Did you ever feel so completely powerless when forced into a confrontation? I mean, it could be a situation as mundane as continuing to work for a company that you know is unethical, but you just shrug your shoulders and carry on, all the while hating what you are doing.
Or, it could be that person you know who just keeps on making jibes about you being overweight, or maybe the glasses you wear (“Hey four-eyes!”). You know the sort of things I mean.
Why do you put up with it? How come, despite the fact that deep inside it’s eating you up, you don’t speak up or make a choice?
Well if you’ve experienced bullying or abuse (especially as a child) then the reason is very likely to be that you have been conditioned into learned helplessness.
What Do We Mean by Learned Helplessness?
I’m going to refer to this as a “condition” rather than an illness. In some people, it could be so entrenched that it has become a rooted factor in their personality, and so it is part of who they are. In others, it is a reaction that has been learned and is reacted to more superficially and yet still has a significant effect on daily life. Hopefully, as you read on, the word “condition” will be revealed as being appropriately contextualised.
I think most people will know what “the rabbit caught in the headlights syndrome” means. It’s that sheer sense of fear that the little bunny feels when he’s confronted by the monster with the blinding eyes hurtling directly towards him in the dark. He freezes stiff and stares directly into the car headlights until he is bounced down the underside of your car. (Yes sorry, I’ve hit a rabbit doing just that!)
Is that learned helplessness? Well not exactly. For the rabbit, it’s more a case of freezing being an instinctive reaction to any form of danger. The rabbit “knows” that to move will make it more visible to a natural predator. Of course in the dead of night, the rabbit interprets the car headlights as the two massive glaring eyes of a huge predator.
It’s the rabbit’s reaction to a dangerous situation that gives us a clue to how we humans react in certain circumstances. We can also become frozen just like dear old Bugs, and while the reasons for the reactions is both are fear based, one is instinctive and the other is learned behaviour.
For us humans learned helplessness is a condition which does seem to reach deep into our psyche. Like it or not, it seems to be something within all of us that can easily be “switched on”, for want of a better phrase. All it takes is systematic exposure to some form of negative experience where there appears to be no escape or control.
If I try to explain the reaction in terms of a sensation, it’s like having a sense of being held down or fixed in place, unable to move (like the rabbit) but unlike the rabbit, the sense of fear is submerged beneath a host of “What ifs” and “I deserve this”, which leads to a debilitating sense of complete powerlessness, as though drained of all energy.
My own experience of this condition spilled over into dreams. I remember being in highly confrontational situations, and despite knowing what I should do, I just couldn’t move my arms. I wanted to protect myself or fight, but I just couldn’t move. It felt like mental paralysis.
There was always a kind of carry-over from night-time dreaming to daytime. Often times I didn’t remember the content of the dream, but I was left with that sapping and almost physical sensation of being drained. On days like that, I remember having to struggle through the day, forcing myself to engage in a meaningful way in my job. As I look back, I see the oppressive weight on my shoulders, which manifested as depression, although I never realised it as such at the time.
I lived with this condition (among others) for the first 40 years of my life and it was only through the study of psychology and training and practise as a therapist, that I could finally understand what I had been carrying all those years.
So How Did it Happen?
I think my case is such a common one and so anyone who has been in my situation would probably recognise themselves when I describe my experiences.
It started at home. My father was a violent abuser. He beat my mother first and then me. I’ve looked back at my life as a child many times and what I saw was that it didn’t matter if I had done something wrong or not, I was beaten. Of course, in my father’s eyes I expect he saw some misdemeanor, but to a small child who is still developing emotionally and cognitively, nothing I ever did seemed to warrant the level of anger and violence that was meted out.
My home-life seemed to ebb and flow between what I thought was normality and a deep sense of dread, fear and helplessness. It seemed that my mother was paralysed too. She had to endure this onslaught every day of our lives.
Although I never consciously thought it at the time, I kind of felt that this home life experience was what everyone went through at home. As a child, why would I think anything else? We lived next door to an incredibly poor family when I was small. I saw their sordid lives amid the dirt and the screams and shouting at all times of day and night. Now that, I thought at the time was bad. I had it easy compared to those three kids.
But my life was far from normal. Those people next door were blatantly poor; threadbare in every sense of the word. What I experienced was the “quiet” behind closed doors kind of abuse. All attempts were made to present a total sense of normality to the world. For me, this just served to cement my feelings of helplessness. I was lucky, wasn’t I?
So having been through a childhood like that (and I’ve only scratched the surface of that period) it should be plain to see that being trapped in this madhouse, day in and day out, it’s hardly surprising that I would learn that there was nothing I could do to change things. I just kept taking the punishment. I couldn’t hide (I know because I tried) and doing so just made the beatings worse. I couldn’t fight back because I was just so small. I just had to endure.
How Did I Overcome?
If you are able to place yourself in my shoes, then you will see quite clearly, how this kind of existence teaches certain lessons, the major one being “you must endure the pain and not fight back. Stay quiet and suffer”.
It took many years and a huge psychological effort on my part, but I did eventually learn to fight back and today I rarely feel helpless. I found a balance in my anger and developed an attitude which came out of the years of suffering. I have grown strong and resolute. I am able to make choices and strive for my goals, even when they are hard to achieve.
It isn’t possible for me to pinpoint one specific event or circumstance which was the definitive turning point. It has been my collection of such milestones that have enabled me to overcome my helplessness.
If I were to try to catalogue them, it would look something like this:
- my first recognition that my family was different from others.
- the first (and only) time I fought back against being beaten by my father.
- the sense of relief when I left to join the military.
- the gradual recognition that others saw me as being different (not in a good way).
- the day I decided to begin learning martial arts.
- engaging in personal development groups, where congruence was the key factor – I started to hear the truth about myself.
- the first time I ever realised that learned helplessness was a “thing”.
If I spent a long time racking my memory, I’m sure I could come up with a lot more to add to the above list.
Some Other Things to Take Away From All This
There’s plenty of evidence for the theory (ies) of Learned Helplessness. You could start by reading about the research of Seligman (1974/5)  and his subsequent work with Hiroto (1975) . Starting with rats and then looking at humans, Seligman showed how learned helplessness is a form of behavioural conditioning that works almost the same on humans as it does with laboratory rats.
If you were to study the psychological research before Seligman, you would learn about Pavlov and what came to be known as Classical Conditioning  and then Skinner with his research into stimulus/response conditioning, which became known as Operant Conditioning. 
Seligman discovered Learned Helplessness as a result of firstly engaging in the Classical Conditioning of dogs when he discovered that a dog who had been conditioned to receive a small electrical shock would not try to escape when the opportunity presented itself. Further studies showed that humans were just as susceptible to this type of conditioning (not with electric shocks obviously!).
If we take a much broader look at human society, we can see that learned helplessness can have as much effect on a population as it can on an individual, under the right circumstances.
Learned Helplessness & Depression
One final, but very important consideration is the very strong link between learned helplessness and depression. I have deliberately not delved into the technicalities of learned helplessness for the sake of space. You can, after all, do your own research. But I just want to add another effect of the condition which can link into depression, and that is the very personal effect it has on self-worth and self-esteem.
Part of the conditioning process is to make the victim feel like a victim. In other words, the pervading belief comes to be “It’s all my fault and I deserve this”. This might not be everyone’s experience (it wasn’t mine very much, consciously at least) but for those for whom it became a recognisable aspect, then it’s a very slippery slope from there to depression.
Hope for the Future
I want to end this article by stating what might seem obvious to most people, that being, “It’s different for everyone”. I can compare my life to someone else who experienced abuse as a child, and the circumstances surrounding our home life will be different in various ways. How a child processes his experiences will vary from child to child too. The net result will be that there will be similarities in outcome and behaviours such that we can broadly say that long-term abuse of children in a controlling environment will usually result in Learned Helplessness.
Admittedly, it is quite a journey to overcome this deeply ingrained conditioning. The start of the road to recovery is simply this: recognise the condition in yourself and be determined to overcome it. Then you will.
 – Classical Conditioning
 – Operant Conditioning
If you enjoyed this article, please take a look at my book, “The Whole Family”.
(In paperback or eBook from Amazon)
It’s about relationships. How do you know who is right for you? You want a family right? But you’ve had some disastrous relationships and you don’t really understand why? Well I aim to answer those questions and much more.
How do families work? What are the dynamics in relationships? How can you learn more about yourself and why bother?
In addition to trying to answer these questions, I also give you my own personal life as an example of a dysfunctional family.