Learned helplessness is a passive, non-productive response to repeated failures. Instead of creatively finding new solutions, we give up.
Many forces forge our character. We are surrounded and bombarded by daily exposures to pressures and blessings. However, we’re not a blank slate only formed by experience. Both experience and self-determination combine in the ultimate creation of self. Life impacts our becoming from many fronts. We are free to choose; but not completely. Life isn’t created through unfettered freewill. Biological givens combine with experiential learning, becoming the building blocks of feelings, motivations and social development. Surrounded by the blasts of determining forces, we our challenged to grow. Scantly armed with consciousness, we defend against the creating powers of life.
The magical emergence of consciousness gave humans an orchestrating power to deflect, change and refuse otherwise unmovable forces. We become autonomous agents.
The surrounding environment pushes and pulls our souls. As children we were vulnerable, the surrounding elements unknowingly choked or nurtured our development, boosting or delaying progression. We’ll never know the full complexity of experience, most impacts go unnoticed, slightly changing trajectories. Other forces are salient and life changing.
We still have choices. Belief in personal power to determine destiny motivates assertive action. Conversely, if we drown in a deterministic view--cynical and skeptical of freewill—we cower to our perceived helplessness in a cruel and unpredictable world.
During the 1960’s, Martin Seligman stumbled upon a discovery that he referred to as ‘learned helplessness.’ He found that animals repeatedly exposed to inescapable shocks would eventually become passive, enduring future shocks without protest, even when an escape route was easily available. Dogs not previously exposed to inescapable shocks, when given an avenue of escape, would jump free, escaping the pain.
Impact of Trauma
Seligman's research was investigating the impact of trauma on learning. Seligman wrote in response to his discoveries that, "not only do we face events that we can control by our actions, but we also face many events about which we can do nothing at all" (1972).
These stinging events that seem so unfair intrude on our willingness to risk failure and ridicule. We are frightened to try when we believe our efforts may be wasted on the inevitable. Seligman wrote, "such uncontrollable events can significantly debilitate organisms: they produce passivity in the face of trauma, inability to learn that responding is effective, and emotional stress in animals, and possibly depression in man" (1972).
Learned Helplessness is a condition of perceived powerlessness often arising from a traumatic event, or repeated failure.
Conditioned to Endure Suffering
Like the poor animals that needlessly endured shocks, we become conditioned to endure unneeded pain, ignoring glorious opportunities. We passively cope when we have ample means to escape.
We’re all guilty. We suffer because we blindly continue to do the same things we always have done. Some suffering is necessary, we endure with a purpose. Other times, however, our suffering has no value. We become accustom to destructive relationships, unhealthy bodies, underpaying jobs and purposeless evenings—we suffer. We postpone actions towards our dreams, dwelling in a meaningless present. We learn to be helpless to the present conditions of our life, quietly we acquiesce for less than the richness available for the cost of a few simple and notable changes.
Perhaps we prefer the shocks. The pain provides a familiar sting and a rejuvenating drama of emotion. The enemies of peace become an acceptable part of our lives. We take a jolt, complain, and then continue following the same principles that gave power to the painful zing.
Empowering Ourself to Act
Changing trajectories is achieved through deliberate action, requiring courage, support and resources. For change to create new habits (comfort zones), we must mindfully introduce new behaviors, evaluating progressions, failures and successes. We can’t force new action with a lazy mind. If we divert attention from the course too early, we drift back to the painful comforts of helplessness.
Growth isn’t a singular achievement—a single moment in time. Small changes impact many areas, inviting new opportunities and exposing previously overlooked flaws. We discover past comforts that are incompatible with our new paths. The simple fix of a small change slowly morphs into a complex make-over. But if we continue, fumbling through the newness with patience, adjusting other areas in need, we adapt to the newness—discovering a better life.
Our efforts slowly become habits, opening opportunities, trimming anxieties, and blessing our futures. Through mindful and purposeful change, we discover self-efficacy, building confidence in our resilience and empowerment. We set a new trajectory for our lives. The once awkward behaviors fuse with our character, integrating new healthy action, and creating a better person and a promising future.
Seligman, Martin E. P. (1972). Learned Helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23(1), 407-412.
Other Flourishing Life Society articles of interest on this topic: