Learned Helplessness

By on December 3, 2013
mature sad woman

By Lucille Zimmerman –

People without a healthy sense of self try too hard to please others. They focus on what they think will please others; so much so that they don’t live the life God designed for them. They give their power away, they compare themselves to others, and they rarely consider their own desires and passions. Theirs is an inauthentic life based on fear and “shoulds.” They find it difficult to do something kind for their selves.

I think back to a time in my life when I was powerless. At that time I had no sense of self and no voice with which to claim my life. Living in a strange city and working the night shift at a hospital, I shared an office with the security guard. This man would call his wife and subject her to horrible verbal abuse, calling her every foul name imaginable. I listened to this diatribe night after night without saying anything. One of his duties was to walk me to my car in a dangerous neighborhood. One night he tried to kiss me. I pulled away but did not report it to his authorities because I was too insecure and too afraid.

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Why would I allow myself to be treated this way without doing something about it?  At the time I did not have a strong sense of self — no sense of my true weaknesses and strengths — and I allowed others to treat me poorly. I didn’t think I had the right to speak up.

Maybe you too are starting to recognize you might not have a healthy sense of who you are. If you do not have a strong sense of self, you can feel powerless. In 1965, the legendary psychologist Martin Seligman did a series of experiments that allowed him to coin the term “learned helplessness.” In one experiment a German shepherd is lying in the corner of a metal box whimpering as he receives painful shocks. The dog could easily move to the other side of the box where no shocks are given, but the dog doesn’t budge. That’s because the dog learned to be helpless in a prior experiment. A few days earlier, a harness restrained the animal. It could not get free, nor could it get away in order to escape the painful shocks. The dog learned that there was no way out, no way to make the pain stop, no options, and no control.

Here are some questions that might help you decide which side of the scale you are on in regard to your sense of self:

Do you:

*Overspend, overeat, overindulge

*Expect others to read your mind and meet your needs

*Withhold success from yourself

*Ignore your deepest desires but seek to fulfill the desires of others

*Ignore your real emotions and put on a “happy” face

*Push yourself beyond reasonable limits

*Allow others to emotionally, physically, and/or sexually abuse you

*Deflect compliments

*Say yes because you can’t say no

*Avoid time alone

*Overexhaust yourself because of your need to feel important, needed, or worthy

*Fear emotional intimacy

*Try to do it all yourself, never asking for help

*Try to appear perfect

Or do you:

*Take time for yourself

*Allow yourself to make mistakes and be open about your weaknesses

*Ask for your needs to be met from a place of vulnerability

*Spend time with friends




*Eat well

*Spend money wisely

*Go after your dreams

*Be honest with others

*Enjoy and make time to be intimate with those you love


*Allow others to be disappointed in you

*Appropriately express all emotions, including anger and sadness

*Tell others what they mean to you

*Be present for your children

*Receive love from others

*Say yes and no

*Create a powerful support system for yourself

*Celebrate accomplishments, big and small

If you had more checkmarks on the first list than the second one, you may want to do some work to discover more about who you are so that you can start living a life based on the true self rather than the false one who is living for others. You may feel discouraged, but take heart; people are capable of growth and change.


About Lucille Zimmerman

Lucille Zimmerman is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO and an affiliate faculty professor at Colorado Christian University. She is also the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. Through practical ideas and relatable anecdotes, readers can better understand their strengths and their passions—and address some of the underlying struggles or hurts that make them want to keep busy or minister to others to the detriment of themselves. Renewed can help nurture those areas of women’s lives to use them better for work, family, and service. It gives readers permission to examine where they spend their energy and time, and learn to set limits and listen to “that inner voice." You can find her at www.LucilleZimmerman.com.

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Learned Helplessness