Learned Helplessness: How a Maladaptive Behavior Learned in Childhood Can Carry On For Life
It was a day like many others. I was talking to my mom over the phone and, at some point, she told me about an episode that happened between her and my grandmother (her mom). The story itself was not new to me: I’d heard it many times before. But my listening was different this time. She was telling me about how my grandmother would go around the family on a smear campaign, sharing all of my mom’s perceived shortcomings as a daughter. And my mom would never think to react. After all, it was her mom. So, out of respect, she would just learn about it, go home, cry, and move on, hurt, but feeling ultimately powerless to change the situation.
My mom’s behavior is a clear example of learned helplessness. While I had always thought of myself as helpless during my childhood, it had never crossed my mind that my fierce and fearless mom could have been as well. She had always been a fighter. Could she also have been that helpless before her mom?
To help us understand what I mean, let’s take a look at the concept first. In animal psychology, learned helplessness is identified as a behavior that occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape (read about the experiment here). Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it was utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned behavior will prevent any action. Put simply, after many unsuccessful attempts to escape pain, the animal learns that escaping is not possible, and just stops trying.
In humans, this behavior is seen when people find themselves in painful situations that they are powerless to change. Their lack of control over what is going on may be real or just a perception, but because at some point in their past they have tried to escape a similar situation unsuccessfully, they have learned that fighting is useless, and they simply stop trying altogether. Thus, they accept their powerlessness and their fate as presented. This inaction can lead them to overlook opportunities for relief, change or growth.
How this behavior develops in humans
Anyone who is continuously exposed to hurtful situations (be it bullying, abuse, neglect, harassment, etc.) and whose actions have no effect in changing things will eventually stop trying to get relief. If we are kids and we are hurt by those who are supposed to love and protect us, even worse. As humans, we are always trying to create and identify patterns. We want to be able to predict and manipulate our environment. We feel safer when we can estimate that every time A happens, B follows.
However, when learned helplessness develops, this basic logic has been proven wrong. We see that our behavior – be it good, bad or ugly – can’t stop something bad from happening, nor can it cause something good, at least not with that specific person who is hurting us. No matter what we do or say, the bad and hurtful keep coming. We eventually realize that there is nothing that we can do to change things. And we just accept them as they are. We resign to the pain and hurt, and we consider ourselves powerless.
An example of a situation that may teach humans that they are helpless is the (in)famous “cry-it-out” method that is used to teach infants to sleep. Due to social and economic demands, many parents have to return to work when their babies are still very young. And, to cope with their daily job and home life activities, they need the babies to sleep through the night. Therefore, “training” them to sleep is paramount. And while many parents who used this method were successful at achieving their goals, let’s take a look at what really happens when we “train” our baby to sleep.
Infant are non-verbal creatures. The only tool they have to communicate discomfort is their tears. Therefore, whenever they are not comfortable, they cry. And after birth they are uncomfortable a lot: they had it all served to them within the womb. They never felt hunger, thirst, loneliness, they were never too cold or too warm. They had it all for 9 full months. Suddenly, they are pushed through a canal and boom, they are cold, their stomach hurts, they feel lonely, they are hot, there is too much light, too little company… so much is going on! So, they cry! They are adjusting, as much as the parents.
But parents have jobs, and bills to pay that can’t wait. They want to attend to their child, but they also need to work. So, they need to “teach” their baby to sleep. And since babies do cry a lot no matter what, parents focus on the basics: if the baby is changed, fed, warm enough (or fresh enough), they should have no reason to cry. And if they do, they “just” want to be held, and we can’t let them “get into that habit”, or we won’t do anything else in life.
So, when the baby cries at night, they are not attended to because “all of their needs are covered.” Nonetheless, just as adults, infants have other, more subjective needs, that can’t be covered by “the basics”. Babies need food, warmth and clothes, but they also need company, love, affection, safety, a loving presence, among others. And they may be crying to communicate those other needs. Have you noticed how most infants will stop crying when put by their mom’s side on their mom’s bed, even when he/she is not being breastfed? They will stop crying because that meets their need for safety, presence and contact.
But if they cry and they are not responded to, eventually they will stop crying, and the parents will consider that they were successful at training their kids to sleep. But believing that is a mistake. The baby doesn’t stop crying because they learned to soothe themselves to sleep. Until age 3, babies can’t do that, because self-soothing requires access to a former memory where the person has been exposed to a similar situation that now seems threatening, when nothing happened. And access to that former memory would presuppose access to the hippocampus, but scientists now know that, until age 3, the hippocampus is not mature enough to store long-term memories. Therefore, access to the type of memory that is required to calm our fears and allow self-soothing is impossible. We can’t remember anything before age 3 or 4, right?
So, letting our babies cry it out won’t teach them to self-soothe, ever. Yes, they will stop crying, because they will learn that, no matter how hard or loud they cry, they are not powerful enough to modify their environment when they ask for help. They will learn that when they cry no one will come for them: thus, they just stop asking. They accept, and yes, they begin to sleep through the night, not because they are emotionally or psychologically ready for that, but only because they had no option. They learned that they are helpless.
And we can carry with us the belief that we are helpless before life events for life. Think about how many teenagers and adults have a hard time asking for help when involved in dangerous situations, such as drugs or relationship abuse. Setting aside other cultural influences that may hinder Americans' impulse to reach out for others when the going gets tough, this is a form of learned helplessness manifest in adult life.
Learning that we are powerless to change what is bad in our lives has all sorts of negative consequences, from politics, to socioeconomic status, to personal life. It may lead us to accept corrupt politicians, it may make us believe that we have to put up with an abusive boss because we need the money and we won’t find a better job, or it may obligate us to cope with an abusive partner. Furthermore, it may impair us from asking for help when we need it.
And even though it is important to be able to deal with adversity and be resilient, empowerment comes from the feeling that our actions can impact and effect change in our environment. Never losing sight of the beauty of the Serenity Prayer (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference”), let’s not forget that most times in life we can do something to change our current situation. It is important to know when to accept, but mostly it is important to know and believe that when we don’t want something done to us, we have the power to stand up for ourselves and change things.