions, such as PTSD, emotionally abusive relationships, child abuse.
Unlearning Learned Helplessness
Symptoms of learned helplessness are low self-esteem, passivity, poor motivation, giving up easily, lack of effort, and procrastination. Putting all these together creates a dangerous situation. But it can be changed.
- You can seek help. Sometimes that help is all you need to walk out of an unpleasant situation or improve your situation.
- You constantly bring yourself down with negative thoughts and negative outlook in life. Changing your outlook in life to a positive one is an important step to change learned helplessness behavior.
- During his research, Seligman observed that some individuals don’t feel helpless even when the conditions appear to do so. He observed that people who have a positive outlook on life have a healthier attitude and are more optimistic in their approach towards situations in life. He believed learning to be optimistic is a way to unlearn helplessness.
- You can approach a therapist to help you work on your learned helplessness behavior. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the most common line of treatment to overcome it. In therapy, you can improve your self-esteem, explore the origins of negative thoughts, and identify behaviors that reinforce learned helplessness. With the help of your therapist, you can explore a healthier outlook on life.
Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.– MArtin seligman
Take it easy,
(MA Clinical Psychology, PGD Counselling)