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 – totally submissive and without any hope. Many years later I finally understood. She was a victim of learned helplessness – conditioned by her abuser to believe she had no means of escape.

The phrase Learned Helplessness was coined by Martin Seligman, a well-known American Psychologist. In 1967, Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania were conducting experiments to understand depression. To their surprise they realized that some of the dogs in their experiment were acting in totally unexpected ways.

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is the belief that you cannot change or improve your situation, even if you want to. This can be the result of past experiences where you have tried and failed to make changes, or it can be a general outlook on life.

People who believe they are in a state of learned helplessness give up easily, avoid taking risks, and blame themselves for their failures. This can lead to a feeling of hopelessness, which can be debilitating.

Learned Helplessness in Animals

Seligman was assessing how dogs would react 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.

Animals at the Circus

Learned Helplessness - the elephant does not even try to escape

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 in Victims of Abuse

When a person is in an abusive situation they rapidly learn that their situation is hopeless. This belief becomes a constant refrain in their negative self talk, draining them of any hope. 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.

Cognitive behaviour therapy, in particular, has been found to be very effective at helping people become aware of their behavioural patterns and change them. A therapist or counsellor can help a victim develop more positive coping skills and ways of thinking. However, if the person is still living with their abuser the likelihood is that they will not be able to go to therapy, even if they are willing to do so.

Baby Steps Towards Freedom

If therapy is not an option, all is not lost. You can still find ways for them build their confidence and change their outlook on their situation. Some ideas include:

  • Start a Couch to 5K running programme together. Exercise is very beneficial for mental health. In addition making it to the end of the programme will give them a sense of achievement.
  • Encourage them to go out more and meet people. You could try a book club or join a hiking group.
  • Get involved in some charitable project such as knitting for premature babies, or reading to the elderly. Be careful to select something that will not overwhelm them, because that would be counterproductive. Also make sure that the charity would not be negatively impacted if you suddenly have to stop contributing. This could happen if the abuser realises what is happening and makes it impossible for the victim to continue.

Any of the above (and I am sure that you can think of many more) would help the victim slowly come out of their shell. When that happens they will then be more open to accepting that their situation is not as helpless as they originally thought. It’s a case of baby steps until finally they manage to challenge the negative self talk and break their conditioning.

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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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