What is Helplessness Learned and How to Avoid It?

The learned helplessness, also called learned helplessness, is a style of passive behavior, which is due to the belief that our actions will produce no change in the current or future situation.

The feeling these people have is that they do not have the power or control to change what they do not like, it causes them discomfort or it seems unfair to them.

Learned helplessness

Let us begin by talking about ourselves, the human beings, who before a conflictive, problematic or unjust situation we have, two alternatives of action:

  • Intervene to try to change it.
  • Staying passive before her.

Now think about a conflict or problem that you have had recently. Think about how you acted. Did you tackle the problem or did you decide that it was best not to do anything?

Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness

What is behind these two different attitudes? Why some people do not act before the problems and others do?

After the first attitude, to intervene in the situation with the aim of changing it, are people who believe in their own abilities and the possibility of changing things through their actions. They trust in themselves.

After the second attitude, to remain passive before the situation, are people affected by the defenselessness learned.

Characteristics of learned helplessness

For you to understand better, I present several examples of situations where it is usually given the defenselessness learned:

  • Children who suffer from bullying, who endure this type of abuse throughout their school stage.
  • Students who tolerate disrespect of their teachers.
  • Abused women, who do not denounce or react to the abuse they suffer.
  • Employees who endure situations of abuse of power at work.
  • Unemployed people who are not looking for work.
  • Citizens who do not vote do not express or oppose what their political leaders impose.
  • People who do not help humanitarian causes because they believe that however much they do, nothing is going to change.

The defenselessness learned does not occur only in the people who participate in the situations I have just described, but also occurs in all those people who passively observe what happens without doing anything about it.

In all cases there is something in common, the belief that they cannot change their current situation or the current situation of their society, resulting in a non- expression of our desires or our rights.

The defenselessness learned is aggravated when actions, such as abuse, do not follow a logical order that allows the person to prepare for what is going to happen, but occur without warning and without a justified cause.

Theory of Helplessness Learned

The theory of learned helplessness emerged in the 1970s from the hand of Martin Seligman, a prestigious American psychologist.

Seligman performed an experiment that provided electric shocks to caged dogs as they attempted to leave. The dogs could do nothing to escape such shocks.

The result was that, after several discharges, the animals stopped trying to escape, even when the door was open and there was no risk of further discharges.

As we can see, these dogs had acquired learned helplessness fairly quickly, acquiring an inactive and passive attitude in the face of such a situation.

The animals had learned that, whatever they did, the result would always be the same and, therefore, they could not escape from the cages.

How does the defenselessness learned in people arise?

The defenselessness learned, as its name indicates, is learned. This learning can be done in many different ways, some of them are:

  • By living in an excessively controlled environment, ie children whose parents control everything that happens around them and do not let the child experience their environment and learn the consequences of their actions.
  • Through the messages we have received in childhood. If when we are little we say: you cannot, do not try, leaving me that you do not know … the result are adults with a lack of self-esteem and learned defenselessness.
  • Through a series of continued failures. Imagine that you try something over and over and you always get the same failed result. In the end you give up, you give up, like the dogs of Seligman’s experiment.
  • For the absence of a logical order in the behaviors. For example, abusers who get into a child in an unpredictable way and without the victim doing anything previously. In this way, the affected subject cannot prepare himself for what is going to happen and the defenselessness learned is aggravated.

The fact that a person like you has an attitude of control and dominance or an attitude of defenselessness learned is mainly due to children’s experiences.

Childhood is the most important stage in the life of a person, since in these years it is where the personality structure is forged that will be maintained throughout its life with enough stability.

Also Read: Aerophobia: What It Is and How to Overcome It in 8 Steps

Although childhood is the key stage in learning processes, learned helplessness can also be acquired in adulthood.

Consequences of learned helplessness

The learned helplessness goes hand in hand with a series of serious consequences that affect all areas of life (personal, family, social, work …).

If you are a person who suffers from defenselessness, surely:

  • Have a great feeling of impotence.
  • Feel that you have no control over what happens to you or happens around you.
  • You feel that your efforts are useless, that no matter what you do because nothing will change the course of events.
  • Do not correctly identify the causality of the facts.
  • Do not act or act, have a passive attitude .
  • Do not feel responsibility for anything.
  • Do not be motivated.
  • Do not take initiative.

As a result of all the consequences we have just described, the person manifests a series of feelings such as sadness, insecurity, fear…


Through studies it has been observed that learned helplessness can influence the development of diseases, although the relationship between learned helplessness and illness is complex because it involves innumerable variables.

In studies of rats it has been shown that those suffering from learned helplessness were more likely to develop ulcers than those who did not.

What has been shown is that learned helplessness is intimately related to depression.The person acquires defenselessness learned after successive failures, loses the feeling of control before what happens to him and ends up behaving passively and inactive, forging a depression.


How to avoid helplessness learned in 10 steps

The learned helplessness is a behavior that we have learned through lived experiences; therefore, we can unlearn it or acquire another type of behavior more healthy and incompatible with the defenselessness.

Here are 10 easy steps to avoid:

  1. Identify in which areas of your life you manifest defenselessness learned

At work, at school, with your family, with your partner, with friends …

This is the first step and may at first cost you, since you have been behaving in this way for a long time. Do not worry about it, it’s totally normal.

To make this identification easier, you can ask the following questions for each area of ​​your life:

  • Do I express my wishes?
  • Defend my rights?
  • Would I like to act differently?
  • Why do not I act differently?
  • Would I like to get different results?
  • I would like the relationship to be different?
  • Do I have control over this situation?

These questions will help you become aware of how you behave in each situation and, most importantly, whether you are satisfied with that behavior or would like to change it.

  1. Look for outside help

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. People who ask for help are mature enough to understand that the help of others is a major impetus to get out of the present situation.

Such help is also very useful so that the others from outside help you to identify in which situations you behave with defenselessness learned and in which not.

With the help of your loved ones or the right professionals, the change will be simpler and less expensive.

  1. Perform exercises or activities that give you back the feeling of control

The activities or exercises to be done can be very varied; you must choose them according to your tastes and preferences.

Start with simple activities or small easy-to-reach daily goals that you feel you have control of, such as making a soup of letters, doing simple mathematical problems, reading small texts…

  1. Do self-esteem exercises

Generally people with defenselessness learned have a low self-esteem, so if you work on self-esteem, the beneficial effects you  get will have an impact on reducing your defenselessness.

As in the previous point, you must choose the self-esteem exercises with which you feel more comfortable.

  1. Rebuke yourself for your actions

People who suffer from learned defenselessness tend to have a lack of positive reinforcement, both from external persons and from oneself towards the Activities that they perform.

Each time you conduct a behavior, simple and simple as it may seem, affirm positively with style phrases: “I have achieved it”, “I can do it”, “I have striven and I have achieved my goal” …

  1. Dedicate yourself time

Many people are more aware of others and of what is happening around them than of themselves. This behavior is a symptom of devaluation; these people do not appreciate themselves as they should.

Does this happen to you?

If your answer has been yes, from now on I recommend that you start to dedicate time to yourself. This time can be used in many ways: making a hobby, doing sports, taking care of your appearance, meditating…

The goal is to have time to do what you want, regardless of what activity.

  1. Learn new things, get involved in new projects

Is there any activity you’ve always wanted to do and so far you have not dared? Go ahead, now is the time!

Performing a new activity has many benefits: you interact with new people, learn, have fun, enjoy …

All these benefits affect you in many ways: you get positive reinforcements, you are able to take new actions, and you have control over what you start … thus reducing the harmful effects of learned helplessness.

  1. Change your language, the way you talk

Surely you are not aware of the amount of negative messages that you say to yourself throughout the day: “I always do everything wrong”, “I am not able”,  “I do not know for what I do” …

From now on pay attention to what you say and how you tell it, in this way, you can be aware of those messages and change them.

Some possible alternatives are: “this is costing me, but I can do it”, “if I do not get it, nothing happens”, “nobody is perfect”, “the important thing is to strive to the maximum” …

  1. Generate alternatives

Before the situations of defenselessness learned generate different alternatives of action, do not stand still, defenseless.

For example, before a situation of abuse of power at work, find out about your labor rights and the possible lines of action that you have and Act.

  1. Generate expectations of your actions

You have just taken the path of change. Be patient and be realistic, as it may cost you more than you think.

Remember that the longer you are in the situation of defenselessness learned, the more expensive the process of changing those behaviors will be.            

In a parallel way it generates expectations of how far you can and would like to arrive, generates expectations of change that encourage you to continue working  daily to change the defenselessness that you learned one day.

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