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Learned Helplessness & How it Affects You

Updated on December 29, 2017
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The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.

Learned helplessness is what happens when a person has become so entangled in an abusive situation that they no longer believe there is a way out of it - even if there actually is. Their way of dealing with it is simply to resign themselves to the fact that there is no escape and simply try to deal with it as well as they possibly can. We see this in abused children - who really don't have a way to escape - and it's often a component of narcissism. Narcissists are of course generally abused children who were unable to mature, so this makes sense. This is part of the reason why narcissists behave as if life and circumstance are something that just happens to them, rather than as something they have any control over or input in. They are struggling with learned helplessness.

People who suffer from learned helplessness have been conditioned to believe that they cannot change the way things are. They have learned to be helpless, in other words. Because of this, they have essentially given up trying and simply endure things. There is often a large amount of depression involved with learned helplessness, as well as a big component of anger. People who are operating under the conditioning of learned helplessness are often passive-aggressive, as was discussed in the Hidden Aggression article. This is because they don't feel they can confront or change the situation and they are angry about that. In that article, we looked at hoarding as an example of passive-aggressive behavior. A lot of times hoarding is a passive-aggressive attempt to express hostility because a person feels they cannot express it any other way. Many hoarding situations are created by a toxic environment.

For instance, a person who has a very abusive spouse may have become conditioned to believe that they cannot get away, and that they cannot change the situation. That's learned helplessness. As a result of this conditioned state of being and the abuse that caused it, they are hurt, they are depressed and they are angry. They don't feel safe or comfortable confronting their abuser, they don't feel they can leave and they don't feel they can express their feelings. So they do something to try and vent their rage or hurt their abuser indirectly, such as letting the house become filthy or fall into disrepair. This is a "safe" way to vent their feelings. That anger is still there, even if they have given up trying to change their situation. In fact, people may even be angrier because of that. Regardless of the person and regardless of the mechanism, these feelings have to come out somehow, and eventually they will.

We often see the same kind of "passive resistance" or "passive retaliation" in narcissists, especially covert narcissists. As mentioned above, narcissists are often dealing with learned helplessness as well. Narcissists that were victims of childhood abuse were taught that they had no control over anything that happened. But whereas most people are able to mature at least somewhat from that mindset, the narcissist's arrested development has resulted in their being stuck in it. They feel they cannot do anything right and worse, that there is no escape from the horrible, negative way they experience life in general. These types of narcissists may be very uncomfortable with feelings and with asserting themselves; they may be very repressed in general, but they have just as much rage, shame and self-hatred as more overt personalities. They may fear rejection more than the more malignant types of narcissist as well. Because they are so reluctant to assert themselves, though, they often don't have the outlet for these feelings that their more overt counterparts have. This results in passive-aggressive attacks against other people as a way to resolve and vent their hostility safely. Because passive-aggressive behavior is by definition not overt or assertive, there is a built-in deniability factor. A person can simply deny they have a hostile or aggressive motive and there is no way to prove they do.

Because of the way their disorder functions, we often see passive-aggressive behavior from narcissists when they are asked to do something. Due to their learned helplessness and the trauma that caused it, this narcissist believes anything they do will fail. So they adopt a defensive strategy of: "If I can do nothing right, then I will do nothing at all. And I will make sure no one asks me to do anything." They are angry at being asked to do something, both because it exposes their insecurity and because their artificially-inflated ego resents it. They feel pressured to comply and unable to say no, either because to refuse would be at odds with their projected false image or because they are otherwise uncomfortable doing so. When asked to do something, the narcissist's insecurity may be provoked ("I can't do anything right!"). This instantaneously triggers the egotistical rage reaction ("I shouldn't have to do anything because I'm better than that!") This second reaction is a cover up. It's a mask to hide the insecurity. All of the grandiosity, entitlement and self-focus you see in a narcissist is a defense mechanism against the conditioned and ingrained idea that they have no control over anything and no escape from it. Much of their hostility is also the direct result of feeling so helpless and out of control inside. They attempt to bully, dominate and control to counteract these feelings. Passive-aggressive behavior is simply another way to achieve this when overt hostility is not possible for whatever reason. Like so many things regarding narcissists and their disorders, their experience with learned helplessness and passive-aggressive behavior is complicated by other things and can be extremely difficult to untangle, especially when compared to a non-narcissistic person facing the same issues.

Not just narcissists are passive-aggressive, though, and passive-aggressive behavior is not always caused by helplessness learned in childhood. Anybody can be passive-aggressive depending on the circumstances, and most people probably have been at some point in time. It becomes a more difficult problem when it becomes a lifelong pattern, though, and this is usually due to childhood conditioning. An adult who suffered an abusive relationship and became conditioned to react with learned helplessness may heal more quickly than someone who has had these patterns ingrained into them since birth and knows no other way to be.

For example, we often see this type of lifelong behavioral pattern in co-dependent people, and for the same reason we see it in narcissists: learned helplessness. Co-dependent people were often conditioned by abuse, neglect or an otherwise hostile environment in childhood, the same way narcissists were. In a capricious and invalidating environment, children become conditioned to believe that they have no control over anything, and that nothing they do can change or fix anything. So they stop trying. They give up in self-defense and focus on simply navigating their confusing, inconsistent world the best they can. They learn that it's not possible to fight the system, so they don't. They simply try to exist and make it through the day. This understandable; children really are helpless. The issues come when this temporary way of managing becomes a permanent way to deal, even though the person is no longer helpless.

Learned helplessness can be a large roadblock in healing for people. It isn't just present in narcissists or co-dependent personalities. Anyone of any age can be conditioned this way. It can be difficult to overcome this kind of programming, though it is by no means impossible. One of the biggest parts of the problem is removing the apathy that often results from learned helplessness. After so many years of feeling there is nothing they can do, many people simply check out. They may be depressed or simply detached. Another difficulty is that it can be hard to suddenly jump in to having control and taking responsibility when for years you did not realize you even had any. In many ways, it's safer to be helpless because if you are helpless, you are also not responsible. This is the dynamic we often see with narcissists, and is the same dynamic we see at play in a passive-aggressive behavior called feigned inefficiency. This is when a person behaves as though they don't know how to do something so that they will not be required to take responsibility for something they don't want - or feel unable to - to take responsibility for.

Reprogramming learned helplessness can be difficult, especially when a person is forced to confront the times in their life when they were not helpless yet still failed to act. There can be a lot of pain and guilt attached to this, and a person may be subconsciously holding on to their helplessness in an attempt to escape these things. However, facing them is necessary to grow and understand that as adults, people are not helpless. They can and do have a choice, in nearly every situation that could present itself. It may be difficult to acknowledge these things, but taking a more active role in your own life is never going to be wrong. It all begins and ends with what you believe. It sounds cliche, but what you tell yourself really does matter. In order to use the power, you first have to understand that you have it.


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