Learned Helplessness: Delving into The Psychology of The Victim

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The learned helplessness is perhaps one of those psychological phenomena whose importance affects the human existential level, and whose research and answers about science shed should be able to improve how we relate to one another. Minimizing learned helplessness will be an advance both for society and for individuals in particular.

But what exactly is learned helplessness, and why is knowing this concept so important?  Let's explore.


Learned helplessness is something that can affect people as close as a relative and even oneself can be. It is not, therefore, just an academic concept without relevance in reality, but something that affects the daily life of many people and, in many occasions, their lives may depend on the effective help of a relative or health professional mental that tries to mitigate this learned and dysfunctional behaviour.


Broadly speaking, it refers to the condition by which a person or animal is inhibited in aversive or painful situations when the actions to avoid it have not been fruitful, eventually developing passivity in this type of situation. Understanding the way in which this phenomenon develops is vital to understand and help people who suffer from this psychological bias since it can be a limiting belief that acts as a strong burden for their personal development and self-esteem.

Related Article: Humanistic Psychology: History, Theory and Basic Principles

Seligman and Overmaier were among the first researchers who raised the question about why an animal or a person who suffered in their own meats constant adverse and painful conditions did nothing to abandon that situation. This finding was reported in research with dogs and was subsequently followed by some researchers such as Watson and Ramey, who studied the learned helplessness in humans.

On the other hand, there is no specific situation that generates helplessness, that is, many people can experience the same adverse situation (even in a group) and yet react differently to it. It was Bernard Weiner who considered the influence of the interpretation and the perception that each individual has of the event in the development of the defencelessness and also in the way of facing it.


When someone falls into defencelessness, he manifests it in three deficits: the motivational, the emotional and the cognitive. A person who begins to fall into defencelessness or who already suffers from it begins to show a delay in the initiation of voluntary response until it gradually ceases to exist (motivational deficit). In the same way, a series of behavioural disorders begin to exist, the most common being the state of anxiety and depression (emotional deficit), which are making a dent to the point that the affected is unable to see solutions to the problem that torments him (cognitive deficit).

The answer to the question of why a person does not do anything in a situation clearly out of it lies precisely in the overall impact not only of these three areas (motivational, emotional and cognitive) but also at the physiological level. In a word, his whole person, the different psychic and somatic areas, join in this syndrome. Consequently, it is not enough to make the decision to break with the negative cycle, but rather to unlearn the way in which the aversive or painful situation is processed.


How do you get helpless? An easy way to understand it is the story of the frogs. It is said that to cook a live frog it is necessary to put it in the cold water and gradually increase the heat until it boils. However, if to cook the same frog we decided to throw it into the boiling water, the frog will jump; will escape from boiling water. With this example, I want to explain that the learned helplessness is a thought scheme that develops gradually and that gradually eats the psychic and corporal strengths to the point of bending the will.

The sad thing to consider is the ease with which one can develop learned helplessness. We are all vulnerable to adopt this type of thinking schemes because there is rarely an emotional education to be able to face it.

It is enough to continually expose the possible victim to adverse circumstances, lower his morale, overburden him with work, close external support for a long time and repeatedly. The person who has been treated in this way will soon manifest deficits in the aforementioned areas: affective, emotional, cognitive and even somatic. And no, it is not something that does not happen every day: family violence and/or intimate partner violence are common examples in which they usually perceive different degrees of helplessness learned by the victim.

But these are not the only scenarios in which relational patterns can be generated that can lead to learned helplessness. L Hay at school, at work, in groups of friends ... Communicative and relational styles that create learned helplessness does not necessarily translate into physical violence. In many cases, violence can be psychological, economic, moral, among others.


Regarding the need to generate dynamics to try to help a person with learned helplessness, we can say several things. Of little help, if someone tries to help by constantly repeating to the victim what he should do or how he should think. It would be like wanting to tell a flu patient not to feel bad: both the influenza virus and the mental patterns that lead to learned helplessness are sufficiently rooted in the person to resist mere well-intentioned words or summary advice. on how to cope with the situation.

In effect, the person who suffers learned helplessness does not feel bad because he wants to but because his psyche has consolidated dysfunctional schemes that inhibit him when changing his own situation. Therefore, it is necessary to destigmatize the victim. Understand that you have lost the ability to see the solutions that others without the problem can see and that the help you need is not just that others tell you what you "should" or "should not" do, but reaffirm your ability and your self-esteem; to give back control to his life so that he is able to take control of what he saw at the time without solution.

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