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Are You a Practitioner of Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a psychological dynamic which comes up often in therapy and is useful for clients to understand. It’s “a phenomenon in which repeated exposure to uncontrollable stressors results in individuals failing to use any control options that may later become available. Essentially, individuals are said to learn that they lack behavioral control over environmental events, which, in turn, undermines the motivation to make changes or attempt to alter situations.” (APA Dictionary of Psychology, https://dictionary.apa.org/learned-helplessness, accessed 3/6/19) It has been tied to depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and could be a good fit with eating disorders as well, though that belief is from my clinical experience, not from research.

Gillian Fournier in “Learned Helplessness” calls it “A condition in which a person or animal has come to believe he or she is helpless in a situation, even when this is untrue.” (Psych Central Encyclopedia of Psychology, accessed 3/6/19, https://psychcentral.com/encyclopedia/learned-helplessness/). It may start in infancy and be reinforced throughout our lives by parents or caretakers and it can also be rooted in events beyond our control which happen during childhood through feeling chronically powerless as in war, grave neglect, poverty, abuse or moving around a lot.

Unrelated to intelligence, learned helplessness is displayed in people who have difficulty caring for themselves. Maybe failing to do things for themselves is how they captured the attention of parents who neglected them. That is, acting (but not actually being) helpless led to a parent doing something for them which felt loving and caring. If parents were distant, helplessness was a way to get and keep connection and attention. Or maybe nothing they did ever was good enough and they gave up trying early on. Or maybe a parent did everything for them for their own gratification and didn’t encourage the child to grow age appropriately on her or his own.

I had a 40- year-old client whose mother regularly buttoned up her sweater as she was about to walk out the door. Eventually, I understood why my client tolerated this odd behavior. It turned out that her mother worked three jobs in order to take care of her two children and my client got attention only when she really was unable to do something for herself. She grew into an adult who enjoyed finally getting the attention from Mom buttoning her sweater for her (as if she could make up for the past) and Mom felt relief from her guilt and shame that she so often had neglected her daughter a child.

However helplessness is reinforced in childhood, children run the risk of thinking they truly are helpless when they’re not—you believe you can’t get a job, keep your room clean, finish college, balance your checkbook, or earn a living to support yourself. Consider whether you’ve developed learned helplessness and how it serves you now. The good news is you’re probably not nearly as incapable as you’ve learned to be.

Best,

Karen

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