Learned Helplessness

According to psychology, learned helplessness is when a person or animal becomes conditioned to believe that failure is their only potential. For example, a dog who is given electric shocks without a method of escape, will, when given a route to escape, stay put as they have learned that the pain is inevitable. In another example, if an elephant is chained to a pole for a majority of its life, when it is able to roam, it continues to stay within the confines of the pole – it is all that the elephant knows. In the same way, children learn to do this as they are unsuccessful in education. The great thing about learned helplessness is that it is learned – therefore, it can be unlearned if appropriate measures are taken.

When students, or people in general, fail continuously, they eventually accept the failure and take it as is. Even in new terrain – new subjects that they have never tried before. The helpless emotion that they feel is true to them and is hard to change if intrinsic motivation is not present. This basically is the opposite of humanistic principles. There are several things you can do to improve your child or student’s self esteem – the worst thing you can do is allow them to feel this way!

To improve your child’s successes and help them unlearn learned helplessness, you may want to compliment their successes more often. In doing so, their esteem rises and they feel like they are capable. After all, students are limited by their own thoughts. If one feels that they are incapable of completing a task, chances are they are not going to try very hard.

Another tip that would substantially help your child or student succeed is to not allow them to give up. As a child, most things came to me easy. However, if something did not – I would cry in the corner and feel unworthy of trying. Luckily, when I grew up, I realized my potential. Others aren’t so lucky. A repeated pattern of failure may lead to a repeated pattern of giving up on the subject at hand. If you encourage them to try harder, but understand where their limitations are, you can help them to unlearn this behavior.

Children can unlearn and learn successes. (photo by photojenni)

Children can unlearn and learn successes. (photo by photojenni)

Remember that the child is very impressionable. Your behavior will directly affect your child. If you have developed this kind of lack of motivation, there is a high chance your child will be the same way. Children will believe that this is the norm – that everyone is this way, and that it is completely acceptable. In the same way, you would have to recognize when you are having thoughts that limit your potentials, as well as not give up when the going gets tough.

For inspiration on continuing education, you can look at one of my past posts on quotes, found here. If these quotes just aren’t doing it for you, here is a link to several quotes on motivation.

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2 comments on “Learned Helplessness
  1. staci says:

    For some including myself, this is the most important thing to realize and learn. I’ve already known this is something to learn or relearn again. Sometimes I feel just like a snowball in hell because I can’t escape the negativity I’ve been taught and an impatient and toxic environment I was raised in. I’ve had to teach myself to unlearn it and it’s NOT easy without outside help. There’s always room for improvement and pain is the only #1 motivator to fix this. I’m no where near done but I’ve been happier knowing that at least can be fixed. Happy Trails!!!
    I didn’t want to raise any kids for I was afraid I’d be the same way or worse. I definitely didn’t want to take the chance on being the same as my parents were and be able to live with myself. I think it’s probably the smartest thing I purposely did and be OK about the decision I made for myself. It’s stopping a cycle of abuse in a most extreme way.

  2. Great article and we see more international examples in the workplace, in schools and further education. Learned Helplessness is now a disease but as you and the creator of the term, Prof Martin Seligman say you can unlearn it. The earlier you learn not to be it the better!

    We work mostly in the business sector but have latterly developed programmes for schools, colleges and universities. http://www.mindfitltd.com for details

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