When we experience negative things we like to believe that we can change them, influence their course, and turn them into something positive. But this is not always the case, and when people feel they have no control over what is happening to them, they tend to give up and accept their destiny. It is what is known as learned helplessness or learned desperation, one of the worst things that can happen to us and where no one can protect themselves.
What is learned helplessness?
Learned helplessness is the belief that whatever we do we will not get a different result. It is a brutal psychological prison that completely disconnects us from reality and blocks any possibility of liberation or change. The worst thing is that the first learning will remain imprinted in our brain, leaving a mark that will affect our way of perceiving ourselves and the world.
The first studies on learned helplessness have been made on animals. Psychologist Martin Seligman saw that when they were continuously subjected to negative stimuli and had no chance to escape, at some point they simply stopped trying to avoid the stimulus, surrendered and behaved as if they were completely helpless. The worst thing is that when they were given the opportunity to escape, they did not take advantage of it because they had learned in the past that they could not escape.
The story of the chained elephant by Jorge Bucay reflects exactly what impotence is learned:
– When I was little I loved circuses, and what I liked most of them were animals. I was particularly struck by the elephant, as I later learned was also favorite animal other children. During the function, the huge beast boasted a size, a weight and a huge force… But after the performance until shortly before returning to the stage, the elephant always remained tied to a small stake in the ground with a chain that held its legs.
However, the stake was only a tiny piece of wood buried just a few inches in the ground. And although the wood was thick and powerful, it seemed obvious that an animal capable of starting a tree with his strength rennet, could be released easily from the stake and run.
The mystery still seems evident. What holds it then? Why not flee?
As a child, I still trust the wisdom of the elders. Then I asked about the mystery of the elephant… One of them told me that the elephant ran away because he was not performing.
Then I did the obvious question:- If you are performing, Why they strung? -.
I do not remember getting any coherent response.
Over time, I forgot the mystery of the elephant and the stake…
Some years ago, I discovered that, lucky for me, someone had been wise enough to find the answer:
– The circus elephant is no exception because it has been tied to a stake like it since was very, very small.
I closed my eyes and imagined the helpless newborn elephant subject to the stake. I am sure that, Impostor elefantito digs at the moment, shot and trying to sweat it loose. And, despite its efforts, he failed, because that stake was too hard for him.
I figured out that I was asleep and the next day I tried again, and the next day and the next… Until, one day, a terrible day for the story, the animal accepted his helplessness and resigned himself to his fate.
Undoubtedly, the learned helplessness is not exclusive to the animal kingdom, often the same happens to people, so we are unable to perceive and take advantage of opportunities for change or relief when they appear. We can live chained to poles that deprive us of freedom, especially when we think we can not do certain things simply because we once tried and failed. At that moment we have clearly recorded in our mind the message “we can not do it”. In fact, it is a fairly common situation in depression and in the victims of violence.
Why are we unable to react to certain situations?
Martin Seligman explains that we are incapable of reacting to painful situations because at some point of the journey, and after trying to change the course of things without getting the expected results, we inhibit and fall into a state of passivity. In other words, when we feel helpless and believe that there is no solution, we throw the towel, to the point where we are unable to see the opportunities for change that arise. It’s as if we were putting the bandage of the past on our eyes and let this determine our future.
In a sense, the learned desperation is a kind of psychological adaptation mechanism, as the time comes when the forces abandon us and we are unable to continue to handle so much pain and suffering, so we reduce the activation level to preserve the few resources left. In fact, the inability to react is always the result of a deep psychological deterioration.
The symptoms of learned helplessness
In the learned helplessness are involved fundamental areas: motivational, cognitive, emotional and behavioral, giving rise to a series of thoughts, feelings and characteristical behaviors.
– The person lost the motivation to continue fighting, threw the towel surrendering to the circumstances. In other words, it assumes the role and mentality of the victim, which manifests itself in behavioral behavior through deep apathy.
– The person does not learn from mistakes, feels that can not do anything to improve his situation and takes his destiny as immutable. Mistakes cease to be growth tools and become evidence of the existence of fatality.
– The person falls into a deep depression and in despair and develops a pessimistic vision of the world, convinced that he is incapable of coming out of that situation. It can often feel like a leaf in the wind or a puppet of fate.
– The person does not make important decisions because he feels he can not change the course of his life and have no control over it, so he closes in himself and passively undergoes the circumstances.
In fact, learned helplessness has been associated with various psychological disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and phobias. For example, a shy person in social situations may begin to feel that he can not do anything to improve his symptoms. That feeling of lack of control can lead to the avoidance of social situations, and this can worsen its timidity and trigger a social phobia.
In which contexts appears the learned helplessness?
Learned desperation can be seen practically in all areas of our lives, professional, social and personal. In the professional sector, it is very common because many obstacles to change are being put in many work environments. When a person has proposed new ideas and all have been rejected, he ends up adapting to his role and becomes a passive employee without any motivation.
It is also seen at personal level, especially in those people who have been given many restrictions or labels when they were children and were not taught to handle failure. If a person grows up with the idea of being incapable, he will carry that idea for most of life and it will become a limit to his development. That is why phrases such as “do not even try to do it” or “you are not able to do anything” become a stone that damages self-esteem and dignity. Those who have listened to them throughout their childhood will not only be afraid of challenges but will not even be able to identify good opportunities.
Of course, it also happens at a social level, when it comes to the belief that do whatever we are doing, nothing will change, so we relsign to the political, economic and social system. In fact, the saying “better known evil than good yet to know” perfectly reflects the concept of learned helplessness.
Robert Lobel’s award-winning video “Wind” is perfect for understanding the learned desperation at socal level with a touch of humor. It is important to be aware of this kind of learned helplessness because when this feeling is shared by many people, it ends up becoming a nefarious destiny that nobody questions.
Tolerance to failure protects us from feelings of despair
All people do not react in the same way to adversity, there are those who develop the learned helplessness and others who become more resilient. The key lies in coping resources that we can activate in those moments.
That’s why Seligman himself defends the need to fail. We need to feel sad, angry and frustrated. Protecting us from these emotions makes us more vulnerable because we do not learn to persevere.
The ability to be resilient is basically based on confidence in our ability to overcome adversity and develops only when we have the ability to fight and become the makers of our lives. Developing an internal locus of control is critical to resisting the worst challenges because it allows us to be aware that, although the circumstances affect us, ultimately do not determine the course of the events.
Learning how to intervene in the environment in which we live and get results, both positive and negative, allows us to understand that we have some degree of control and that external variables are not always responsible for what is happening to us. After all, we can always choose how we react to situations.
Learned helplessness is not a life sentence. We must remember that nothing is eternal, even if passing through a bad time everything seems gray. Change occurs when we begin to become conscious, rebuild self-esteem, and find a new meaning to life, so that we can gradually recover power.
Chang, E. C. & Sanna, L. J. (2007) Affectivity and psychological adjustment across tow adult generations: Does pessimistic explanatory style still matter?Personality and Individual Differences; 43: 1149–1159.
Garber, J. & Seligman, M.E. (1980) Human Helplessness: Theory and Applications. Nueva York: Academic Press.
Seligman, M.E.; Maier, S.F. & Geer, J. (1968) The alleviation of learned helplessness in dogs. Journal of Abnormal Psychology; 73: 256-262.
Seligman, M. E. & Maier, S. F. (1967) Failure to escape traumatic shock. J Exp Psychol; 74(1): 1-9.