‘Learned helplessness’.. It’s just a matter of ABC!

“When we encounter ADVERSITY, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into BELIEFS. These beliefs may become so habitual we don’t even realize we have them unless we stop to focus on them. And they don’t just sit there idly; they have CONSEQUENCES. The beliefs are the direct cause of what we feel and what we do next. They can spell the difference between dejection and giving up, on the one hand, and well-being and constructive action on the other. The first step is to see the connection between adversity, belief, and consequence. The second step is to see how the ABCs operate every day in your own life.”

-Martin Seligman

Learned helplessness is when a person believes that they have no control over a situation. So, they think about avoiding failure rather than wanting to succeed. American psychologist Martin Seligman (1965) discovered learnt helplessness while studying the behavior of dogs. In his experiment, Seligman would ring a bell during which the dog would receive an electric shock. After a number of times, the dog would react to the shock even before it happened. Later, the dog was put into a large crate that was divided down the middle with a low fence. The floor on one side of the fence was electrified but, not the other. When the dog received the electric shock he expected it to jump over to the non-shocking side of the fence instead, the dog laid down. From the first part of the experiment, the dog had ‘learned’ that there was nothing it could do to escape the shock hence, it gave up. Seligman termed this condition as “learned helplessness”. The dog could have jumped to the other side of the crate and escaped the shock but it learned otherwise.

This kind of behavior pattern has been noted in humans while being exposed to punishments or discomforts in life. The way people view negative events that happen to them has an impact on whether they feel helpless or not.

Untitle.jpgLearned helplessness is a condition in which one thinks that they have no control over their life and suffer from a sense of powerlessness caused by a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. As humans we do this to ourselves because the fear of failing is so high that we do not even want to try and at some point we start justifying it. “I cannot do this”, “It is my fault”, “I deserve this”, “It will always be like this”, “This is my life” are some of the most commonly used justifications.

There are a number of things we can do to overcome learned helplessness.

  • Re-phrase your self-beliefs – For example, if you believe you want to do something but it is harder than you thought, instead of thinking “It’s hard therefore, I cannot do this and I should give up”, you should re-phrase your belief and think “Ok, it is harder than I thought but I still want to do this” or “I want to this and so there has to be a way. If this is hard what other option could I try? ”.
  • Understand the difference between choosing and acting – Choosing to do something and acting upon something are two different things. You have to act on a choice you make in order for it to be successful. For example,

– leaving your house means picking your bags and moving into another house not telling others that you are looking for a new house.

– throwing a party means organizing the place and sending out invites not asking others for a preferred date or location.

  • Most importantly stop justifying, stop thinking about it and start acting on it.

Learned helplessness makes a person believe that they are powerless and leads them to make poor choices that worsen the situation, eventually leading to depression. It leads them to believe that any negative event that occurs in their life is beyond their control and so, they stop trying to change it. Even when prevented with an opportunity to escape they do not take any action.


There is only one way to understand learned helplessness. You should know that whatever you learn can be unlearned. You can change your thoughts and perceptions to gain confidence and power. You should always believe that you are in control and if someone else is trying to control you, then you should DO SOMETHING to stop them and regain power. You won’t be able to change an entire situation at a time but you can take small steps towards accomplishing it.

Learned helplessness can be reversed by being optimistic. Thinking in a more positive way helps to open your mind to the possibility that things will get better. What once seemed impossible could become easy to do with just a little effort. In any situation just tell yourself “I know how to handle this and I am going to do something about it”. Seligman said that “the drive to resist compulsion is more important than sex, food or water. The drive for competence or to resist compulsion is a drive to avoid helplessness”.

Therefore, it is just a matter of getting your ABC’s right. When you encounter ADVERSITY, you should believe that it is temporary and you have the power to change it. This BELIEF will lead to desirable outcomes (i.e. positive CONSEQUENCES) that give you the energy to act upon the situation.

Controlling your mind is like magic, if you know the trick you could achieve anything in life.

-Abinisha Viswalingam


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s