Why you need to know about Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness

A condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression.

Everyone has personal and professional challenges, but what's the difference between someone who can effectively deal with them and someone who gives up? According to Martin Seligman, the psychologist who coined the term 'Learned Helplessness' after carrying out research in 1965 on groups of dogs, learned helplessness can be the main cause of quitting. 

Seligman characterised the effects with these three terms:

  1. Personal - They believe that they are the reason for the problem - they blame themselves.
  2. Pervasive - They believe that failure in one area means failure in all areas of life.
  3. Permanent - They believe that their problems are permanent. 

Hopefully, you don't struggle with this yourself, and you believe taking action towards your goals will yield good results. But not everyone feels like that. Recently, I met a young man (19) who was fully convinced that he would be poor, and a slave his whole life - that there was no alternative. This was a very sad thing to hear. Imagine if you thought that nothing you did would make any difference, that you would always be poor and that you'll always have to work 12 hour days for minimum wage. You might find it hard to keep hope.

So... I challenged his beliefs for an hour, asked him some difficult questions and tried to make an impression. I think we made some progress but there is a lot more to do. I'm relying on the opposite of learned helplessness to aid me in getting through to this young man; Learned Optimism

In short, we all need to know about learned helplessness and learned optimism to help ourselves and others with difficult situations. So remember, the next time you face a big failure or setback, ask yourself if it is Personal, Pervasive and Permanent.