Panagiota Kontoléon • 29 May 2019

The concept of learned helplessness intrigued me when I first read about it. Imagine a beautiful bird that without being its own fault is locked in a cage for many years. One day the cage door stays open. Now, the bird can fly, it can be free! But even though it still has wings and the situation has changed, the bird does not make any move to leave. Why? Because it has come to "believe" that it is still trapped. Let us consider the case of a man who as a child was devalued or mocked by his parents every time he tried to express his point of view, and who as a man is unable to express his opinion at work. His convictions and expectations for the result have made him relinquish any action.

Learned helplessness is acquired

Learned helplessness is a mental state where, when someone is forced to suffer and tolerate recurrent adverse situations (as in the example above) he becomes incapable or reluctant to avoid them.  This is because he ASSUMES that a new situation has the same limitations as an old one that resembles it, while in fact there are many other positive alternatives and possibilities.  These new possibilities may exist either because the situation is different, or because the person has changed, or both.  But if he (that is his brain) is trained to think he has no control over the situation, then he will not even try.

Dangers to health

Health psychology has been very much concerned with the subject of learned helplessness.  It is very dangerous for a people to fill their minds with restrictive beliefs about what they can achieve and what not, because they enter in a vicious circle of self-defeatism.  When trapped in the nets of this cycle, then their productivity and incentives inevitably deteriorate, and of course the same happens to their energy and health.  They suffer from anxiety, depression, often have emotional disturbances with signs of passivity or aggression, and it is difficult to perform cognitive tasks such as problem solving.  As a result, it is less likely to change unhealthy patterns of behavior and more likely to neglect diet and exercise.  This pessimistic way of looking at life contributes to a weakened immune system, increased vulnerability not only to colds and fevers but to major diseases such as heart attacks and cancer, and also to a poorer recovery from health problems.

Ways to deal with learned helplessness
  • Recognize learned helplessness for what it is. Most probably people around you will start complaining you are playing helpless. This is a learned behavior and therefore it can be unlearned!
  • Start by challenging your perception on a daily basis. Usually, we perceive what we want to perceive because our reactions are mostly automatic reflexes to whatever happens around us
  • Our perception makes our reality; by challenging our perception we will be making baby steps, day by day, to change the parts of our reality that do not work for us.

I know from experience that there are no quick fixes in life, so this is a lifetime process.  Of course, I am not always successful in doing all that, LOL, but at least I am trying. When I manage to be successful it is mighty uplifting! When I am not, I am laughing at my folly and keep practicing.