Learned Helplessness: What it Means and How To Overcome It

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Abusers disempower their victims in any way they possibly can in order to gain the upper hand. This can result in what is known as Learned Helplessness, a theory Martin Seligman introduced based on research he conducted at Cornell University in 1967. From Wikipedia:

“Learned Helplessness is a psychological condition in which a human being or animal has learned to believe that it is helpless in a particular situation. It has come to believe that it has no control over its situation and that whatever it does is futile. As a result, the human being or animal will stay passive in the face of an unpleasant, harmful or damaging situation, even when it does actually have the power to change its circumstances. Learned helplessness theory is the view that depression results from a perceived lack of control over the events in one’s life, which may result from prior exposure to (actually or apparently) uncontrollable negative events.”

When you look at learned helplessness in domestic violence, you see victims who’ve been told by fathers, mothers, teachers, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc. that they can’t do anything right, that others’ problems are their fault, that they are not worth very much, etc. they start to believe it, and can look very passive in abusive relationships. On the other hand, a little girl is told by her parents, the church and by relatives that her virginity is the only thing she really has of any worth, it’s her crowning glory and the most valuable thing she has that she can trade in for her husband’s love, respect and devotion. But then an uncle disvirgins her before she even hits puberty and she dies a little on the inside because she has lost that one thing that would have distinguished her from those other girls and made her the priced possession, and to top that, she is told by her abuser that she is to blame for the abuse, no one would believe her anyway,  and she is a bad girl; all of these in turn influences her choice to stay silent and endure the abuse for however long it goes on for. “What the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.”

The theory of learned helplessness also has been applied to many conditions and behaviors, including clinical depression, aging, discrimination, parenting, academic achievement, drug abuse, alcoholism, politics and citizen’s reactions to governance. Based on learned helplessness, a specific theory was developed for abused spouses/significant others called the theory of cyclic abuse, a cycle which is also known as the Battered Women Syndrome. In this theory, a relationship in which domestic violence has occurred is likely to continue including violence in a predictable and repetitious pattern. 

The theory of cyclic abuse posits that not only will abuse victims feel helpless, they will also:

  • Re-experience the battering as if it were recurring even when it is not.
  • Attempt to avoid the psychological impact of battering by avoiding activities, people, and emotions.
  • Experience hyper arousal or hyper vigilance.
  • Have disrupted interpersonal relationships.
  • Experience body image distortion or other somatic concerns.
  • Develop sexuality and intimacy issues.

Clearly learned helplessness is a serious and urgent concern for victims of domestic violence and other abuse. Luckily, there are some ways to treat learned helplessness.


The first step is to be aware of your struggles. Learned helplessness is a serious and complicated effect of abuse and it’s quite difficult to overcome. Once you realize the symptoms in yourself, try to discover what the root cause might be. It might be helpful to think back to childhood events or developmental events that may have caused the problem. Common causes are abuse, neglect, or seeing someone else with learned helplessness and adopting it for yourself. It is also important to be aware of your current negative beliefs, and how you manage difficult situations. You may discover how learned helplessness follows you throughout your day. Examine your behavior and question the belief behind them. Try to eliminate certain words, language that is helpless or self-harming. Keep track of all the negative thoughts you have throughout the day, your self-deprecating thoughts may seem innocent at first, but when you are constantly harsh or condemnatory toward yourself, your behavior or decisions, eventually your mind will be what debilitates you, not any external factors.


Being aware of your “helpless” tendencies prepares you to do something about it. If you have discovered that your thoughts are constantly negative and harsh, it can potentially lead to depression, anxiety, and low-self-esteem – if it hasn’t already. Do a “reality check” to stop this cycle of negative beliefs, ask yourself if they are factual or if you are being dramatic. If the reality check doesn’t work, try to look for other explanations to your worries. When you do run into issues in life, that are not simply events of learned helplessness, it is important to use them as learning experiences instead of reasons to give up. Give yourself daily affirmations of what you are good at and see the areas you’re working at improving as a work in progress.

If you are surrounded by people who also have learned helplessness, it may be time to break away from them, as they can contribute to a constant feeling of helplessness.

One of the most effective ways to treat learned helplessness is to seek help from a therapist, as it can be hard for one to become empowered on one’s own. If you have other conditions combined with learned helplessness, seeing a therapist becomes all the more necessary and effective in changing your life.

Take Control

A therapist will help you achieve and retain personal mastery, but it is really up to you to take control of your life. There are different ways you can take control, some of which are:

First, make sure you are setting goals. For someone who is used to feeling helpless, setting goals can feel like taking control – especially when you achieve them. You can start by setting small goals throughout the day that you can achieve and then larger ones that you can constantly be working towards.

Next is to celebrate! Learn to celebrate small wins. Rewarding yourself throughout your recovery journey will help boost your self-esteem.

Surround yourself with the right people. Having positive relationships to turn to throughout your journey, as a support system is crucial. Having people in your life who are optimistic with “can-do” attitudes who you observe overcome challenges time and again would have a contagious effect, enforcing your newfound hopefulness.

Finally, take care of yourself. Take time on your own if you need it. Sleep, meditate, engage in any activity that renews and nurtures you. Also, don’t hesitate to contact a professional if it becomes too much to handle yourself.



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