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Understanding Learned Helplessness: Overcoming Self-Doubt & Limiting Beliefs

Too many times, we have chosen to give up before we even start. This state of mind hurts us in every part of our lives. Some of us have never had a significant relationship or were fearful of having children because we think we would scar them for life. Perhaps you dream of running a business or expanding it beyond its current state, but you don’t believe you have what it takes.

As a life coach for business owners, my heart goes out to those who struggle with confidence despite their strong ambitions. 

In this article, we will discuss the concept of learned helplessness, where it comes from, and how to take more risks on yourself. First, let’s talk about what learned helplessness looks like.

What is learned helplessness?

In the late 1960s, two scientists, Steven Maier from the University of Colorado and Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, delved into the mysteries of animal behavior and stumbled upon something profound – “learned helplessness.” 

Their experiments involved giving electric shocks to dogs trapped in cages, coining the term “inescapable shock” for this harsh situation.

Learned helpless has been well used by animal trainers and dictators – as explained in the video below.


When you feel trapped and cannot leave

After subjecting the dogs to rounds of shocks, they opened the cage doors, expecting the dogs to dash for freedom. Surprisingly, the dogs that had never experienced shocks before quickly ran away, while those who had been through the inescapable shocks remained paralyzed. 

Despite the doors being wide open, they whimpered and stayed put. The traumatized dogs seemed afraid to try new options, echoing the behavior of many traumatized people who, even with a way out, might give up and stick to what they know.

Maier and Seligman documented their groundbreaking findings in the influential 1976 paper, “Learned Helplessness: Theory and Evidence.” This research shed light on how persistent challenges can lead to a sense of helplessness, trapping individuals in fear and limiting their ability to see alternative paths.

Now, enough talk about dogs and shocks. Let’s take a moment and discuss how you view challenges, setbacks, and adversities.

After a while, you may have learned that fighting was pointless. But that was then, and this is now. You have the tools to succeed, only if you want it now.

Being busy…avoiding our pain

Over the past two years, I’ve explored the intricacies of the human mind after challenging experiences. What I’ve discovered is eye-opening. 

Despite our busyness and never ending to-do list, it often feels like we’re not truly living our lives. The shocks of tough times have put us in a peculiar state where we go through the motions without making meaningful progress.

Is that you right now? Are you having a hard time knowing the difference between knowing you are exhausted and at burnout or just giving up prematurely? 

In the next section, we will compare and contrast exhaustion from learned helplessness.

Being busy does a great job of covering up old fears and past mistakes. While it may pause the pain, it can never ease our souls.

Learned helplessness or exhausted? Here’s what you need to know

Don’t know if you are experiencing burnout or learned helplessness? The table below will compare and contrast the differences.

 Learned HelplessnessExhaustion
What it is:Feeling like you can’t control a situation, even when you actually can.Being extremely tired, both physically and mentally.
Why it happens:Usually comes from facing failure or tough times many times, making you believe that whatever you do won’t make a difference.Often comes from dealing with a lot of stress, working too much, or not getting enough rest.
How it shows up:People with learned helplessness might seem passive, not motivated to make changes, and kind of giving up.Exhaustion can make you feel weak, low on energy, have trouble concentrating, and not perform as well. 

Time to reclaim your life

Regardless of whether you are experiencing burnout or exhaustion or trying to escape from old painful memories, there can and is better for you. Healing from past traumatic or stressful things changes everything. It offers a chance to thaw from those frozen moments of pain and start doing things that genuinely matter to us. 

It’s not about ticking off tasks or pleasing others; it’s about reclaiming our lives. In the next section, we will discuss how you can overcome your learned helplessness and regain your own person power.


How to Regain Your Personal Power

To break free from helplessness and regain power, consider these ten simple steps:

1) Acknowledge the Impact: 

Recognize that tough experiences leave a lasting impact. Understanding this is the first step in regaining control.

2) Be Mindful of Your Actions: 

Pay attention to your words and behaviors. Are they in line with what you truly want? Awareness is the key to change.

3) Break the Silence: 

Challenge yourself to express your thoughts and feelings. Open communication is a powerful way to reclaim your voice.

4) Confront Regrets: 

Address actions or inactions that lead to regrets. Reflect, learn, and use the lessons to make empowering choices.

5) Challenge Old Fears

Recognize that past fears might be influencing your present actions. Consciously challenge these fears and try new approaches. 

A woman running through the air with her laptop.
6) Embrace Change

Understand that change is possible and necessary for growth. Be willing to explore new possibilities. Read this article for more help on embracing change and uncertainty.

7) Thaw from Trauma

Seek support from a trauma-informed counselor, coach or therapist to process and release the emotional weight. Erasing the power from learned helplessness is about thawing from frozen moments of pain.

8) Focus on Meaningful Actions

Shift your focus from going through the motions to doing things that genuinely matter. Pursue activities that bring fulfillment.

9) Invest in Your Emotional Health and Recovery

Recognize that healing takes effort. Invest time and energy in your recovery journey, whether through therapy, self-care, or some of form of personal development.

10) Reflect on Progress

Regularly assess your progress and celebrate small victories. Recognizing positive changes reinforces your power to shape your own narrative.

Breaking free from helplessness is a process involving self-awareness, intentional choices, and a commitment to personal growth. It’s about embracing a life that aligns with your values and aspirations. So, give it some thought – you have the power to shape your own story.

Next, I will share with you my final thoughts.

Final thoughts

Many of us are not where we need to be in our lives because we are working overtime to validate feelings of incompetence and unimportance. All this does is affirm an already low self-worth. Learning to believe in yourself and your abilities is possible; it just takes effort on your part.

Remember, the fact that you are reading this says you want better for yourself. Don’t give up now. Use the steps I listed above and keep working on being the best version of yourself.

If you need more help, don’t hesitate to contact me. Also, dig deeper by listening to this episode from my podcast.