Unlearning Helplessness

I’ve written about Martin Seligman, the father of “positive psychology” in the past. He didn’t begin his career writing about how to be positive and happy but rather studied depression and became known for his studies on “learned helplessness,” a term he coined.

Seligman found that when people perceive they don’t have control over a situation they give up. The perception of no control (whether accurate or not) leads to a sense of helplessness. Prolonged helplessness can lead to depression, in some individuals, or chronic anxiety in others. Unfortunately, lots of people suffer from these maladies today.

Seligman first tested his hypothesis with dogs. (I should say that this caused a dilemma for him because he didn’t want to cause suffering in the dogs. However, he eventually reasoned that the temporary suffering of the dogs would be worthwhile if he could learn about depression and its treatment.) So, he put a dog in a cage with an adjoining cage and began delivering mild and harmless electrical shocks to the dog. The dog, upon being shocked, would scramble around and run from the first to the second cage and the shocks would stop. After a period of time Seligman moved the dog back into the first cage and began delivering the shocks again. Upon being shocked the dog would jump up, scramble around and run into the second cage. The shocks would stop. The dog learned that he had control over what was happening to him, and he could stop the shocks by running into the second cage.

The experimenter once again put the dog back into the first cage but then put a partition between the two. He began delivering the shocks again. The dog jumped up, scrambled around and tried to run into the second cage but couldn’t get past the barrier. He jumped up and down, barked, and yelped but the shocks kept coming. The dog finally gave up. He walked over to a corner of the cage and laid down.

Seligman stopped the shocks and removed the partitions from between the two cages. He let more time elapse and then began delivering the shocks again. The dog did not move. The experimenter had to get into the cage and pick the dog up and carry him from one cage to the other for the shocks to stop. He placed the dog back in the first cage and delivered the shocks again. The dog still laid there. The experimenter had to get into the cage, once again, and physically move the dog into the second cage where the shocks stopped. Finally, the dog crawled from the first into the second cage. Gradually, he would crawl to the second cage, then a little bit faster and faster until finally, upon being shocked, he’d immediately jump up and run from one cage into the other.

An important learning from these experiments is the relationship between learned helplessness and depression and anxiety. We’re much more likely to be depressed when we feel helpless, or sense that there is nothing we can do about a particular situation, event, or “reality” in our lives. And the longer we live with a sense of helplessness, the less likely we are to see options, choices, or what we can do to improve a situation.

For most, depression does not come out of nowhere. There is usually an event or series of events that lead to depression. Life is like that. Things don’t go as planned. Hard things happen. We may begin to feel down, somewhat hopeless, pessimistic about life and the future.

But what makes this chronic is when we conclude that we’re helpless. There is nothing we can do about the situation. Life has dealt us a tough blow (or blows) and now we seal the deal by concluding that we have no choices.

Of course, there was a time when our choices were quite limited. As young children we were vulnerable and dependent. We lacked the awareness or the ability to exercise choices when tough things happened. It was easy to feel helpless. Then we become adults and negative things happen and we sometimes slip back into the sense of our helplessness. We perceive that we have no choices or that nothing we do will really make a difference.

Have you ever had this experience of being powerless or helpless? You don’t like what’s happening and believe you have no choices. I recall counseling a young mother who had three young children, all preschoolers. She was not only overwhelmed by their demands but also resentful that she had to spend her days isolated from friends and unable to do so much of what she loved. To make matters worse, she felt terribly guilty for feeling this way and turned her resentments onto herself.  Gradually, the light in her eyes dimmed and she lost her ability to experience pleasure in life. Not only were circumstances difficult for her but she felt helpless to do anything about it.

Through several hours of talking, this woman began to realize that she did have choices. Gradually, she made some decisions and began taking action. She created a daily structure that included everyone taking some quiet time, which allowed her to take a nap or read a book. She joined a “mother’s day out” group and left her children with others. She learned that she could say “no” and didn’t have to give the kids everything they wanted. It was okay if they cried because they didn’t like her decision. She also negotiated with her husband to get the kids to bed some nights of the week so she could go to the gym or meet a friend. Over time, her life began to improve. Certainly, some days were still trying, but having choices gave her a sense of autonomy and control.

It is rare that we don’t have choices. We may not be able to undo disappointing, even painful realities. But we are not helpless. Even in difficult circumstances we have choices–about how to think, feel and act. Not always easy, but seeing and acting on these choices is the key that unlocks the door to our authority, power, optimism, and happiness.




  1. Max

    Hello Roger,

    I found this article helpful to read. I can relate to feelings of helplessness as there are things in my personal life (thoughts and feelings) which cause me distress and which I struggle to change for the positive. I hope my comment doesn’t appear too critical but I feel moved to mention that I found the occasional mistakes in grammar in this article somewhat distracting. Aside from that, it was very good. I appreciate your work..

    Kind regards,


    • Roger Allen

      Hi Max,

      I’m glad you found the article helpful. I also apologize for the grammatical mistakes. I’m normally very careful, but obviously did not edit this article before I posted it. I’ve now corrected the mistakes. Thank you for pointing them out and good luck in your endeavors.

      Roger Allen


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