What is Learned Helplessness and can it be unlearned?

You may have heard the term before but I wanted to provide some insight. Learned helplessness is used to a type of conditioning. Both humans and other animals can be taught to have expectations. But if they expect harmful things to happen because they’re use to a type of pain or discomfort witch they see no escape from eventually the human or animal will stop trying to avoid the pain or discomfort all together.

This is a phenomenon that causes a person to feel that they have no control and are helpless. A person is not born to feel this way.  The person learns that no matter what they do they feel they have no affect on what happens to them. They give up trying to have power or control of their life. Weather the person truly has no control or they just believe they have no control.

Martin Seligman and Steven Maier are the two psychologists the coined the term. they did a few experiments (immoral by todays standards) that I won’t describe here. But they discovered that when animals were put in a painful situation without escape later when they were given the opportunity to avoid pain the animal didn’t even try.

Sligman found a connection between Learned Helplessness and depression. The two kinds of learned helplessness is Global and personal. The first is when a person believes no one, and nothing can help them or alleiviate their pain and struggle. The second is the belief that you personally can’t do anything to help yourself but someone else might be able to. Learned helplessness decreases motivation, self-esteem, your ability to learn and adapt. 

But there is a way to reverses it. my psychology teacher always said if a behavior is learned it can be unlearned. The key is optimism. Or positive thinking. To see the situation in a different perspective. Because the biggest blessing in life is that nothing lats. Things come and go. The rain comes but soon it passes. And you are not helpless.

But it’s hard to stay positive, especially in situations where you do feel powerless. Weather it be controlling emotions, or dealing with an unhealthy living situation, or even overcoming bullying and abuse. What to do when it really does look hopeless. Well I can only share what helped me get through a few difficult thing, maybe they’ll help you too.

  • Find someone that you can go to for advice. It’s nice to talk to friends and people your age but sometimes when you find a mentor or even an authority figure you can confine in their experience might be just what you need to hear.
  • Find a place you can make your own. It could be your bedroom, or your backyard. It could be that place by the lake that no one goes at a certain time. It could even be a journal you take with you. Wherever or whatever it is have a place you can be you and you can be alone.
  • Think about how you thinkNot all the thoughts that enter your mind are true. You can filter them out and decide what you want to believe.
  • Validate yourself sometimesIt’s easy to get caught up in the “everything is my fault” mantra. But sometimes other people are jerks for no reason and it’s really not you, and it really is them.
  • Contol what you can. If that means you can control your living space do that. You can choose how your room looks do that. Choose who to talk to then do that.
  • You are a powerful Human-being. Sometimes we have to take some power back. You realize you’re being manipulated, say no and don’t back down. If you have to use the *Grey rock* method then do that. Find a solution to defeat your problem without making yourself the problem, because there is such a solution.

*Grey rock is a term people use when they shut off signs of emotions from people that are searching to get a rise out of you. Often used to shut down Narcissists that feed off of all emotion.

Informative content came from:


Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (1976). Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 105(1), 3-46.

8 thoughts on “What is Learned Helplessness and can it be unlearned?”

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