What is learned helplessness in psychology?


Helplessness is an emotion that we experience when we realize that we can’t do anything to solve an important problem.

Helplessness is usually experienced after we have used up all the options that were available to us for solving our problem. When there’s no option left or we can’t think of any, we feel helpless.

Suppose you had to buy a book that you needed to consult badly for an exam that you have next week. You searched your college library but couldn’t find one.

You asked your seniors to lend you one but none of them had it. Then you decided to buy one but found that no bookstore in your city was selling it.

Lastly, you tried to order it online but found that all the sites that you visited either weren’t selling it or it had gone out of stock. At this point, you might start to feel helpless.

Helplessness is accompanied by a sense of loss of control over one’s life and this can make one feel very weak and powerless. This obviously results in bad feelings and if you kept feeling helpless for a long time, then you might get depressed. 

Depression results from not being able to solve our problems on a continuous basis until we lose hope of solving them.

Learned helplessness

Helplessness is not an inborn trait in humans. It is a learned behavior- something that we learned from others.

When we saw people becoming helpless when they faced certain problems, we also learned to become helpless and came to believe that it was a normal response to such situations. But that’s far from the truth.

When you were a child, you never felt helpless after failing to walk several times or trying to hold an object correctly.

But as you grew up and learned the behavior of others, you included helplessness in your repertoire just because you saw people acting helplessly by giving up after trying a couple of times. Add to this the programming that you received from the media.

There are countless movies, songs, and books that directly or indirectly teach you that “There’s no hope”, “Life is very unfair”, “Everybody doesn’t get what they want”, “Life’s a burden”, “Everything is written”, “We are powerless before destiny” etc.

Over time, these suggestions that you receive from the media and people become a part of your belief system and a normal part of your thinking. What you don’t realize is that they are all teaching you to be helpless.

When we were children our minds were like a sponge- unconditioned and closest to nature. Take a look at nature and you hardly find a single helpless creature. 

Ever tried flicking down an ant climbing up a wall with your fingers? No matter how many times you do it, the ant tries again to climb up the wall right from the bottom without ever feeling helpless.

Ever heard of Sultan, the chimp? Psychologists conducted an interesting experiment on Sultan when they were trying to understand how learning happens.

They put Sultan in an enclosed area with fences around and placed a banana on the ground outside the fence far enough so that Sultan couldn’t reach it. Also, they put some pieces of bamboo sticks inside the cage. Sultan tried many times to reach for the banana but failed.

After many attempts, Sultan found a way. He joined the bamboo pieces together and made a stick long enough to reach the banana. He then dragged the banana near him and grabbed it.

what is learned helplessness
Actual photo of Sultan displaying his genius.

Where there’s a will there’s a way; cliche but true

The only reason we feel helpless is that we can’t find a way to solve our problems. If you think that there isn’t a way maybe you haven’t looked hard enough or maybe you are just repeating what you learned from others who have a habit of feeling helpless.

If you are flexible enough in your approach, gain enough knowledge, and acquire the skills that you lack you’re sure to find a way.

Remember that there is always more than one way to solve a problem or achieve the desired result. Success may sometimes be just one more try away.