Learned Helplessness – Trapped in a Psychological Cage

When I was a teenager I was angry with my mother. I could not understand why she was so meek, so helpless. I wanted her to stand up to my father, or even better, to run away and take me with her. We could live a normal life, far away from the insanity of my father and my brother.

However no matter how hard I tried, she simply could not see her way out of the horror story our life had become. I could not understand it.

“You could get a job,” I told her.

“I could get one too. We could rent a small apartment and we would be safe”.

However she was frozen – she had lost hope and was resigned that our current situation was our fate and that there was nothing we could do about it.

Many years later I finally understood. She was a victim of learned helplessness – conditioned by her my abusive narcissistic father to believe she had no means of escape.

blocked door

The Discovery of the Psychological Phenomenon of Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness, a psychological concept that describes a state where individuals believe they have no control over the situations in their life and thus stop trying to improve or change them, was discovered by American psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier.

Their groundbreaking discovery occurred in 1967 during a series of animal behavior experiments.

Seligman and Maier found that when animals are repeatedly subjected to an adverse stimulus which they cannot escape, they eventually stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if they are utterly helpless to change their situation, even when opportunities for escape are presented.

Seligman and Maier termed their discovery “learned helplessness”.

Their findings revolutionized the understanding of behavior and motivation, becoming a staple of introductory psychology textbooks and forming the basis of many therapeutic strategies in clinical psychology today.

dog in a cage

Learned Helplessness in Animals

The discovery of Learned Helplessness occurred in the process of a series of experiments that Seligman was conducting on dogs, exploring how they reacted to irritating electric shocks.

These were not very strong and did not injure the dogs, but they were unpleasant.

Phase 1 of the experiment.

The first group of dogs were put in a cage where they could stop the shocks by pressing on a button.

They quickly discovered this and started pawing the button regularly to stop the shocks.

After that the second group of dogs were put in the cage, but the button was deactivated.

The poor dogs ran around the cage trying to get away from the irritating shocks, but they soon learned there was no way of escape.

Phase 2 of the experiment

Seligman moved the dogs to a different type of enclosure. The dogs were put on one side, where there got the small shocks.

Dogs from the first group, who had found the button, immediately ran off and discovered that the other half of the enclosure was safe.

Dogs from the second group, however, sat down and were shocked over and over again.

They did not even try to get away.

They just accepted the electric shocks passively.

This response is what led Seligman to develop his theory of learned helplessness.

circus animals

Animals at the Circus

This type of learned behaviour can be seen in many other situations.

One well-known example relates to circus elephants.

When elephants are young they are not very strong. In order to restrain them, their trainers simply tie them to a stake in the ground.

Initially the baby elephant tries to pull the stake out of the ground but quickly learns that it is not strong enough to do so.

As the elephant grows and becomes much stronger, it is able to pull the stake out of the ground and get away.

However by then it is totally conditioned to believe that it is not strong enough, so it does not even try.

learned helplessness

Learned Helplessness in Victims of Abuse

For victims of abuse, the experience of learned helplessness can be nothing short of soul-crushing.

The chain of repeated episodes – physical, emotional, or sexual abuse – forges a debilitating belief of powerlessness within them.

This phenomenon is the result of a carefully orchestrated series of manipulations by the abuser, designed to entrench the victim in a state of perceived helplessness.

Abusers employ a myriad of tactics to manipulate their victims into such a state.

Abuse Tactics that Lead to Learned Helplessness – Gaslighting

One common method is gaslighting, a psychological manipulation technique where the abuser makes the victim question their perception of reality.

For instance, an abuser might deny that specific incidents of abuse ever occurred or accuse the victim of exaggerating.

Over time, this can lead the victim to doubt their memory and sanity, making it harder for them to recognize the abuse and seek help.

victims of abuse

Abuse Tactics that Lead to Learned Helplessness – Isolation

Another strategy is isolation, where the abuser cuts the victim off from their support network of friends and family.

This isolation can be physical, such as moving the victim to a location away from their loved ones, or emotional, where the abuser convinces the victim that their loved ones are untrustworthy or don’t have their best interests at heart.

When a person is alone and unsupported, they feel like they have nowhere to turn, reinforcing the belief that they are trapped in their situation.


Abuse Tactics that Lead to Learned Helplessness – Threats and Intimidation

Abusers also often instill fear in their victims through threats and intimidation.

They might threaten physical harm, either against the victim or their loved ones, if the victim tries to leave or disclose the abuse.

This fear can keep the victim trapped in the abusive situation, too afraid to attempt escape.

depressed  man

Abuse Tactics that Lead to Learned Helplessness – Monopolization of Perception

Monopolization of perception is yet another tactic, where the abuser controls the victim’s interpretation of their world.

By dictating what is right or wrong, the abuser shapes the victim’s beliefs and attitudes, making them more pliable and less likely to resist or escape the abuse.

sad girl

The Impact of the Abuser’s Tactics

Over time, the victim internalizes the abuser’s message that it is impossible to escape the abuse, leading to a state of learned helplessness.

This belief becomes a constant refrain in their negative self talk, draining them of any hope of escape.

Once the conditioning takes root, the victim is no longer able to assess the situation rationally.

If a friend (or daughter!) tells them that they can break free, they simply do not believe them.

You might as well be telling them that they can get a rocket and go live on the moon.

It is therefore very important that if someone you love is stuck in this type of situation, you approach them with care.

Don’t get angry, like I did.

Anger will not achieve anything.

You could start by encouraging them to go to therapy.

depressed woman

Overcoming Learned Helplessness: Steps Towards Empowerment

Breaking free from the chains of learned helplessness can be a challenging journey. However, with the right tools, support, and mindset, it is entirely possible.

Here are some practical steps that can guide victims of abuse towards overcoming learned helplessness.

Seeking Professional Help: A Lifeline to Recovery

Embarking on the journey to overcome learned helplessness often requires more than sheer willpower.

Professional help, in the form of therapists and counselors with specialized training in trauma and abuse, can provide a lifeline during this process.

These professionals offer an empathetic ear, expert guidance, and evidence-based therapeutic techniques that can be instrumental in healing.


Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, has proven to be exceptionally effective in helping individuals become aware of their thought and behavioral patterns, particularly those that perpetuate feelings of helplessness.

This therapy focuses on challenging negative or unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, replacing them with healthier and more constructive ones.

By doing so, victims can start to shift their perceptions of powerlessness to an understanding of their strength and resilience.

Furthermore, professional counselors can guide victims in developing more positive coping mechanisms.

This could include stress management techniques, problem-solving strategies, and even exercises to enhance self-esteem.

Through these tools, victims can learn to navigate and cope with challenging emotions and situations, fostering a sense of control over their lives.

In addition to individual therapy, group counseling sessions can also be beneficial.

These sessions allow victims to connect with others who have experienced similar struggles, creating a community of support and understanding.

Sharing experiences and coping strategies within a safe and moderated environment can significantly contribute to the healing process.

therapist and client

Building a Robust Support Network: The Power of Connection

The experience of learned helplessness is exacerbated by isolation.

Abusers frequently use tactics to separate victims from their support systems, making them feel alone and helpless.

However, rebuilding and fortifying these connections can be a powerful tool in overcoming feelings of powerlessness.


Reconnecting with Friends and Family

Reconnecting with friends and family is an essential first step.

These are the people who know you best, and their understanding and love can provide much-needed emotional strength during challenging times.

It’s important to communicate openly about your experiences, as this can help them provide the right kind of support and assistance.

Remember, asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a testament to your resolve to overcome your situation.

build a support network

Support Groups and Online Communities

Support groups, both offline and online, can also play a vital role in building your support network.

These groups bring together individuals who have experienced similar types of abuse, providing a unique platform where you can share your experiences, fears, and hopes without judgment.

Hearing others’ stories and learning how they are coping can offer valuable insights and strategies that you can apply in your own journey.

support group

Online communities offer an added layer of convenience and accessibility.

They provide 24/7 access to resources, advice, and most importantly, the comforting knowledge that you are not alone.

These virtual platforms range from social media groups and forums to dedicated websites that offer expert-led advice and support.

Professional Networks

In addition to personal connections, professional networks such as therapists, social workers, legal advisors, and organizations dedicated to helping abuse victims can provide practical assistance.

They can guide you towards resources like safe housing, legal aid, financial assistance, and more.

Building a robust support network is not just about finding people who can help you. It’s also about surrounding yourself with positivity and strength.

Each person in your network contributes to your recovery, reminding you of your worth and empowering you to reclaim control over your life.

self care exercise

Embracing Self-Care Practices: The Path to Healing and Empowerment

Self-care is often undervalued, especially in times of stress and trauma. However, it plays a pivotal role in overcoming learned helplessness.

Regular self-care activities not only help rebuild self-esteem but also foster a sense of control over one’s life.

It’s about nurturing yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally, creating a healthy foundation for healing and growth.

self care

Taking Care of Your Body

Physical self-care is a good starting point. This could entail engaging in regular exercise like yoga, pilates, or even just taking daily walks.

Physical activity has been shown to reduce stress hormones and stimulate the production of endorphins, the body’s natural mood lifters.

Additionally, it can help improve sleep quality, another critical aspect of physical self-care. Adequate rest is essential for mental clarity and emotional stability, both of which are vital in overcoming feelings of helplessness.

Nutrition is another key element of physical self-care. Maintaining a balanced diet provides the necessary nutrients your body needs to function optimally.

When our bodies feel good, it can have a positive impact on our mental state, making us better equipped to handle stress and adversity.


Taking Care of your Mind and Spirit

Mindful practices like meditation, deep-breathing exercises, and mindfulness can be powerful tools in managing stress and promoting mental well-being.

These techniques help anchor you in the present moment, reducing anxiety and fostering a sense of peace and control.

Emotional self-care is equally important and may involve activities that bring joy and relaxation.

This could be reading a book, listening to your favorite music, spending time in nature, or pursuing a hobby.

It’s about giving yourself permission to take a break from your worries and do what makes you happy.


Lastly, don’t forget about mental self-care.

This can involve engaging in activities that stimulate your mind, like puzzles or learning a new skill.

It could also mean practicing positive affirmations and gratitude to foster a more optimistic mindset.

Remember, self-care is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. It’s about treating yourself with the same kindness and respect you would offer others.

By incorporating self-care practices into your daily routine, you can start to regain control over your life, build your self-esteem, and move one step closer to overcoming learned helplessness.

Each act of self-care is a statement to yourself (and the world) that you matter, that you value yourself, and that you have the power to shape your life.


Empowerment Through Education: Understanding Abuse and Its Impacts

Remember, knowledge is power. The more you understand about your experiences, the better equipped you are to navigate your path to recovery.

Education plays a pivotal role in overcoming learned helplessness, acting as a beacon of light in the often murky waters of abuse.

By gaining a comprehensive understanding of abuse, its impacts, and the phenomenon of learned helplessness, victims can begin to demystify their experiences, making the first crucial steps towards recovery.


Understanding the Underpinnings of Abuse

Abuse, in all its forms, is inherently about power and control.

Understanding this dynamic can help victims recognize that the feelings of helplessness they experience are not reflective of their inherent worth or capabilities, but rather a product of the abuser’s manipulation and control.

This realization can be incredibly empowering, allowing victims to separate their identity from the abuse they have suffered.

Further education about the psychology behind learned helplessness can also provide valuable insights. Learned helplessness is a conditioned response, developed over time through repeated exposure to traumatic events.

Knowledge about this process can help victims understand that their feelings of powerlessness are not a personal failing but a common response to prolonged trauma.

online therapy

Online Resources

Online resources, such as articles, blogs, webinars, and podcasts, also provide valuable information.

These platforms not only provide information but also open up opportunities for dialogue, allowing victims to share their experiences and learn from others who have walked similar paths.

Assertiveness Training: A Key to Self-Empowerment

Assertiveness training is a form of behavioral therapy that has been utilized since the 1970s to help individuals improve their communication skills.

This method teaches how to express feelings, needs, and desires in a way that respects both oneself and others.

It’s about finding a balance between being too passive or overly aggressive, enabling individuals to reclaim their power and establish healthier boundaries.

assertiveness after learned helplessness

The primary objective of assertiveness training is to develop confidence.

It equips individuals with skills to communicate their needs effectively, stand up for their rights without violating others’, and handle criticism constructively.

In essence, it helps people learn to express themselves boldly and clearly, fostering greater self-respect and personal autonomy.

Assertiveness training involves a range of exercises designed to practice assertive communication.

These might include role-playing scenarios, where individuals can rehearse responses to challenging situations, or exercises focused on body language and tone of voice, which play a crucial role in assertive communication.

Assertiveness training emphasizes the “3 Cs”: Confident, Clear, and Controlled.

Being confident means believing in your ability to handle situations, clear communication ensures the message is easy to understand and not exaggerated, and staying controlled involves maintaining composure and adjusting your approach if necessary.

There are numerous benefits associated with assertiveness training.

It can reduce stress and anger by improving coping skills, stop people-pleasing behaviors, and eliminate feelings of guilt associated with saying no.

Furthermore, it allows individuals to influence others positively, gain acceptance, and achieve their goals more efficiently.

assertive communication

Embracing Gradual Exposure: Small Steps towards Big Changes

Gradual exposure is a powerful strategy used in various therapeutic practices to help individuals regain control over their lives.

It involves taking incremental steps towards confronting and managing fears, anxieties, or the aftermath of traumatic experiences.

For victims of abuse, it can be an effective method to overcome feelings of learned helplessness.

The process begins with making minor decisions.

These could be as simple as choosing what to wear for the day, deciding on a meal, or selecting a book to read.

step by step

The purpose of these small choices is not about the decision itself, but rather about exercising personal autonomy.

Each decision, no matter how trivial it may seem, serves as a reminder that you have control over aspects of your life.

As confidence grows with these smaller decisions, the scale of choices can gradually increase.

This might involve making decisions about work, relationships, or personal goals.

The aim here is not to rush the process but to progressively build up to more significant decisions at a comfortable pace.

Another vital aspect of gradual exposure is celebrating victories, no matter how small.

Every decision made, every fear confronted, is a step towards regaining control.

Acknowledging these achievements can boost self-esteem and reinforce the belief that change is possible.

lawyer in a suit

Securing Legal Assistance: A Vital Step Towards Freedom

In the aftermath of abuse, victims often find themselves entangled in a complex web of legal issues.

Whether it’s filing for a restraining order, initiating divorce proceedings, or seeking custody of children, legal assistance becomes an indispensable tool in their journey towards freedom and recovery.

Seeking legal advice is more than just understanding the law. It’s about knowing your rights and learning how to protect them.

Knowledgeable legal professionals can guide victims through the intricacies of the legal system, providing them with the necessary information to make informed decisions about their situation.


Various organizations are dedicated to offering free or low-cost legal services to abuse victims.

These organizations understand the unique challenges faced by victims and provide them with resources tailored to their specific needs.

They offer a range of services, including legal advice, representation in court, help with paperwork, and more.

Legal aid clinics, often run by law schools or local bar associations, are another valuable resource.

These clinics provide free or low-cost legal advice and representation, typically focusing on areas such as family law, domestic violence, and child custody.

Online platforms also offer resources for legal assistance.

Websites like WomensLaw.org or LawHelp.org provide comprehensive directories of legal resources available across the country.

They offer information on everything from understanding your legal rights to finding a lawyer in your area.

self compassion

Cultivating Patience and Compassion: The Cornerstones of Healing

Overcoming learned helplessness is akin to embarking on a journey, one that requires patience, compassion, and understanding.

It’s not a linear process with a defined timeline. It’s a winding path with peaks and valleys, progress and setbacks.

Understanding this can significantly influence the healing journey, promoting resilience, and fostering growth.

Patience is the first pillar in this journey.

Change takes time, and overcoming patterns of learned helplessness is no exception. It’s important to remember that small steps forward are still steps in the right direction.

Progress may seem slow at times, but it’s essential to recognize that healing isn’t a race. It’s about taking the time needed to process experiences, learn new skills, and gradually regain control over one’s life.

Setbacks are an inevitable part of this process. They don’t signify failure, but rather serve as opportunities for growth and learning.

When faced with a setback, it’s crucial to exercise patience, reminding oneself that recovery is not about perfection but progression.


Compassion, particularly self-compassion, is the second pillar.

Self-compassion involves treating oneself with the same kindness and understanding that one would extend to a friend or loved one.

In the context of overcoming learned helplessness, self-compassion means acknowledging the pain and trauma without judgment or self-blame.

It’s about recognizing the strength it takes to embark on the healing journey and celebrating small victories along the way.

Practicing self-compassion also means setting healthy boundaries and prioritizing self-care.

This could involve seeking support from trusted individuals, taking time each day for relaxation and reflection, or engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfillment.


Final Thoughts about Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness presents a powerful explanation for why individuals sometimes feel trapped in their circumstances, unable to effect meaningful change.

While learned helplessness can have debilitating effects, it’s important to remember that it’s not a life sentence.

The very nature of this condition, being “learned,” suggests that it can be unlearned. With the right tools and support, individuals can break free from the cycle of helplessness and regain control over their lives.

Strategies like assertiveness training, gradual exposure, and securing legal assistance can be incredibly effective in overcoming learned helplessness.

It’s about reclaiming personal power, one step at a time, and learning to navigate life’s challenges with resilience and confidence.

Patience and compassion play a crucial role in this journey.

Healing doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s normal to experience setbacks along the way.

Being patient with oneself and treating oneself with kindness and understanding can make the process less daunting and more manageable.

Overcoming learned helplessness is indeed a journey, often marked by trials and triumphs. But with each step forward, individuals prove to themselves – and the world – that they are not defined by their past experiences or current circumstances. They demonstrate their inherent strength and resilience, proving that change and control are possible.

In the end, the journey towards overcoming learned helplessness is not just about regaining control over one’s life. It’s about rediscovering one’s worth, redefining one’s identity, and embracing the freedom and possibilities that lie ahead.

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2 thoughts on “Learned Helplessness – Trapped in a Psychological Cage”

  1. I was listening to a commercial sex worker tell her life story on youtube a few days ago. At thirteen a man stepped into her life, promised her the world, took her virginity, and the very next day she was on the street working for him and never seeing a penny of it. In only one day this abuser turned her into child sex trafficking victim. She described how hopeless she felt, how dirty and ashamed. As she grew older, he didn’t want her anymore but she continued working in the sex industry, only now with a “boyfriend” who cares enough to take only half of her earnings. She described how she cries every single day when she gets a chance to be alone and how she warns younger sex workers that they should get out of the industry and give themselves a chance, all the while believing it’s too late for her at the age of 21. In one single afternoon a total stranger stripped away her childhood and replaced it with lifelong shame and confusion. The human psyche is a frightening thing to contemplate.


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