Learned Helplessness

By Dave Smith

​Imagine you were just hired at a new job, and you meet you boss. His name is Steve.

Steve seemed pretty nice at first, but that changed quickly. When you brought him a sales report he'd asked for, it was as if you ignited a volcano. He face got red, he shouted, waved his arms violently, and threw your report in the trash before slamming his forehead on the desk. (Yes, it was awkward.)

​That didn't go so well, but now you understand Steve's expectations. You'll do better next time...

The following week Steve asks you to prepare a presentation about a new product your company is launching. You spend extra time making sure every detail is just right. You even have a co-worker take a look just to make sure you didn't miss anything.

Time to show Steve...​

Steve's face burned hot, steam billowed from his ears, he pounded his fists on the desk, picked you up by your belt, and threw your out of his office. (That was uncalled for!)

How many instances like this would it take for you be conclude that there is NO WAY to please Steve? How long would it take for you to stop trying, or to quit your job completely?

Learning to be Helpless

In 1967, psychologist Martin Seligman performed a number of interesting (and unethical) experiments with dogs. Seligman began with 3 groups of dogs, all fastened securely in harnesses.

Group #1 was the control group. These dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a specific period of time and were then released.

The dogs in Group #2 heard a bell and then were given an electric shock that could be stopped if the dog pressed on a lever.

Group #3 dogs also heard the bell and were shocked, just like the second group. But, the dogs in the third group were given a lever that had no power to stop the shocks. The dogs had no control over the shocks they received. 

Dog Shock

Sorry to any dog-lover who's reading this​ - it gets worse...

Seligman then put the dogs into a box that was divided into two sides. On the first side, where the dogs were placed, they were given more electric shocks. But, if they crossed over a low partition onto the second side, they could easily escape the shocks.

​Guess what happened to the dogs from each of the three groups?

Dog in Box

The dogs in the first two groups quickly learned to jump away from the shocks, but the dogs in group #3, who had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks, would lie down passively and whine.

Even though they could have easily jumped into the other half of the box to escape the shocks, the dogs didn’t even try. 

Dog In Box

Seligman even tried calling the group #3 dogs to come to the safe side of the box, but the dogs wouldn't budge. Finally, Seligman put leashes on the group #3 dogs and physically dragged them to the shock-free side. He repeated this over and over, trying to show the dogs how they could escape the shocks.

This is the really crazy part...​

Seligman had to force the group #3 dogs to “escape” an average of 25 times before they would take control and do it on their own!

​What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. 

Seligman showed learned helplessness in his group #3 dogs. After experiencing a feeling of powerlessness, these dogs chose not to help themselves even when the path to "freedom" was completely within their control.

You may have seen this play out with horses or elephants too. Their owners tie them to a fence or a stake in the ground from a very young age, when the animal isn't strong enough to escape. But, as the animal grows, and develops the strength needed to break free, it stays tied, accepting that there is nothing that can be done to get loose.


Do you think this tiny chain could really stop a full-grown elephant from escaping?

Do You Suffer From Learned Helplessness?

The answer is YES. 

We all do to some degree.​ And, quite often it happens with regards to healthy living and staying fit. For example, one study showed that people who experience weight cycling (i.e. repetitive losing, then gaining weight) often report a feeling of helplessness when it comes to healthy eating.

These people say, "I just can't get into a habit of eating healthy food."

They have failed so many times that they believe it's impossible for them to turn over a new leaf. And the same is true for exercise. People who have tried and failed to get into an exercise routine in the past say things like, "I'm just not a fitness person" or "I hate exercise." They have resigned to the fact that they have no control over their fitness.


Learned helplessness teaches, "You are NOT perfect, and you CANNOT improve."

Learned helplessness even extends to health and fitness professionals. In one study of physicians, a majority indicated that dealing with obesity and weight-loss is a losing cause. These doctors stated that it's too frustrating, existing treatment for obesity is ineffective, and they believed that their patients are not actually motivated to lose weight. It's hopeless, so why bother?

​In any area where you've experienced failure in the past, there is a chance that learned helplessness will creep in and prevent you from ever finding success.

Think about your life for a minute... 

In what area have you given up because of past failures? Is it true that you can never succeed?

3 Steps to Overcome Learned Helplessness

Before diving into solutions, I want to emphasize that learned helplessness is a deep problem. False beliefs may have been entrenched within you over the course of many years. It's not easy to just "snap out of it" all of a sudden.

Just remember those dogs in group #3 - They had to be pulled over to the "safe" side of the box 25 times before they'd do it on their own. It's the same with you and I. Un-learning helplessness will take time and patience, but it can be done.

Step #1. Properly Attribute the Problem

To undo learned helplessness, it's important to find a realistic viewpoint of whatever struggle you are currently facing. In Seligman's experiment, the dogs could have asked, "Why am I getting shocked?" In your life, you may ask, "Why am I not able to lose weight?"

If you're stuck in learned helplessness, it's likely you will believe that it's YOU - You are the root cause. You may see your problem as having 3 characteristics. It's...

  • Permanent - "I can never change this."
  • Pervasive - "This is true for many (or all) areas of my life."
  • Internal - "I am the problem."

Using the example of weight-loss, you might think, "I've always been overweight, so I know I will never change. Plus, I'm just a lazy person. I'll never stick with it even if I try."

These are lies.

Just because weight-loss hasn't worked in the past does NOT mean it can't work in the future. And, even if you did try and fail previously, this does not mean that YOU were the problem. Rather, it means that your attempted plan was not the right one for you at that time.​

If you are not experiencing learned helplessness, your thoughts, when confronted with the same hurdle in life, would be much different. You would see the problem as...

  • Temporary - "This doesn't have to last forever."
  • Specific - "This doesn't characterize who I am as a person."
  • External - "It's not all about me. There are other contributing factors."

Again, referring to weight-loss, you may think, "I have been overweight for a long time, but I know that it doesn't have to be this way. I am a smart, strong person, therefore I can find a path that will work for me."

Properly attributing your problem can help you move from a "I don't deserve it" mindset to one saying, "I deserve it and can have it!" 


Just think of that elephant. If he believed, even for a second, that he could break free, he would.

Do you believe in yourself? Do you think you can change?​

Step #2. Build On Your Victories

One of the scariest aspects of learned helplessness is the effect it can have on multiple areas of your life simultaneously. Feeling helpless when it comes to eating healthy food, as an example, can often cascade into feelings of helplessness regarding exercise.

This is why learned helplessness is so closely linked to depression. One instance of failure can turn into generalized feelings of despair. All the sudden, it's hard to put up much of a fight at all...

In these situations, it's extremely important to recall your victories, no matter how small they may feel.

If you "can't lose weight," you might begin by recalling a time when you chose a healthy meal instead of an less healthy one. Or maybe you can remember a day when you went out walking and really enjoyed that instance of physical activity.

If you did it once, you can do it again. And, practicing these simple behaviours repeatedly is what it takes to make change in your life. I know it may sound a bit cliche, but "baby steps" really do lead to lasting change.

So, tell me about a time when you've succeeded in the past. Can you do that again?

And if you can't think of a past victory, ask someone else to share one they've seen in your life. They will be able to.

Step #3. Find a Mentor

If you read this blog or listen to my podcast with any regularity, you'll notice a theme. Making meaningful life change is always easier when we do it with others, and this is especially true when faced with a case of learned helplessness.


What kind of mentor can help get you out of this learned helplessness rut? I recommend you look for someone with these 3 qualities:

  • Empathy - They can relate to your situation and understand how you feel​.
  • Expertise - They have knowledge/experience that will help you make progress.
  • Excitement - They care about you and would genuinely be excited to help.

A mentor with these 3 qualities will be able to help you consistently attribute problems and roadblocks to the appropriate source (YOU are not the problem). This person will also help you build on the victories you've made in the past, as well as the progress you're making in the present.

Where do you see learned helplessness in your life? What's the first step you're going to take to overcome it?

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