All of us experience feelings of helplessness from time to time. We find ourselves in situations over which we have no control. And when such situations entail negative consequences, feelings of helplessness can follow. However, there is a difference between feeling helpless on occasion and living a life dominated by those feelings.
If you feel helpless about most things most of the time, those feelings may have been learned. This is not to say they are invalid. According to Psychoanalyst London’s, María R. de Almeida, such feelings are completely valid. But you might only be experiencing them because you have learned to think and feel that way.
A team of American psychologists developed a theory back in the 1960s known as ‘learned helplessness’. The theory asserts that people constantly exposed to negative stimuli over which they have no control will eventually feel helpless in relation to those circumstances. They will not even bother trying to overcome because they have come to believe that they can’t.
In order to test this theory, the team set up a series of three experiments involving dogs and their responses to electric stimuli. At the conclusion of their tests, they determined that helplessness is learned as a result of not overcoming negative circumstances. However, they had the mechanism backwards.
They thought that the will and ability to overcome is inherent and that only preventing a person from doing so is what leads to learned helplessness. Subsequent studies have shown just the opposite. People exposed to negative circumstances for the first time assume they have no control over them. They have to be shown that they do have control. They have to be taught how to overcome.
It’s Why Parents Encourage Their Kids
The belief that one has no control over their circumstances is present even at an early age. Infants instinctively know they cannot feed or change themselves. When they are uncomfortable, they cry. They know that tears will lead to a feeding and a nappy change.
The inherent lack of control is why parents are told to encourage their kids. It is why we are so focused on positive reinforcement in the modern era. We want people to know they can achieve if they apply themselves. We want them to know that they can overcome any adversity life throws at them.
A person seeking anxiety or depression treatment might believe that they have no control over anything. It is the psychotherapist’s task to change that thinking. When a psychotherapist can help the patient see that they do have the ability to take control or overcome, half the battle is won.
We Are What We Learn
Occasional feelings of helplessness are normal. That’s because there truly are some circumstances over which we have no control. But most of the time, we can control how we respond to circumstances. That is where the learning comes into play.
We are essentially what we learn. A person who learns, as a youngster, to give in and never try to overcome adverse circumstances will spend the rest of their life feeling defeated. On the other hand, those who learn to take control and do something at an early age are more likely to have that same mindset as adults.
The good news is that you are never too old to learn new ways of thinking. Even if you have lived your whole life feeling helpless about every circumstance you encounter, it is possible to learn new thought patterns. Learning to take control and overcome leads to feeling less helpless most of the time.