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 by 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.