Feeling stuck in life is usual, what may be unusual is, the origin of that belief – Learned Helplessness.

An Elephant chained to a pole in a circus is a common occurrence, but what most of us might not have observed is that the chain and most of the times the pole itself might not be strong enough to contain the mighty Elephant. Yet the Elephant does not move outside the set radius and never tries to break the chain, even though it is capable to do so.

the elephant story - learned helplessness

Why does this happen? The answer lies in the times when the Elephant was trained as a baby. The trainer secures the baby Elephant with a chain or similar arrangement which is too strong for the baby Elephant to break. The Elephant tries for several days to break loose and however unsuccessful, over a period of time presumes that the chain is unbreakable. And this belief develops to such an extent that the Elephant believes it as the ultimate truth, throughout its life.

What is Learned Helplessness?

The above behavior is a classic example of “learned helplessness”. The term was coined by American Psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier in their study of clinical depression.

It is, in fact, a mental condition where the subject believes that they do not have a choice, no power to choose the outcome. The subject’s failure to overcome the situation or challenges in the past creates an illusion of helplessness, and the subject comes to believe they are helpless. They feel stuck and posses no motivation to overcome the situation, even though the amount of effort required doing so is trivial.

Limiting Beliefs

What causes the behavior?

A simplified explanation of the study conducted by the American Psychologists can be understood as follows. They subjected groups of dogs to electrical shocks, in certain groups the dogs were secured so that they would not escape the shock, no matter what they did; and in other groups, the dogs could escape the shock with some minor effort to do so.

After continuing the trial for a period it was seen that dogs which were not able to escape the shock previously, continued to believe the same and never tried to overcome the situation even when there was clear possibility to do so.

This analogy explains the cause of similar behavior in humans. Our repeated failure to control certain outcomes or to avoid certain discomfort in our lives over a period becomes ingrained. Perhaps the failure would have been at a certain time when we were young, uninformed, immature, and may be the situation itself had many temporary constraints, but based on our past inability we begin to generalize and apply this to all similar situations, continue to see ourselves as helpless.

How it affects our abilities?

It can emotionally paralyze someone to such an extent that the person believes to be stuck and blames everything or everyone else for their failures but not themselves.

When someone sees that there is nothing they could do to change the situation, their effort at making things work decreases, this further reduces their learning ability. This contributes to:

·        Complete inability or unwillingness to act.
·        Increased Stress.
·        Chronic Failure.
·        Low Self Esteem.
·        Anxiety, Phobias & depression.
·        Psychosomatic illnesses.

destroy limiting beliefs

Common occurrences in social situations

It can affect and impact our society and social situations at large in many ways:

·        Learning Disability – often children when they fail repeatedly to cope up with certain subjects for example mathematics, presume they are never capable to improve their performance and further show unwillingness to put any effort and when they grow up, this behavior gets reflected into other social situations.

·        Domestic Violence – the abuser be it in any emotional relationship or marital relations makes the victim feel so helpless with their repeated assault that the victim begins to accept it as fully normal, owing to their inability to change it and continues to suffer, even when there is clear way to evade or report such abuse.

·        Victim Mentality – very often children or young adults due to repeated exposure to painful & uncomfortable situations like bullying & abuse, may totally stop trying to cope up with similar situations throughout their lives.

·        The cycle of Poverty – stricken by poverty often people are concerned only about their next meal and almost never plan for the future or savings. This attitude when passed from parents to children, stricken by poverty, continues to trap them in the cycle of poverty as the focus is only on the present moment with total disregard for the future.

·        Aging adults – As adults grow into their old age, they go through the loss of jobs, dependency on others, diseases and often see their peer’s helplessness and death. This further aggravates the situation than the actual one, as they often tend to neglect taking care of themselves, owing to their belief in impending doom.