Learned Helplessness

According to the dictionary, a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed is called Learned Helplessness.  While struggling with the events of our lives, we may start to believe that bad things will continue to happen, no matter what we do or how hard we try to change them.

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For example, a smoker may repeatedly try and fail to quit. She may grow frustrated at her attempts and start to think that nothing she does will be successful, therefore stop trying to quit altogether. 

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Winston Churchill

In 1967, American psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier conducted and experiment delivering shocks to dogs.   The dogs that learned that they couldn’t escape the shock stopped trying in subsequent experiments, even when it became possible to avoid the shock by jumping over a barrier.  It was concluded that Learned Helplessness occurs when people or animals feel helpless to avoid negative situations. 

The good news about this phenomenon is that learned helplessness can be “unlearned.”  We can decide to make different choices other than the automatic, conditioned ones we have acquired through the years. 

Each time we fail we should use this as an opportunity for growth.  We need to come back to the situation with stronger resolve and the knowledge that we are now better prepared to face the challenge.  If the failure didn’t happen, we may never have thought of different ways to accomplish our goal.  Most successful people have stories of failures before they reached their success. 

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Failure can help you develop humility.  It teaches us that we do not have control over everything.  Understanding this can help us to let go of the need to change things that are out of our control.    

“It’s failure that gives you the proper perspective on success.” 

Ellen DeGeneres

My first semester in college, I was totally out of my element.  I had no idea how to study and I ended up with a 1.5 GPA and put on academic probation.  I was faced with a decision and I decided to do what needed to be done to succeed.  I learned to stop ignoring my responsibilities and to prioritize my work.  I learned I needed to ask for help.  I often think I had to acquire this lesson the hard way but truth be told, it could’ve been much worse if I let it get out of hand. 

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We can learn to be optimistic and resilient.  If we approach every situation as an opportunity for growth, then failure is just that.  The alternative is to give up on yourself, and that should never be an option.

We can combat learned helplessness by promoting self-worth, and self-compassion. Use positive affirmations daily.  Tell yourself, “I am going to succeed.”  Accept compliments when they come your way.  Learn to say “thank you” when someone compliments you instead of discounting or lessening what you have accomplished.  Live your truth!

“I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

Mark Twain

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