People Learn to Feel Helpless
Helplessness is a psychological state that people can develop because they have learned it. Research on animals has shown that if these creatures are repeatedly faced with an unpleasant stimulus that they are unable to control they become helpless. They stop trying to avoid the negative stimulus and just accept it. Even if later in the experiment the means of escape is provided he animal will not make use of it. This same reaction can occur with humans. They can learn to feel helpless.
Learned Helplessness Defined
Learned helplessness refers to a mental state where people feel completely powerless to improve their own situation in life. This means that they become unwilling to take action to improve a situation because they have already decided that it will not make much difference. An example of this would be the individual who is addicted to alcohol. Even when they accept that this substance abuse is making their life difficult, they can still feel helpless to improve the situation. This pessimism means that the world appears as a very hostile place and the individual becomes a passive victim.
Symptoms of Learned Helplessness
These are some of the most common symptoms of learned helplessness:
- The tendency to give up easily when faced with a problem
- Being prone to procrastination
- A reduced ability to solve problems
- The tendency to be passive when action is required
- Feelings of frustration
- Feelings of incompetence
- Feelings of loneliness
- Feeling of powerlessness
- Believing that things will turn out bad no matter what action is taken
- Feelings of low self-esteem
- Belief that there is no way to control things that are going to happen in the future
The Dangers of Learned Helplessness
If people have learned to feel helpless when faced with problems, it can make their life difficult. These are some of the dangers of this type of attitude:
- If people feel that they have little control over their future, they will be unwilling to put a great deal of effort into maintaining their physical well-being. They will not see the point in exercising or eating the right type of food.
- If people feel helpless they will put up with a great deal of misery in their life even when such problems could be resolved with a bit of effort.
- People may learn to be incompetent at tasks that they are fully able to handle successfully.
- Those individuals who have developed learned helplessness are far more likely to suffer from depression.
- Such people will tend to feel unsatisfied in employment because they will develop no feeling of mastery over their job.
- Even when they achieve some success they will not feel happy about it, because it feels undeserved . They will also suspect that anything good in life will be short-lasting.
- It can be harder to develop meaningful interpersonal relationships. This type of person will usually be shy in social settings. Those who get close can find such individuals hard to deal with because of their neediness and pessimism about the future.
- Parents who have developed this mental mindset will tend to neglect their children. For example, if their child is crying they parent will feel incapable of providing comfort.
- Such individuals can become overly dependent on other people. They may require help with even the simplest of tasks.
Learned Helplessness and Depression
The mental mindset of learned helplessness has been used as an explanation for depression. This theory originated in the 1960s from the work of the American psychologist Martin Seligman. He suggested that people become depressed because they feel they no longer have any control over the punishments and rewards in their life. Such individuals will also develop the belief that they are somehow responsible for their powerless state. The reason for why this state of learned helplessness develops is that the individual is faced with a situation that they are unable to control – they then develop the idea that they are responsible for this lack of control.
Learned Helplessness and Motivation
Motivation can be defined as the driving force behind action. Humans can accomplish amazing things if they have the enough motivation. In order for them to develop this inner strength, they first need to believe that changing their behavior will lead to a desirable outcome. If the individual does not believe that their actions will make a difference then they will be unable to summon the motivation to take these actions.
Learned Helplessness and Addiction
It is suggested that addicts suffer from learned helplessness. They are caught in a downward spiral and will usually feel powerless to prevent the descent. Even when the individual is clearly able to see beyond their denial, they can still feel unable to escape their addiction. If these people have tried previously to escape their addiction and failed, then this can reinforce the idea that the problem is beyond their control. This means that the addict is trapped in their misery, because they will be unable to summon the motivation to quit. Once the individual gives up trying to quit their addiction, they will be accepting a death sentence.
Learned Helplessness in Recovery
If people feel helpless in recovery, it will greatly interfere with their ability to build a satisfying life away from addiction. This is because the path of sobriety involves facing and overcoming challenges. These are the dangers of learned helplessness in recovery:
- If the individual feels that they are about to drink or use again, they will feel unable to prevent the relapse. They will just accept their slide back into addiction. Throughout their recovery, the individual is likely to have times when they need to fight for their sobriety. If they feel helpless, they will not put up much of a defense.
- If people accept the bare minimum in sobriety then this is all they will get. In order to build a successful life away from addiction, the individual will need to take action. The good things in life do not automatically fall into people’s lap. If the individual is prepared to accept the minimum they will find sobriety to be unsatisfying. They will then likely develop dry drunk syndrome, in which recovery becomes something to be endured.
- Emotional sobriety is all about the individual taking control of their life. This will not be possible if people feel helpless.
- One of the great joys of sobriety is the ability to help other people. If the individual feels unable to improve their own life, they are unlikely to be of much benefit to other people.
- People with this mental outlook will find it hard to develop friendships in recovery. This will mean that they will suffer from loneliness, a potential relapse trigger.
How to Overcome Learned Helplessness
There are several ways that people can overcome the mental state of learned helplessness:
- Helplessness that is learned can be unlearned. The individual can begin by tackling the small problems in their life. Once they have achieved some success, they will feel more capable of dealing with the bigger challenges. Success always leads to more success.
- It is vital that people realize that learned helplessness is a belief. It is not who the person actually is. The individual has the power to get beyond this negative belief they have about themselves.
- Overcoming learned helplessness involves people taking responsibility for their own life. It is making the decision to take the power back and to build a life that is desirable.
- The individual needs to closely examine the beliefs that are keeping them trapped in the mental state of helplessness. For example, if an addict feels that they are powerless to escape the substance abuse, they should examine the evidence to support this. They will need to look at other possible reasons for why they failed in their attempts to quit previously.
- There are different self-help programs that can help the individual escape their ideas of helplessness. Those who are attempting to escape an addiction may find that 12 Step fellowships can be of benefit. In groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, they learn to depend on a higher power to get beyond the feeling of helplessness. Members talk about how God (higher power) is doing for me what I could not do for myself.
- If people are finding it hard to get beyond their learned helplessness, they will likely benefit from therapy. The therapist will be able to help the individual to identify the faulty thinking that is getting in the way of a more positive outlook.