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July 4, 2022

Learned Helplessness

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There’s a term established by Martin Seligman called ‘learned helplessness’. The term basically describes how some people choose to stay in discomfort because they’ve become accustomed to it, even when there’s a clear way of escaping it. Examples of this include staying with a partner who you know doesn’t treat you well, showing up every day for work when it’s a toxic environment, or sticking with the same unhealthy diet even though you know it’s bad for you. 

Taking a step back, the entire theory revolves around the idea that people perceive things as out of their control. There are two really significant implications to learned helplessness. First, it creates a lack of agency. While it’s not often talked about, agency is a fundamental human need. This might be more clear when you see it through the lens of two of it’s relatives, which are free-will and freedom. A person with agency is a person that has the ability to make decisions for themselves. They can observe, reflect, and decide. As it relates to learned helplessness, people are so occupied and desensitized to what’s happening that they lose their sense of agency within it.

This leads to the second implication, which is that people with learned helplessness have no interest in changing. On one side, they have no awareness of the fact that things can change (or need to change), but more critically they have no motivation to pursue things that are different than how they currently are. They’ve simply accepted things as they are and in doing so keep themselves stuck in the same repeating patterns.

Now how does this affect you? Well like anything else, learned helplessness is a spectrum. It’s possible that you’re crippled to the extent that you choose not to remove yourself from a situation that is obviously bad for you. But what’s more likely is that you interface with learned helplessness in very small ways. Do you consistently find yourself in financial stress, knowing how to budget but choosing not to? Are you tolerating the way someone is treating you, refusing to report them or confront them about it? That’s learned helplessness. And if you feel like any of this might apply for you, hopefully this has given you extra awareness to consider how you can improve your circumstances.

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