Escape the Prison of Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness makes you feel you're not capable of anything. You must learn how to escape from these feelings.
Escape the Prison of Learned Helplessness
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

We can define learned helplessness with a simple example. Say that, at some point in your life, you were told “You don’t know how to do anything.” If it was an important person in your life who said it, it’s possible that you found it difficult to forget.

This is an all too frequent phenomenon. Spontaneous verbalizations are made by fathers, mothers, and even educators, who determine almost unintentionally attributions that, far from helping, educating, or motivating, build barriers against the emotional and cognitive development of a child.

However, learned helplessness isn’t always a seed that’s planted in you from childhood. There are other kinds. For example, couples who fall into the trap of toxic relationships. The levels of manipulation, coercion, and emotional abuse in these relationships become so high that the victim often ends up believing that they’re unable to get out of this vicious circle.

sad girl lying

If you suffer from learned helplessness, you tell yourself that you’re not capable and that you’re unable to react and defend yourself. It doesn’t even matter if you previously possessed good self-esteem and self-concept. Learned helplessness is a rope that ties you up and prevents you from going beyond the attributions that others make of you. It’s a vicious cycle that you add to yourself.

How can you escape from the prison of learned helplessness? Let’s take a look.

The invisible prison of learned helplessness

It was in the 1970s that the American psychologist Martin Seligman first studied and developed the concept of learned helplessness. Through experiments at the laboratory level with animals, he applied this concept to people’s daily lives.

Learned helplessness is based on a type of negative reasoning where you see yourself as incapable of changing a situation. Sometimes, the origin is in your personal history. It’s based on those vain attempts when, far from being successful, you failed.

Equally, it can also be due to continually being told “You’re worthless”, or “You’ll never get anywhere”. In this way, it ends up determining you. In fact, learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon that can affect you both cognitively and affectively. It changes your thinking, your perception, the way you see the world, and even yourself.

Few things can be as destructive as thinking that you’re not capable of anything. Thinking that you can’t change anything and you’ll never get anywhere. Furthermore, learned helplessness can also cause you to fall into the trap of ruminant thinking. In other words, repeatedly thinking about your failures, and your ‘inability’ to achieve anything.

These kinds of thoughts can make you depressed if they become chronic. If this happens, you only see the dark and incapacitating side of life and you lose control of your life.

How to escape

A woman suffering from learned helplessness.
  • Change the scale of your expectations. Until now, others have had the power in your life. You thought that what happened to you didn’t depend on you. Change those thoughts. No one pulls the strings of your life at will, you aren’t a puppet. You’re a capable person, with the right to decide and take charge. Therefore, take control of your life and responsibility for your actions.
  • Be brave. At some point, an opportunity for change will arise in your life. Take it. Until then, you can try small things. For instance, take a trip, say no to that person who obstructs you, look in the mirror and tell yourself that you deserve to be happier. Courage will break down the first wall of learned helplessness. Then, everything will be easier.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. Put more stimuli in your life, new situations in which you can test yourself, get excited, and show yourself that you’re capable of achieving things. Get out of your routine and out of your passive comfort zone where only the cobwebs of your own helplessness live. Push them aside and open new doors to your life. Remember, you’re the owner of your own destiny and you’re in charge of your own life.

Image Courtesy: Cskneit, Amanda Lyrn

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.