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What is Learned Helplessness?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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One thing which often spares people from feelings of depression or helplessness is a sense of control over their immediate or long term circumstances. A person should be able to walk away from an abusive relationship, for example, or voluntarily quit a stressful job. A psychological condition known as learned helplessness, however, can cause a person to feel completely powerless to change his or her circumstances for the better. The result of learned helplessness is often severe depression and extremely low self-esteem.

Learned helplessness can be seen as a coping mechanism some people employ in order to survive difficult or abusive circumstances. An abused child or spouse may eventually learn to remain passive and compliant at the hands of his or her abuser, since efforts to fight back or escape appear futile. Even if an opportunity to report or escape the abuse arises, many victims of long-term abuse choose to remain in the relationship because of learned helplessness.

Another common example of this phenomenon can be observed in school classrooms. Individual students are free to get up from their seats at any time to use the restroom, or even to leave the building. However, most students quickly learn that such actions result in swift and definitive punishment, so they eventually learn to remain in place during class. This form of learned helplessness helps instructors to maintain control over a large group of students, and students do eventually regain a sense of control over their own circumstances.

The link between learned helplessness and depression has been well-established in the psychological community. Some experts suggest this phenomenon can be passed on through observation, as in the case of a daughter watching her abused mother passively obey her husband's commands. The daughter may begin to associate passivity and low self-esteem with the "normal" demands of married life, leading to a perpetuation of the cycle.

One famous experiment which examined the phenomenon of learned helplessness involved three sets of dogs. One set of dogs were placed in regular harnesses and became the control group. The second set of dogs were fitted with shock collars and placed in boxes with a foot-operated switch. These dogs could turn off the painful shocks by pressing the switch at any time. The third set of dogs were tethered to the second set with the shock collars, but their foot switches were rendered useless by the experimenters. They had no control over the duration or intensity of the electric shocks.

The results of the experiment demonstrated that the third group of dogs eventually stopped pressing the ineffective foot switches and became very passive and depressed. For those dogs, the painful shocks became an inescapable part of their existence, with no possible way to control or escape the situation. During a second experiment in which the dogs could end the shocks by jumping over a low barrier, the dogs from the third group would not even attempt to jump. This passivity and loss of self-worth is the direct result of learned helplessness, and many people who suffer from clinical depression require extensive therapy to recover from its effects.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon954650 — On Jun 03, 2014

I think it also helps to explain why a lot of men believe they will never get to know a women and be in a relationship, or at least will be able to have sex with women, and do nothing at all about it but complain that they will be forever alone and so forth (which indeed ends up being the case for a lot of these guys).

By anon327518 — On Mar 28, 2013

I am 23 years old. I have grown up around a grandma who was severely manipulative and had learned helplessness. Everyone in my family has learned helplessness except my grandpa, who is the abuser, gambler and most selfish person I have ever met.

My grandma was sexually abused, pregnant at 15, put in an insane asylum (with electric shock treatments), forced to be a housewife against her will and had a total of seven children. She raised me and took me from my mother because she said she was inadequate (learned helplessness and manipulation!). I have been in the middle of them my whole life.

My father was also murdered when I was 13 and I was rarely allowed to see him before (I've seen him two times since age 5). After losing my father, my grandma assumed I had depression and forced me to take antidepressants. These had the reverse effect on me, and I attempted suicide several times.

During this critical era in my life, the verbal abuse was at an ultimate high. I heard that I was, evil, a loser, a whore – you name it. I finally moved in with my mother, who had recently divorced her abusive husband (now in prison).

She is still suffering with LH but trying hard. She made things worse by having me arrested several times and I felt like the red-headed step-child living with my "perfectly normal" half sisters, and feeding my LH. At 18, I was finally free. I lived on my own until now at 23. Unfortunately, LH followed me. I have a problem waking up for work, wanting to brush my teeth, high anxiety, severe depression,the lowest self-esteem ever, problems with mental clarity, and a binge drinking problem. I also haven't gone a day without smoking pot. I have several crutches in my life, including a never ending cycle of cigarette smoking that makes me feel so filthy and disgusting but I use it as a relief for my high anxiety.

I recently developed an ulcer and quit drinking, which I loathed anyway. But I am still stuck in this LH cycle. My counselor has helped, but she is busy all the time and is really only there for an emergency. She has been the only counselor I've seen who actually understands me. Unfortunately, I am living with my grandma now, because I have nowhere else to go. Every morning I wake up and she screams at me about something different, always blaming and yelling.

As an example, I wake up, go to the bathroom to relieve my bladder and she screams "What do you want?" if she happens to be by the bathroom. I don't even want to answer because you can't even talk to her. She runs every conversation and she is so mentally sick. Every single thing is a personal offense.

After living on my own from age 18-23, I felt like I couldn't even function in a normal environment! I feel like I created mental problems in my own head, and drowned them with drug abuse. I am slowly but surely piecing myself back together but I have only recently discovered LH. I hope that one day I can be "normal.”

By anon321478 — On Feb 22, 2013

I was not allowed to speak to my husband. He would jump up, get in my face, and if I finished the work, punch. There is much more to this, but I became sick and unable to work, and not knowing this, I started going over statistical data, research, and lined it up.

I usually didn't know I was doing this. I read once that prolonged abuse and isolation causes the brain to rewired. I read this online at 21 and can't find anything else. Can someone explain more because again I wasn't aware of doing this, and now I can reference more in my brain. It's scary.

By anon312511 — On Jan 07, 2013

You can talk about abuse, and surely be right.

Other situations can lead to learned helplessness. I've seen people who had lost a family member who later developed this syndrome. Most all of this was caused by pity. Feeling sorry for yourself because you think you are alone in your loss can lead to learned helplessness.

By amypollick — On Jul 09, 2012

There's a milder form of learned helplessness, and it's a manipulative kind. I've seen it in my workplace, and this kind seems to be most common among women. I'm no computer expert, but I am comfortable with them, and a couple of the older women in the office have deliberately not learned anything about their machines, even though they have to use them every day. If something goes flooey, they start yelling for me, first. And no matter what I've got going on, unless I'm on the phone, I have to go see about what's going on. Usually it's, "click out of it."

They're above me on the authority ladder, but I know more about the machines than they do. For them, it is certainly an effort to exert control, since they like to order people around. My default setting has become, "Gee. Not sure what's going on. Call the IT guy." Which means they either have to learn to fix it, work around it or wait an hour for the IT guy to get to them. They're starting to get the idea.

By anon278799 — On Jul 09, 2012

I agree with a number of these posts, but post 1 stands out. You are correct. If one only knows LH, and doesn't even know there is another way possible to think, then therapy will be a waste of time and money. Sorry to be so blunt and harsh, but it's true. If instead, one had an okay childhood, and then gets into a LH situation later on, then at least the brain has the neurotransmitters in place to be able to work around and to get back to "normalcy". But if one is being normal when anxious, scared, defeated, etc., if that's one's normal standing, then just save your money and spend it on something that gives you temporary pleasure.

By anon278751 — On Jul 09, 2012

For women who are in their late fifties or sixties, and who have been in financial dependence under a bullying emotionally abusive spouse, learned helplessness is hard to avoid. Few jobs are available in rural areas or small towns, especially for an older woman who has been out of the workforce without adequate savings or job prospect. Her spouse can be kind one day, mean and threatening the next. He can overpower her with threats of divorce and financial ruin. She can be isolated from others and have limited social contact, feeling inadequate without a job or career. He is her only friend, provider and occasional bully.

Financial reality, and doubts of her own sanity or ability to find work at 60, and already low self-esteem make learned helplessness a battle to maintain confidence. Decision-making on many levels becomes difficult.

By anon278535 — On Jul 07, 2012

Therapy will never happen for many (most). The monetary cost is just too damn high. I have read M. Scott Peck's, "The Road Less Traveled", and John Bradshaw's, "Healing the shame that binds you." Both of these men were extraordinarily wealthy. Peck was charging $40.00/hour in the mid-seventies, Bradshaw had his own TV series. Even if one could afford a therapist, just the thought of hiring one requires optimism, which those of us with learned helplessness (LH) don't have.

Furthermore, LH is often accompanied by Toxic Shame, Anxiety disorders, and other neuroses. The overwhelming majority will simply have to tough it out, read websites like this one or isolate themselves.

I have chosen the latter. I am at peace in the wilderness, 12 miles from civilisation, devoid of people and situations that prompt my mind to reenact old scenarios. I am mentally ill, and I know it. It is best for all that I isolate myself.

By anon274882 — On Jun 14, 2012

The problem of talking to a therapist is we often are too sick to work to make money to pay a therapist. So websites have been my therapist, and are very much appreciated.

By anon257164 — On Mar 25, 2012

Learned helplessness has played a major part in my 63 year old life. I basically grew up in a fatherless household so I was never shown how to do guy things so that played a big part.

But I've found one technique that I find that helps. (Let's assume the problem is not a life and death situation but more of a day to day problem). First, there is that "dead" zone where I'm telling myself there is no answer -- I'm blank and messed up. It might only be momentarily.

But I try to force myself come to up with three possible solutions, regardless of how feasible each might initially appear. It seems when I start doing this, much of the time the second possibility is the one that works. I've only been doing this a few months but I really like it.

By anon166493 — On Apr 08, 2011

The latest info is that we can 'rewire' our brain, and MRI scans can prove this. Just knowing this can start the healing process.

By anon156159 — On Feb 25, 2011

The experiment on dogs is appalling. Shame on the psychology fraternity.

By anon123018 — On Oct 30, 2010

Through my lived experience and observation of others, learned helplessness, even when learned in very early childhood, can be overcome permanently. This said, change requires diligence and time, a determination to succeed and the right assistance and expertise.

I've been working intentionally on this for four years now and expect I'll need to pay attention to my psycho-emotional-spiritual health a bit more than many for the rest of my life.

At age 56, I'll probably always have some scars and a tendency to default with certain triggers but on a scale of 1-100, LH is around a 10, instead of a 90 and life is much more serene and joyful, less anxiety, fear and stress.

By anon120952 — On Oct 22, 2010

I just found out about this term, "learned helplessness" through my therapist who is helping me deal with my past severe childhood traumatic abuse, and I'm learning that because of the way I was treated, it has affected the way I deal (or more accurately, don't deal) with my own child.

She has essentially become my abuser because I'm letting her, because internally, I feel like there's nothing to be done about it. I'm like the dogs in the second round where they could just jump over the barrier but they just lie on the floor and whimper instead! This concept of learned helplessness makes so much sense!

By anon101639 — On Aug 04, 2010

If learned helplessness is the only relational model one has ever experienced, it is not possible to view it objectively and say, "I will conquer this condition with a cognitive strategy."

A perceptive therapist may recognize the cluster of symptoms and challenge the patients perceptions. But there is no denying the patient's academic problems that couldn't be overcome, or the patient's inability to develop normal interpersonal relationships, or the patient's resort to suicide as the only available response to the pain of depression, or the patient's inability to evaluate a stressful situation and solve the difficulty.

The therapist may explain how these problems result from an abusive childhood and point to positive aspects of the patient's life, but the patient's perceptions are true. They are borne out by their consequences. No veil is lifted so the world becomes transparent.

One must still slog through the day, exerting draining amounts of psychic energy to accomplish the most routine tasks. Peers who navigate the world with comparative ease merely filter out the negative. What jerk recognizes himself as a jerk?

For the learned helpless, that filter is gone and it is unlikely that therapy will replace it.

By dbuckley212 — On Jul 12, 2010

I would respectfully disagree that this condition is extraordinarily difficult to break away from at any point in life, but I certainly think that it has a fairly high number of obstacles. Perhaps it is more common than we might think and maybe the problem tends to come and go depending on circumstance. Is it likely that scientific advances in this condition will reveal more nuance and a larger number of people who suffer from Learned Helplessness?

What are some appropriate and helpful ways to fight the situations and environments which cause this?

By milagros — On May 09, 2010

So I wonder, if once the learned helplessness is accepted as a way of life, is it even possible to completely lose that feeling of self doubt and lack of control over ones life?

Maybe by being removed from the controlling and abusive environment, and enough time passes, the person can again regain control? A good therapist here would no doubt be of great help.

I think also that it makes a big difference at what point in life did this happen. If this is learned in childhood, it must be very difficult and nearly impossible to abandon that behavior, and gain self confidence, because that is all what the child knows. If on the other hand this happens in adulthood, it might be easier to overcome the problem, since that person can associate the helplessness with a certain event, or situation rather than as a personal shortcoming.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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