Learned Helplessness is a Spiritual Crisis

learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is a term that has become relatively popular in mainstream discussions involving people who seem to accept negative conditions or situations as being inevitable or unchanging. In the psychological literature, learned helplessness has been associated with a person’s perceived lack of control over the outcome of a given situation. Learned helplessness is an apathetic-type behavior found in individuals who also tend to be affected by a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and/ or various addictions.  Although the psychological approach to this problem is informative, it is limited to the behavioral manifestations of learned helplessness that results when some people are exposed to certain environmental conditions. In this article, I propose that if we were to dig a little deeper in our understanding of the root cause,  learned helplessness is a spiritual crisis that is expressed as a psychological behavior, rather than a psychological disorder expressed as mental illness.

Origin of Learned Helplessness

Where did the notion of learned helplessness originate? It was a term coined byLearned Helplessness experiment behavioral psychologists Martin E.P. Seligman and Steven F. Maier, who observed the behavior of dogs in a simple classical conditioning experiment. The dogs were conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a certain tone. They were then placed in a special box that contained two chambers separated by a low barrier. The floor of one chamber was electrified and the other was not. Seligman and Maier observed that the dogs that had not been conditioned to expect the shock, quickly jumped from the electrified chamber to the opposite side, and out of harm’s way upon feeling the pulse of electricity. The dogs that had been conditioned, however, made no attempt to escape, even though avoiding the shock simply involved jumping over the low barrier. They assumed the conditioned dogs had essentially given up hope and resolved themselves to enduring the uncomfortable situation.

Other psychological studies expanded the concept of learned helplessness to the behavior of people who have experienced, or have become conditioned to certain life situations. The most highly documented group involves people who have experienced some level of emotional abuse. The idea is that the abused individual, much like the conditioned dogs, believes they are powerless to change the current situation, and consequently accept the condition rather than trying to improve upon it. Interestingly, learned helplessness can occur at multiple levels within a system. For instance, someone involved in an abusive relationship might experience learned helplessness at the individual level. But it can also occur within communities and even cultures if the conditions are right.

Once again, the main force behind the manifestation of the feeling of helplessness is a lack of control. In countries where there is an imbalance between the relatively few positions of power, and therefore money, compared to the majority who live in poverty, there is often a collective attitude of learned helplessness among those who are suffering. A major side effect of this attitude is the temptation to place blame. The individual and/ or the cultural group looks outside of themselves for a target to blame for the situation over which they feel they have no control.

Learned Helplessness is Not a Universal Outcome

Herein lies the difference between the dogs in the conditioning experiment and the human experience. It is very unlikely that the dogs enduring the shocks are simultaneously blaming the scientists conducting the research for their suffering. Unlike humans, they probably don’t even hold a grudge once the experiment is over. Not only do many humans, who undergo those conditions, want to place blame, they also tend to experience a vast array of other negative emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, guilt, shame, etc. These emotions are all a part of our subconscious mind, which is also known as our ego mind.

The interesting thing about the conditions that lead to learned helplessness in humans is that it is not a universal outcome. There are people who have experienced horrific abuse, either by another individual or an entity at-large, such as the Nazi regime, who not only do not succumb to an attitude of learned helplessness, but who rise above the negativity with amazing accomplishments. Nelson Mandela is a perfect case in point. After spending 27 years in prison, he successfully negotiated the end of apartheid in South Africa, bringing peace to a racially divided country and leading the fight for human rights around the world. Furthermore, he advocated for forgiveness rather than retribution in his famous quote, “As I walked out the door toward my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind, that I would still be in prison.”

Another great example is Cornelia “Corrie” ten Boom, a Dutch Christian, who along with her family helped many Jews escape the Nazi holocaust. She was imprisoned for her actions and suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazi regime. In her book, The Hiding Place, she writes that “forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.” She also notes “happiness isn’t something that depends on our surroundings…It’s something we make inside ourselves.”

Spiritual Basis of Learned Helplessness

What is the common theme among those who have suffered extreme abuse and not fallen into the pattern of learned helplessness? They have a spiritual connection to something much bigger and more powerful than our ego minds would let us believe exists. This is why learned helplessness is really a spiritual crisis, not just a psychological outcome from a particular set of circumstances. It is also why it takes a spiritual intervention to heal the illusion that our perceived powerlessness is the cause of our suffering. In fact, it is our false belief in our separateness from God (higher power) that is the cause of our suffering. This is not a religious principle. It is a spiritual principle. And it’s the principle that people like Nelson Mandela and Corrie ten Boom understood. That no matter the level of abuse, or evil they experienced, the actions of their perpetrators did not define them. They understood the truth of who we really are and that is the divine love that is a part of every human mind. This deep level of spiritual understanding is what allowed them to ultimately forgive the people who hurt them most, to bring light into the darkness, and to live, not as helpless, powerless beings, but as messengers of love.

Choosing love over fear is a conscious decision. Choosing fear means giving away your power to your ego mind, not anyone outside yourself, and living a life of learned helplessness. Choosing love is choosing light, and where there is light, darkness cannot prevail. Light and love is who you really are.

10 comments… add one
  • John Behan

    I’m struggling to understand this article: perhaps because i can’t believe in the supernatural myself. It seems to me that a certain amount of learned helplessness is adaptive in situations such as imprisonment or persecution, where patience and compliance will help with daily survival, whereas vigilance and effort would be exhausting. Also, most of the examples you give are of fatalistic religions involving a divine plan; again, not encouraging action and agency, but preaching acceptance and forgiveness. Holocaust survivors don’t talk about being saved by goal-oriented behaviours as often as they mention endurance and mental compartmentalization. While belief in a guiding higher power who will atone for the wrongs you endure may be a comfort, ultimately, helpless compliance is the result.
    Also, i fail to see how spirituality is necessarily the wellspring of resilient personality traits. It seems to me that if we divided the american population into atheist, non-committed spiritualist and actively practicising member of a religion, we would find equal quantities of all personality types in each group, robust and helpless alike.

  • Someone who disagrees

    Okay, I was a bit too quick with my previous comment.

    This bit, for instance, is absolutely true:
    “In countries where there is an imbalance between the relatively few positions of power, and therefore money, compared to the majority who live in poverty, there is often a collective attitude of learned helplessness among those who are suffering. A major side effect of this attitude is the temptation to place blame. The individual and/ or the cultural group looks outside of themselves for a target to blame for the situation over which they feel they have no control.”

    I live in a country – not my own – where I see this all the time and where I caught flak because I didn’t have their learned helplessness but came from a society in which individuals – including women – are empowered, and are allowed to make choices. There is also an incredible amount of moaning going on here, indeed, and I initially didn’t understand why people refused to simply do something about their situation but instead helped keep each other “under the thumb”. It is all they know. They don’t know a different reality, have never experienced a life in which they were empowered.

    Do you have any suggestions for how to break through learned helplessness in such a society? (With a lot of inequality?) Would it help to stamp my feet and scream my head off at their insistence and set an example that is so different that it shows that their helplessness is partly of their own collective making, that they insist on helplessness because it is all they know? (I am not blaming them; I understand where it comes from. But I find it very frustrating to deal with, and particularly the way they keep each other – and me! – helpless without even realizing it.)

    • Dr. Teresa Meehan

      I wish I had a quick answer for this dilemma. To give you more context, I have spent a fair amount of time in Nigeria and have several friends who live there. It’s no secret that Nigeria is riddled with corruption, and as I have learned first hand, there is a huge gap between those that have and those that have not. There is almost extreme wealth among those that have, while the majority of the population live on less than $1 per day. Among those that have not, I have observed an amazing amount of both resiliency and faith, however, there is also a lot of finger pointing toward the leadership of the country, blaming them for their suffering. Although there may be a huge amount of truth to their claims, they seem to just accept the fact that there is nothing they can do about it and that by the grace of God, someday things will be better. It is really a complex problem because they don’t see their own strength and potential. While they are complaining and finger pointing, they are also have amazing entrepreneurial spirits and do whatever it takes to survive on a daily basis. My observations have served to confirm in my mind that the level of learned helplessness they experience is truly perceived. As a woman from the United States, it is very tempting for me to want to offer advice and tell them how things could be different, and believe me, I have tried everything short of stamping my feet and screaming my head off, but the truth is that they don’t have the experiential base to understand. So, now I’m trying to meet them where they are. If I can affect change, through baby steps, it has the potential to have a ripple effect through generations to come. Part of my strategy is to help them “see” their own potential and to slowly change their thought patterns (perception) from blaming an external source, to accepting their internal strength.

  • Someone who disagrees

    I find this a bit simplistic.

    Whether we like it or not, there are evil people out there, and some may even call themselves “god”. They may not be able to help who they are, true, but they can wreak an incredible amount of havoc and achieve real – not perceived – helplessness because their objective is to break someone. You can’t fix such a situation with a lot of mumbo jumbo and it doesn’t help a woman who gets the shit beaten out of her day after day after day or a child that gets abused and is forced to live in horrible conditions. If you chain a kid to a wall, that helplessness is real, not perceived. Learned helplessness means that even if the chains are accidentally left unhooked one day, the kid won’t run out. He has gotten too accustomed to the chain, has no sense of his own power and possibilities left. The woman who gets beaten every day no longer knows that there is a parallel universe, so to speak, in which she might not get beaten.

    The woman who – at the advice from police – flees from her abusive partner who tried to strangle her is not imagining it when that former partner suddenly knocks on her door in the faraway town to which she has relocated. She may climb from her balcony onto the balcony next-door to escape or there may not be a balcony. That is real helplessness, not perceived, and repetitions of such occurrences is where learned helplessness comes from.

    You are effectively blaming the victims of such situations, by the sound of it. You give evidence of a lack of experience, not of deep insight. You also overlook physiological memory, for instance. Like I already indicated, you don’t seem to understand what learned helplessness actually IS. You confuse it with things like bitterness.

    The previous article (which has the link to this one at the bottom) was better, but I prefer this one:

    • Dr. Teresa Meehan

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Angelina. I agree that there is evil in the world and I am not naïve to it at all. There is a major difference between true helplessness, in which the locus of control is external to the victim. Many of the situations you are describing are instances of helplessness resulting from a complete lack of control over a given situation. Whereas learned helplessness may evolve from such situations, it is more an instance of perceived helplessness than actual helplessness. Perceived helplessness may result from extreme abuse and often does, however, it is not a universal trait. What I tried to address in this article is that learned (perceived) helplessness exists in the mind. The locus of control is internal, which means the individual has the power to change. In some circumstances, such as those with a history of extreme abuse as you described, may find it more challenging, in part because they don’t have an experiential base from which to operate. I’m not blaming victims, I’m just presenting an observation. Having said that, I will continue to argue that one’s spiritual connections to a higher power is a resiliency factor.

  • Tara

    This is a beautiful and useful article. I applaud you and thank you for writing it. Learned helplessness is a concept I have only just become aware of. At the tender age of forty-six, having lived through a highly abusive childhood and having made many poor life decisions since then, I now feel optimistic that my awareness of this issue will allow me to move on and overcome.
    Many thanks and best wishes

    • Dr. Teresa Meehan

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Tara. Wishing you the best on your spiritual journey.

  • Kathleen O'Connor

    Very nice article Teresa!

    • Dr. Teresa Meehan

      Thank you, Kati

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