How To Do What You Want By Overcoming Learned Helplessness

How To Do What You Want By Overcoming Learned Helplessness

“Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.” Arnold Schwarzenegger

Learned helplessness is arguably the most underrated and under diagnosed mental condition.  Most people are exposed to this form of mental illness during casual everyday conversations.

For example, when someone casually mentions that they “just don’t care”, or when asked their opinion on something and respond with “whatever”.  Though these seem like small issues, they are subtle hints of a more deep seeded sense of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is the natural response to an environment that appears to be beyond your sphere of control.  In everyday life, learned helplessness manifests itself as a lack of concern for the overall direction of your life.

In it’s most insidious form, learned helplessness can be seen in the listless attitude of the majority of the adult population.  With the exception of entrepreneurs, professional athletes and the ultra-successful, whatever that means, it would seem that the average adult just does not care that much.  Why is that?

The easiest explanation is that children and teenagers have not had time to realize that they are abut to participate in a rigged game once they graduate into adulthood.  At least that is how someone with learned helplessness would explain the enthusiasm deficit between the old vs. the young.

One important thing about learned helplessness is that it is necessary to create delusions in order to support your own inaction. This allows you t avoid the cognitive dissonance that comes from conflicting beliefs.  Over time, people with learned helplessness will develop elaborate justifications for their inaction that are perfectly rational.

Another important point is that you can create a logical justification for anything if you are allowed to include lies, misinformation, half-truths or opinions in your justification.  Alright, before we get into justifications for inaction, how does learned helplessness develop in the first place?

In the next section I will answer that question and explain a little about the origins of the concept of learned helplessness.  I will then go over some simple things you can do to detect learned helplessness so you can quickly eliminate it from your life, Assuming your into that sort of thing….

What Is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness was first studied by Martin Seligman at The University of Pennsylvania in 1967.  His research focused on how learned helplessness was one of the leading causes of depression.  Seligman’s most famous study of learned helplessness involved dogs that were trained to escape or assume helplessness in response to a negative stimulus.

Seligman’s study involved using a device to administer and electric shock to a dog that was kept in a small box shaped cage.  The dogs were allowed to jump over a small divider in the box in order to avoid the electric shock.  As expected, the dogs would all jump away from the side they could be shocked on in order to avoid this unpleasant experience.

Researchers then administered the shock to dogs that were harnessed to the side of the box the shock was being administered on.  Researchers noted that dogs strapped to the box eventually stopped trying to escape the shock.

Once a dog was shocked enough times without the opportunity to escape, they would stop trying to get away from the shock.  This response was strong enough, that dogs repeatedly shocked would stop trying to escape even when the straps were removed.

The dogs had effectively learned that resistance was futile, even when it wasn’t.  Dogs that were later unstrapped and did not try to escape were effectively self inducing the shock.  Once the straps were removed, these dogs could have easily gotten away.  They didn’t, simply because they didn’t try.

How to do what you want by overcomming learned helplessness



The implication of this study for humans are profound.  The basic takeaway is that failing repeatedly will make you feel that you should not try.  Or, more accurately, failing to avoid pain will cause you to stop resisting pain.  Whether this is the pain of poor work performance, failed relationships, or declining health.

Learned helplessness will cause you to feel that it does not matter what you do.  In a very real way, you will feel that you shouldn’t try to improve your situation.  Learned helplessness can even affect your mood and general outlook on your future.

In addition to learning that inaction is effective, learned helplessness causes the onset of general depression.  In a lab setting it has been repeatedly shown that animals exposed to an an unavoidable stress become inactive and depressed.  This is a disaster for the animals overall well being and interaction with other animals.

Multiple studies have shown that animals that are forced into a state of learned helplessness exhibit anti-social characteristics including the avoidance of other animals and stimuli in their environment. Some studies have even shown that depression caused by learned helplessness can cause physical degeneration.

With all of these negative effects, you would think that most people would do nearly anything to avoid learned helplessness.  Unfortunately, nothing coud be further from the truth.  Most people are consistently aiding there slide into the depths of learned helplessness by working a J O B.

Job – “Thing you do to pay the bills, provides you with income for a short period of time, or as a long term vocation.”

J O B – “Activity you preform on a regular basis that you feel you must perform.  This can include anything you must do that you truly believe there is no alternative option or replacement for….people can become a J O B.”

Work, The Most Common Place To Learn To Be Helpless

Work is the place where most people develop a sense of learned helplessness.  After being expected to perform the same task over and over at the same time each day, most people reach a breaking point.  The majority of people begin to loose faith in their own self sufficiency.

After enough brow beating from one boss or another, most people begin to feel that they don’t really have the requisite abilities to make their own decisions.  Unfortunately this attitude often translates into the home and the rest of the person’s life where indecision and depression can quickly set in.

This is a problem not only because of the mental effects of learned helplessness, but the physical effects as well.  It is not unusual for someone to develop a weight problem, or other serious health conditions because of a deep seated depression caused by learned helplessness.

While it would be great to just blame all of our problems on work, work is not the main problem.  It’s performing work you don;t like and feeling like it is against your choosing that is the problem.

I do not mean that you need to be passionate about your work or love every minute of it.  On the contrary, you might hate every minute you spend “on the job”.  The important thing is that you have chosen it, and it some how fits into the overall picture of your life.

I will use the same example from my article on cognitive dissonance.  In that article I discuss how a person might work a job they do not like because it enables them to provide for their family.  Even though they hate the job they will be less likely to develop cognitive dissonance then someone who works a job and feels like heir is no particular reason they are working that job.

In the case of the person providing for their family, they can see and feel the results of their work on a daily basis because of their ability to provide for their family.  Contrarily, someone who works a job they hate simply because they are scared of trying something new has a much higher chance of developing learned helplessness.

In this case, they are avoiding potential future discomfort by pursing inaction.  The idea that “not doing anything will keep me safe” has taken hold is this person.  The true nature of the situation becomes completely distorted to the point that the person really believes they have no choice in the matter.

In this situation, every mistake you make at work, or every negative comment a supervisor made becomes another piece of evidence pointing toward the effectiveness of inaction.  After all, all the mistakes you made, and reprimands you received were the results of some action you took.  While you can of course get in trouble for failing to do something, your mind is easily fooled into believing it is the actions that are causing you trouble.

What Is It About Work That Makes People Feel Helpless

The number one thing that causes people to learn to be helpless in a work environment is the presence of an authoritarian in a position of power.  Authoritarians are defined as follows:

“Authoritarian personality is a state of mind or attitude characterized by belief in absolute obedience or submission to one’s own authority, as well as the administration of that belief through the oppression of one’s subordinates. It usually applies to individuals who are known or viewed as having an authoritative, strict, or oppressive personality towards subordinates.”

Authoritarian personalities in the work place rob people of their own agency by using various forms of psychological abuse.  It’s important to point out that both the “abuser” and the “abused” can be conscious or unconscious participants.  At time, the circumstances cause both parties to become participants in this abuse without any prior planning or recognition of their behavior.

This happens most often in a top down heirarchy where unrealistic expectations have been placed on mangers and the sub-managers and workers below them.  For example, an unrealistic deadline for a product launch or new employee training initiative can cause quite a disturbance in an organization.

If senior leaders are being told that they need to “light a fire” under their subordinate leaders and their workers in order to speed up the latest product or initiative, this can cause tension and a break down in communication.  If leaders at all levels are not conscious of the source of the problem, in this case the unrealistic deadline, they will be on a wild goose chaise to “cut the dead weight” from their organization or otherwise find out who in the organization is not pulling their own weight.

If a dispassionate observer could look at this situation from the outside, they would realize that there has simply been a break down of communication in the organization.  Most often, the communication breakdown follows this path.

Eager to please the next higher level of leadership, employees send overly optimistic reports of ground level performance to their leadership in order to continue receiving positive feedback.  As these overly optimistic reports make their way up the organizational structure they provide inaccurate feedback about the organizations progress and capabilities to senior leadership.

Senior leadership then sets priorities, initiatives and goals that are in line with the feedback they have received all the way down from the lowest level of the company.  Unfortunately, the reports they have received are similar to the final message in a game of telephone.  An overly optimistic report at each level of the company has transformed the performance reports into a seriously distorted depiction of the operating effectiveness of the company.


This overly optimistic distortion then causes senior leadership to set priorities and goals that are in line with this false image of the company.  Understandably these distortions cause the expectations of senior leaders to be wildly unrealistic.  This false sense of lack of performance in the company is driven by a persistent inability of the organizations real world actions to live up to those depicted in reports.

The strange thing about this situation is that nearly everyone that participates is to blame.  At the highest levels of an organization this can be reduced by actually finding out what is going on at the lowest levels.  A great example of this comes from the book The New Tycoons by Jason kelly.

In the book, he describes how private equity (PE) firms buy large organizations and optimize them in order to increase their value and sell them.  While these PE firms are controversial due to the questionable amount of value they add to the companies they buy, there have been cases beyond reproach where these firms have added tremendous value.

In the best example given in the book, the CEO that private equity firm KKR hired to run one of it’s portfolio companies made sure to eliminate the miscommunication I discussed above.  Before the CEO was even hired, he drove to a retail location for the company he was to run and inspected the setup of the store.  He spoke to clerks, as well as store managers and assistant managers.  He even inspected the layout of the retail merchandise.

The point is that he made sure the most common source of miscommunication and discontent within the core of employees was eliminated in the organization.  This CEO would know what was actually happening in his organization and avoid the back and fourth miscommunication that sets the stage for large scale communication breakdown in an organization.

Without this type of preventative measure in place, a serious communication breakdown will cause the growth of authoritarian behavior in any organization.  In Destroying Sanctuary Sandra L. Bloom describes how communication breakdown naturally leads to the rise of authoritarians.

“Rarely does the subject of power and abusive power come up for open discussion in social service environments and yet it is a critical component of any organizational setting. As communication breaks down, errors compound and the situation feels increasingly out of control, organizational leaders become more controlling and authoritarian. Under these circumstances, workplace bullying is likely to increase at all levels and organizations may become vulnerable to petty tyrants. As the organization becomes more hierarchical and autocratic there is a progressive and simultaneous isolation of leaders and a “dumbing down” of staff, with an accompanying “learned helplessness” and loss of critical thinking skills. The organization and the individuals in it become highly risk-avoidant. Efforts to empower workers may pay only lip service to true participatory processes. Although the importance of organizational democracy has long been recognized, true efforts to implement workplace democracy have often become forms of bogus empowerment and bullies are given license to intimidate other people” – Oxford Index

Simply written, in any organization, when shit hits the fan people start pointing fingers.  This finger pointing becomes more socially acceptable within and organization so long as people feel that they are in a state of red alert with fast approaching deadlines and more that have already been missed.  This state can overtake any organization if systems are not firmly in place for the specific purpose of preventing this state.

It is this very state that Sandra Bloom writes about that causes the perfect storm of environmental factors to create learned helplessness.  Paradoxically, it is some of highest performing organizations where their is constantly pressure to meet deadlines that learned helplessness can reach a fever pitch.  One of the best example I can think of is when billionaire entrepreneur Peter Theil discusses his co-workers attitudes toward leaving the high paying law firm he was working at prior to founding Paypal.

“I did well enough in law school to be hired by a big New York law firm, but it turned out to be a very strange place. From the outside, everybody wanted to get in, and from the inside, everybody wanted to get out.

“When I left the firm, after seven months and three days, my coworkers were surprised. One of them told me that he hadn’t known it was possible to escape from Alcatraz. Now that might sound odd, because all you had to do to escape was walk through the front door and not come back.”

In this specific instance Peter is talking more about the inability of his co-workers to leave because of the level of competition they needed to endure to get their in the first place.  However, the situation applies equally to people who find themselves unable to take seemingly obvious action due to a real belief in their inability to survive and make decisions on their own.

How To Un-Learn Learned Helplessness

The opposite of learned helplessness is empowerment or the feeling that you have control over your life.  One of the the researchers in the field of empowerment and positive psychology is Martin Seligman.  In order to learn more about how someone might alleviate learned helplessness he studied the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) on childrens who exhibited signs of learned helplessness.

In order to study the effects of CBT Seligman had the children that participated in the study meet with graduate students in psychology several times a week over the course of three months.  These students would take the children through a series of questions designed to provide alternative solutions to some of the problems they were facing in their lives.

The purpose of these questions was to alter the way the children justified the problems they faced in their lives.  Anyone diagnosed with learned helplessness is likely to attribute success in their life to outside factors and to attribute failures to personal faults.  The aim of the meetings the children had with the graduate students was to relieve the children of these types of thought patterns.

During the sessions the children were taught to recognize their own part in the successes they had in life.  They were also taught to look at failures more objectively and to identify when factors contributing to failure might have been out of their control.

One of the other key aspects of these counseling sessions was to deal with pessimistic explanatory styles the children displayed.  The graduate students offered the children alternative, optimistic explanations for some of the problems these children faced.  One of the most often cited examples is that used to alter the explanation a child might use for the negative mood of a parent.

“my mom is sad, because I did something wrong—for more optimistic and realistic ones—my mom is sad, because she had a long day at work”.

These types of alternate explanations put the children’s negative circumstances in perspective and allowed them to more objectively look at their problems.  According to the study, some 2 years after the initial 3 month period of counseling, the students who received treatment were half as likely to show signs of depression as a control group of students that were not given the same treatment.

When looking at how people explain things to themselves its important to consider the scope of the problem, is it isolated or pervasive, the nature of the problem, is it situational or personal, and the temporal nature of the problem, is it temporary or permanent.

People with learned helplessness tend to determine that most problems are pervasive and will effect all aspects of their life.  They further reason that the problems are personal being caused by some defect in themselves instead of attributing them to something in their environment or another person.  Finally, they will determine that their problems are likely to persist instead of being a present reality that is soon to pass.

Through awareness and alteration of explanatory styles, anyone can become less susceptible to learned helplessness.  The important thing when facing any problem is to consider the possibility that it is being caused by an environmental factor that might soon go away and whether or not it is actually going to effect every part of your life.

This alteration in thinking can be seen in followup studies Seligman did on learned helplessness.  To find out whether or not he could reverse learned helplessness he used the same study mentioned above where he would shock animals under 2 sets of circumstances.  In the one instance they had the power to escape being shocked, in the other they did not.

When the dogs were first shocked without any ability to escape they soon learned not to try.  Once this happened it as was very difficult to teach the dongs that they could escape.  On the other hand, the dogs that initially were exposed to the shock and were able to escape would continue to try to escape even when it was impossible.

“What they found was that one simple tweak could stop the passivity from developing. When the researchers first put all the dogs in the shuttle box, where the shock was controllable by a jump, and, only then, into the inescapable harness, the effect of the harness was broken: now, even though the dogs were being bombarded by shocks, they didn’t give up.” 

   “the canines that went on to escape shocks had realized something important—not all shocks are equal, and it doesn’t hurt to keep trying to get away. Those that didn’t likely went through a different reasoning process: Nothing I do here helps, so why even bother trying?”  – New Yorker


The implications for learned helplessness research are vast.  The important considerations are the explanatory styles matter and that the effects of your actions direct your thinking and motivation toward future action.

In order to improve explanatory styles you need to consider whether or not a problem is permanent or temporary, your fault or just a product of the people you are around and the environment you are in and whether or not the problem is going to effect your entire life or just one small aspect of it.

The purpose of these considerations is not to delude yourself into minimizing potentially serious problems.   Instead, it is to inoculate you against the negative explanatory styles that typically accompany a highly structured environment that most people face.

Finally, you want to make sure you are participating in activities that have a quick feedback cycle.  I will get more into this in future articles, but the purpose of this is to allow you to make mistakes and improve quickly.  Activities with a quick feedback cycle allow you to rapidly improve and gain a sense of your own agency.

Any activity that you can learn or get better at quickly will add to your sense of empowerment or control.  whether this is starting a side business and making some money, making new friends and improving your social skills or just getting in the habit of making your bed, activities that allow you to rapidly impact your life are empowering.






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