Learned helplessness, simply speaking, is a psychological condition where someone believes that they are powerless and that nothing they do will change that. It often begins in childhood as a response to trauma. It’s common among survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and it can lead many to become stunted in their healing progress.
Steven Maier and Martin Seligman conducted a study in the 1960s that showed learned helplessness in dogs. They placed dogs in locked cages and repeatedly shocked them. After administering many different courses of electric shock, the researchers would open the door of the cages and shock the dogs again. They expected the dogs to run out, but they didn’t. The dogs stayed and endured the shocks.
Another group of dogs was placed in cages with the doors open. When the dogs were shocked, they immediately ran away. The researchers concluded that the first group of dogs learned helplessness because nothing they did made a difference.
If the study had ended there, it would be pretty discouraging, but it didn’t. Maier and Seligman went back and helped the first dogs unlearn what they had been conditioned to do. They taught them to reclaim their power. They taught them to get out of the cage.
So what can you do to get out of the cage of learned helplessness? One way is to replace it with learned optimism. Mindfulness, one of our 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope, can help with that. Here are a few things to try:
This can seem intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be scary. There are a lot of different types of meditation, and there will be at least one that resonates with you. Ask around, look online, or try a website like Headspace.com to see what type of meditation you should try.
2. Check Your Thoughts
Notice when you’re having negative or self-defeating thoughts. Make a conscious choice to recognize them for what they are – unproductive thoughts – and choose to focus on more positive, productive thoughts. This may be difficult at first, but, like anything, will improve with practice.
3. Practice Gratitude
When you feel like you’re trapped in a cage of helplessness, look at the things around you that you’re grateful for. Be as specific as you can. Instead of saying, “I’m grateful for my bed,” say, “I’m grateful that I have a warm place to sleep, a comfortable place to read, and a soft place to relax every night. I’m grateful that I have clean sheets and pillows that feel just right…” Feel the difference that it can make.
If you’re struggling to see the good in a situation, or struggling to check your thoughts, write them down. Address what you’re thinking in writing and you’ll find clarity and calm that you didn’t know were there. Set a timer for 15 minutes and just write everything that comes into your mind. This act of freewriting will “dump” the negative thoughts and help you focus on the ones that will lead you to feeling more optimistic and less helpless.
5. Take One Step
Does everything on this list seem overwhelming or unrealistic? Then break it down even further. Getting out of the cage of learned helplessness will not happen in one quick movement. It takes small steps. So, think of one small thing that you can do right now that will help you step away from helplessness and toward optimism. All you need to do today is take that one small step.
Learned helplessness is a defense mechanism that you developed as a child to lessen the trauma you were experiencing. Now, as an adult, there are better ways for you to handle the stress, the triggers, and the aftermath of your trauma. Reclaim your power. Make the choice today to move away from learned helplessness and embrace learned optimism.