Ways to Overcome Learned Helplessness

UPDATE 7 May 2012: Gina and Paul talk about this blog post in our podcast on Learned Helplessness

Many of us have become experts at being ‘helpless’. And yes, it’s most often a subconscious act, for many of us developed these patterns in childhood as a way to cope with difficult or abusive situations, although learned helplessness can manifest at any age.

But like many habits, they have become so ingrained we don’t even know we are doing it. Learned helplessness can be the result of psychological and physical abuse, or we’ve mirrored it from watching caretakers and parents. Perhaps it was our only form of survival. And of course, this life strategy may have worked for us at one time, but it sure ain’t now.
Usually learned helplessness is a response to being out of control. Or dealing with situations in our lives where we feel we have absolutely no control. Essentially, it’s the ‘I give up’ route.

Learned Helplessness is “the hopelessness and resignation learned when a human….perceives no control over repeated bad events” (Myers, 2002)

Keith Joseph McKean has written that learned helplessness is based on three things:
1.    Internal blaming – “It’s me!”
2.    Global distortion – “It’ll affect everything I do!”
3.    Stability generalization – “It will last forever!”

If, like many children, you grew up in an environment where you continually received negative criticism, then you will get to a point where you feel you are not good enough. That you must somehow be a ‘bad’ child and therefore fully deserve to be criticised in such a fashion. As you can imagine, this is incredibly damaging to a child’s sense of self.

Children who grow up with this kind of parenting will often give up: at college, relationships, jobs – and it can lead to varying degrees of depression. They believe that if they succeed in life it’d down to sheer fluke, not their own innate abilities. An example of extreme learned helplessness is women who stay in abusive relationships. At one level they believe they are deserving of this – even though rationally they may be able to argue otherwise.

If you feel that you can’t change a situation, even though clearly you are well able to, then you may be exhibiting learned helplessness. The state of helplessness is learned after an individual’s attempts to correct situations failed, or were perceived to have failed. The feeling of helplessness is often expanded to future encounters with similar situations, or even vastly dissimilar situations. If you were brought up as a child in an environment where you were made to feel powerless, you may well be continuing this pattern into adulthood, even though there are no circumstances that could be motivating you to do this.

Characteristics of learned helplessness and emotional abuse
•    Feelings of low self- esteem (This is a result of being criticized too often as children and teenagers.)
•    We perpetuate these parental messages by judging ourselves and others harshly. We try to cover up our poor opinions of ourselves by being perfectionist and controlling.
•    We tend to isolate ourselves out of fear and we feel often uneasy around other people, especially authority figures.
•    We are desperate for love and approval and will do anything to make people like us. Not wanting to hurt others, we remain “loyal” in situations and relationships even when evidence indicates our loyalty is undeserved.
•    We are afraid of losing others.
•    We are afraid of being abandoned.
•    It is difficult for us to “let go.”
•    We are intimidated by angry people and personal criticism. This adds to our feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.
•    We continue to attract emotionally unavailable people with addictive personalities.
•    We live life as victims, blaming others for our circumstances, and are attracted to other victims (and people with power) as friends and lovers. We confuse love with pity and tend to “love” people we can pity and rescue. And we confuse love with need.
•    We are either super-responsible or super-irresponsible. We take responsibility for solving others’ problems or expect others to be responsible for solving ours. This enables us to avoid being responsible for our own lives and choices.
•    We feel guilty when we stand up for ourselves or act in our own best interests. We give in to others’ needs and opinions instead of taking care of ourselves.
•    We deny, minimize or repress our feelings as a result of our traumatic childhoods. We are unaware of the impact that our inability to identify and express our feelings has had on our adult lives.
•    We are dependent personalities who are so terrified of rejection or abandonment that we tend to stay in situations or relationships that are harmful to us. Our fears and dependency stop us form ending unfulfilling relationships and prevent us from entering into fulfilling ones. Because we feel so unlovable it is difficult or impossible to believe anyone can really love us, and won’t eventually leave us once they see how “bad” we are.
•    Denial, isolation, control, shame, and undeserved guilt are legacies from our family. As a result of these symptoms, we feel hopeless and helpless.
•    We have difficulty with intimacy, security, trust, and commitment in our relationships. Lacking clearly defined personal limits and boundaries, we become enmeshed in our partner’s needs and emotions. We often become codependent.
•    We tend to procrastinate and have difficulty following project through from beginning to end.
•    We have a strong need to be in control. We overreact to change things over which we have no control.

How to move forward out of learned helplessness
These feelings may be so ingrained that it takes a while to actually recognise them.
1. Firstly, ask yourself who you act out your learned helplessness with. Is it a partner, an authority figure, a family member.
2. How is this serving you now? Write down all the ways you are benefiting from being helpless with this person.
3. Write down all the ways you’d feel better if you weren’t so ‘helpless’ with them. Yes, it might change the dynamic. And yes you may well lose them as a friend. partner, but think of what you will gain as a result.
4. Write down the names of people you feel completely safe with. Often we feel safest with the people we can be totally ourselves with. There is no power struggle. They accept us totally as we are. There is no judgement. There is no criticism.
5. How kind are you being to yourself? If you are regularly telling yourself: “I’m stupid” “I’m an idiot” etc then that’s exactly the kind of people you will attract into your life. People who will mirror to you exactly how you feel about yourself.
6. Think back to the situations that caused your feelings of impotence and futility.
7. Find a counsellor or therapist who is trained and has experience of emotional abuse and learned helplessness.
As Janis Joplin so eloquently put it: “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got!”

Many of us have successfully disengaged from unhealthy behaviour patterns such as learned helplessness. Once you become aware of how your patterns are stifling and sabotaging you, then you can take active steps to do something about it. There’s no rush… take your time, get support from friends and/or professionals –  and above all, be kind to yourself along the way.

Further Reading Recommendations (thanks to Sunshine Evert!):-

[amazon ASIN=”0465012612″]The Drama of a Gifted Child, by Alice Miller[/amazon] [amazon ASIN=”0964838311″]The Dance of Wounded Souls by Robert Burney[/amazon] [amazon ASIN=”0671791931″]Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin by Anne Katherine[/amazon] [amazon ASIN=”0060081589″]The Dance of Fear by Harriet Lerner[/amazon]


UPDATE 7 May 2012: Gina and Paul talk about this blog post in our podcast on Learned Helplessness