Learned Helplessness…The Way Out

(Source: Dr. Martin Seligman)

The feeling of oppression and not being in control or in charge is the opposite of the top of the UpSpiral which is “feeling good and feeling free.”

These feelings of either the threat or the actual loss of control create DownSpiraling, and then we lean toward one end or the other of either passively internalizing anger and rage or externalizing it.

When we DownSpiral, we do characteristically one or the other.

Some of us internalize and smolder, and others of us “shoot from the hip.”

What do you do when you want to control and can’t, and the only resort is to admit that you are powerless? Even as this significant speck of the Universe, connected to a vast Universal intelligence in some unique and perfect way, the experience is still the same: powerlessness.

Go ahead, you can admit it, there are times when you feel up against the wall, backed into a corner, it’s piled on top of you and a squeak of a pulsing “peace” “peace” “peace” seems to be a million miles away, if you can remember it all.

The truth is that we want it our way, in our time, and like we think it ought to happen.

Why not just begin with admitting that we are powerless and let it unfold? Why not just throw open the whole process of living and just take it as it comes in a resigned acceptance that does not provoke frustration or a sense of oppression?

Why not just give in to the past oppressors, to the past cues and threats that we have so well learned, and be as passive as we have learned to be hostile and rage?

And let the whole thing just unfold as it will…

Why not just move to this place of just generally, as best you can, accept whatever comes down and try to do your best with what you cannot control, never will control, and admit that you are powerless and just let a power beyond yourself do the deal?

What I have just described is “learned helplessness.” And it is a state that happens when you feel that no matter what you do, nothing matters, that you have no control over the outcomes.

The result of learned helplessness exactly matches the state of clinical depression except for one feature, and that is the absence of suicidal tendencies.

Small difference, huh?

When oppression happens we are holding on to a way of exercising our power that doesn’t work.

You are probably being your mother or your father, or reacting as if it were some past situation rupturing your world. That doesn’t mean you need analysis and 60 weeks of insight.

It means that you have to reassess how to use your strengths differently, or for some, just begin to use them at all.

In learned helplessness, some strength isn’t being used, but rather its opposite. Our perception or belief that we are “on top of it,” that we are “in control,” that we are “free” and “feeling good” is always a perception grounded in using our strengths. It emerges from using our strengths, and then learning how to use them even better.

Learned helplessness comes from knowing you have strengths and not using them, which results in believing that you have no power.

© Dr. William K. Larkin


About the author

Dr. William K. Larkin
  • Dwayne Paro

    The concept of allowing yourself to feel powerless I believe goes against everything we are taught in life. There is this demanding drive in society to be in control and have all the answers, if you don’t you don’t feel adequate. I believe that most feel deep down that being in control and having the answers is a facade but we are able to convince ourselves at times that it is possible for the sake of persevering. Ultimately it all does come down to your perception of whether you have things “in control”, this drives how you feel which ultimately drives how you think. The ability in those times to be able to pulse positivity is one of the hardest things I’ve found to do. Since beginning this course I’ve noticed that I struggle to let go of not feeling in control (feel powerless) and just pulsing when things are under stress or significant pressure. The story that continues to swim in my head is stronger at this time than the ability to let go and pulse. Given my top 5 strengths, I have hope, optimism and future-mindedness as a strength within this I see this as a positive and negative. By definition I expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. (positive) You believe that the future is something that you can control (negative as this is not allowing me to allow myself to feel powerless during stressful situations). My ways are certainly part of learned helplessness in that I’ve created a story in my head that if I don’t have “control or power” how could a positive outcome be the result.

  • Dr. gloria wright

    I’ve had inklings that control is a myth. It’s illusive at best and hardly ever is so. Try to “control” your emotions, your diet, your partner, your children, your life…. Not possible is it really? For sure we can only moderately control ourselves – thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
    Why not go with the Flow. Not in a passive way, but truly catching the waves, or going under, etc. Be in the Flow fully engages. It is
    what it is. What are my options? Is it my circus? Is it my monkey?
    When we feel we’re not in control, we are either a deer in the headlights or running like h…. We may be freezing or fleeing from the intensity of the emotion. I know I freeze. I’m learning to breath, take a minute, focus on peace until a little of the numb wares off.
    Interesting to ponder Dr. Larkin’s words: “The truth is that we want it our way, in our time, and like we think it ought to happen.” Hmmmm. Now that you mention it…. I’ll have to give this idea some attention.
    And this learned helplessness is a bother. Why not learned optimism? We’re not helpless is we identify our strengths and use them. We have power, as opposed to powerlessness, if we use our strengths and positive beliefs to aid us in creating a state of peace, hope and hopefully some joy! Yeah. I like that version.

  • kit

    In response to undesired outcomes, I frequently hear dialogue that expresses learned helplessness in the manner this article discusses. Passivity, anger, blame, frustration, and futility that any action can bring different results. I found, anecdotally, a response to an undesired outcome is loaded with this type of dialogue when the true root of their response is fear of an imagined future because of a lack of trust in self’s ability to handle the unknown. I’ve found when people realize they are essentially operating out of fear it’s the first step to moving out of a learned helplessness response. Focusing on the positive – our strengths – gives us something positive to lean into. It’s impossible to have a thought about being helpless in the same space as a thought celebrating a strength. My experience in calibrating my own internal focus to hone in on strengths has been liberating. I’m really jazzed about the prospect of using the strengths tools in my work to help students mine themselves for their inner diamonds to build their inner resource bank.

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