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Feeling Powerless; Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Updated on July 1, 2017
Learned helplessness can lead a person to feel limited, fearful and confined.
Learned helplessness can lead a person to feel limited, fearful and confined. | Source

There are people who have developed a condition of learned helplessness as a way of reacting to situations that they feel are stressful, uncomfortable or difficult to deal with. Learned helplessness is a perception of having no control over a situation and being powerless to finding a solution that can change their position. This sense of feeling helpless often leads to developing a victim role, fuels feelings of anxiety and is considered to be a significant contributor to depression.

Rather than looking at normal difficulties and failures in life as new opportunities or lessons to help them grow and improve. They have learned to believe that their limitations create a sense of security from pain and failure. However, by minimizing their efforts, they also end up lacking confidence in their abilities and intellect, which causes it's own realm of set backs and misery for them. This extreme lack of self–esteem and effort tends to further fuel feeling powerless to challenges as they occur.

Learned helplessness can develop at any stage in a persons’ life and results from their perception that some situations can not be stopped, escaped from or redirected which affects ones cognitive and behavioral structure. They also become accustomed to negative outcomes and have learned to view this as an inescapable result, creating a learned response of feeling helpless or even feeling hopeless with certain situations, people or emotions. This all leads them to lose their ability to seek out different problem solving methods that could help them create more positive outcomes.

Examples of Learned Helplessness

American psychologist Martin Seligman learned of this kind of conditioning through an experiment utilizing dogs that were put in cages where they could not escape shocks under their feet and after a while, the dogs gave up in their attempts to escape the shocks. However, when these same dogs were placed in new cages, where they could escape the shocks, they simply subjected themselves to the repeated shocks that could have been avoided. These dogs had become conditioned to believe that they could not escape their discomfort; feeling hopeless, they stopped trying to do so as they have accepted that these shocks are a permanent and inevitable outcome.

One of my favorite examples of this learned helpless condition was a story I once heard about fleas being confined in a box. Upon some research, I found that Zig Ziglar had written this piece in a book called “See You at The Top”. But the story is one I have remembered well for about twenty years now. It starts out with the idea in understanding the power of jumping fleas. Fleas have the ability to jump about ten inches high, which is more than 100 times their own body height. So, if you were to place fleas in a container with a lid on top, of course they will jump with all their might only to find that they repeatedly hit the secured lid. After a short amount of time, they learn that they can not escape and the efforts of their jumping will decrease. Once the fleas have become conditioned to the idea of not being about to jump out, when the lid is removed, the fleas will remain limited in their jumping attempts and will therefore keep themselves imprisoned in a container they could escape from. So even though the limitations of the lid have been removed, they have accepted their conditioned life of limitation within this container.

Both of these are good examples how some can learn to feel helpless in situations that have created pain and failure for us. If someone’s prior attempts to change a situation has failed repeatedly or they never developed empowering skills to properly solve problems, they eventually become imprisoned to repeated failed situations.

How Feeling Helpless Develops

Learned helplessness can be developed through scenarios similar to the examples or through other methods, such as not understanding how to solve a problem due to lack of information of the situation or not having information provided in a format that is understood by the individual; therefore developing a lack in confidence to overcome obstacles. It can also develop when people constantly step in and do things for another; therefore, not allowing the person to learn how to do these things themselves and developing a dependency on others to rescue them from working through their own problems and dealing with their own consequences.

These feelings of powerlessness can develop in something as minor as struggles with math to larger issues such as dealing with abusive relationships. Either way, the person may have learned that their efforts to improve their situation have been met with repeated pain or failure. They then develop feeling helpless to overcome obstacles and to work through these problems when they arise. Repeated failure, set backs, obstacles and a lack in confidence or motivation may drive them to want to just give up and accept defeat as they may feel like there is nothing they can do to make things better anyway. This limiting mindset will hold them captive, setting them up in a victim role and keep them from overcoming their challenges and achieving what they truly desire in life.

Strategies for Overcoming Learned Helplessness

But, remember, that whatever you can learn can be unlearned. You can override thoughts, limits and perceptions by learning new process and habits to put in its place. So, what steps can someone make towards overcoming learned helplessness and regain confidence and personal power? I will share some methods that I have learned and utilized to help myself rise above feelings of powerlessness.

If you feel stuck in a situation or can’t quite seem to overcome a problem, be open to new possible ideas. For every problem, there are many possible solutions. If the one(s) you’ve been trying isn’t providing you with the results you prefer, seek out advice or guidance from others, from counselors, from books or articles on the topic you are struggling with. Often, just hearing about a different way to think about, or to respond to a situation, can be just the thing you need to move beyond this. However, don’t get trapped in to doing things exactly how others would do it. Be sure to take the information and find what works best for you and your situation.

Focus more on the things that you are good at rather than lamenting on your struggles or set backs. No one is great at everything, but everyone is great at some things. Because of this, we always have something that will benefit us and others, and others have something that also can benefit us. Focus on your positive traits and trust in the skills that are uniquely yours. Focusing on your good qualities can provide you with more confidence and may serve to be beneficial in finding creative ways to deal with situations. Stand strong and fully believe in those traits and strengths, work on expanding them within your life

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Pessimism and optimism are learned conditions. If you have a self-defeating attitude and vocabulary, you can learn to create a more optimistic life by learning a positive way to treat and speak to yourself and overcome feeling powerless.


Make choices for yourself rather than running with the choices others press upon you. Living a life that others expect of us can lead us to feel helpless and unhappy with ourselves and our lives. What others think is best for you, may not necessarily be what truly is best for you. Others may be sharing what they feel is best based on their own desires, beliefs and experiences. However, what you want and what is best for you and your situation may not be the same. Learn to carefully consider the advice and guidance from others, then be willing to make a decision that you feel works better for you in the long run. Dare to try new things that interest you, take new risks that you feel are worth the consequences and pave a path that fits you.

Focus on the things you can control. When you focus on things that you have no control over, which is pretty much anything outside of you such as the choices and behaviors of others, it can lead you to feeling hopeless to change your situation. By focusing on things you can control, such as your own choices, actions, lessons, skills and responses you put yourself in a position to be able to improve yourself within a situation. Choosing to focus on improving yourself in a situation often has a ripple affect that activates other improvements to occur around you. Start off by focusing on options that you feel you can control and work through, then take small steps towards accomplishing the outcome you desire. Maybe you won't be able to change an entire situation at this time, but maybe you can improve small portions within the situation.

Let go of always needing to be right or doing things perfectly. Sometimes, having a fear of not being right or not being able to do something perfectly may prevent someone from trying something new. This can make some feel helpless to take the steps they need to change their circumstances. Again, there is more than one way to solve a problem. Sometimes, we remain stuck in thinking about and doing things in the same ways we always have. However, if we continue to do things in the same way, we also continue to get the same results. If you already knew everything and knew how to do it the one and only right way, then it should be easy for you to overcome any challenge in life and there would be no more room for growth or learning to occur. However, there is always room for growth and learning. No one has all the answers, is always right or does everything perfectly, and to be honest, there is nothing wrong with that. If you find yourself repeatedly struggling with a situation, then you may benefit from admitting that, at this time, you may not know how to handle this situation in a way that best benefits you. But, that doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless and that you must give up. Again, be open to new possibilities, perspectives, advice and guidance. By doing so, more possibilities become available and you’ll be able to find information and methods that produce better results for you.

Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful atHandling Life's Diffi culties...and How You Can Be, Too
Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful atHandling Life's Diffi culties...and How You Can Be, Too

It may seem that some people just have better luck when it comes to life's outcomes. But the truth is, it's less about luck and more about how we handle the challenges and obstacles we are confronted with.


Have safe and healthy boundaries for yourself and get out of the trap of people pleasing. People are more apt to become victims when they spend more time worrying about what others think, doing what they feel others want them to do, or being constantly available to meet the demands of others. When you do this, you lose sight of your own needs, end up putting more energy into activities that do not benefit you and that serve as distractions from accomplishing what you need to improve your own life. When you get overly focused on directing and fulfilling the lives of others, you lose sight of overcoming your own obstacles and achieving your own goals. Always putting others above you and not setting a priority on time for you and your own goals will make you an easy target to be taken advantage of, manipulated and at the mercy of others.

Take responsibility for your own position in a situation. No matter what role others have played in creating your current situation, remember that you have made some choices that got you there as well. Even if you chose not to not make any decisions and allow others to direct your circumstances, that was still a choice that you had made. If you don’t like how things are going in your life, let go of blaming others for your situation and take some responsibility to create change and make improvements. When you choose to let go of grudges and blaming others, you set yourself free from the emotional prison that these habits have created, which allows you to use that energy on more positive and productive results. By learning to trust yourself to make better choices, utilize and expand your skills & abilities, trust your instincts more, and gain new insight, advice & guidance, you can take hold of the reigns of your life and for your future results. Fail or succeed, when you begin to take more responsibility for your own choices, you open up more opportunities, experiences and lessons for yourself, enabling you to get closer to the results you desire.

No matter what the situation, there is always something you can do do improve some part of your position. Even the smallest changes can lead to big results.


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    • Mary Merriment profile image

      Mary Merriment 4 years ago from Boise area, Idaho

      Than you very much, gsidley. I look forward to seeing more of you and I will also be visiting your page.

    • gsidley profile image

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 4 years ago from Lancashire, England

      An excellent, scholarly hub about an interesting topic.

      Like you, I have an interest in cognitive approaches.

      Voted up. i'm also your latest follower.

    • Mary Merriment profile image

      Mary Merriment 5 years ago from Boise area, Idaho

      Thank you very much Crystal. I hope the information provides much empowerment to you.

    • Crystal Tatum profile image

      Crystal Tatum 5 years ago from Georgia

      What a wonderful hub! I relate to the feelings you describe very much. I recognize those patterns in my life. Lovely advice . Voted up and awesome.

    • Mary Merriment profile image

      Mary Merriment 5 years ago from Boise area, Idaho

      Thank you so very much Nell. Worrying and tending to others does serve as a great distraction from tending to our own personal issues. It's definitely something that serves to drain us more than fulfill us. I'm glad to hear that you got to a point where you realized that it didn't serve to benefit you.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Hi Mary, I never knew about the dog or flea experiments, but they do make sense. This is so true about me on so many levels. for years I was a people helper or worrier, until one day I thought, why? great reading, and voted up!

    • Mary Merriment profile image

      Mary Merriment 5 years ago from Boise area, Idaho

      I know what you mean BillyBuc. I spent a majority of my life feeling helpless. Life was definitely much more difficult in this mind set. It was a daily struggle that I'm glad to have overcome. Thanks for reading and commenting. I greatly appreciate your continuing support.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great suggestions, Mary! I have only felt helpless once in my life, and I almost died because of it. Never again my friend!