By: Tamara Ince
A baseball player gets a walk once, then twice, and then a third time. He sits on the bench and gives up. He thinks that there is no way that he will ever be able to hit a home run. The young player doesn’t realize that the pitcher respected him and was intentionally giving him walks. Instead, this player feels he no longer has any control over his situation. A few blocks away, a young girl fails her third math test. She gives up and begins to think, “I’ll always get a bad grade no matter what I do.” Due to repeated failures, these people doubt their own abilities and doubt that they can do anything to overcome their challenges. Consequently, they decrease their efforts, which leads to more failures. This vicious cycle can occur anytime someone’s life is filled with repeated failures and disappointments.
Psychologists call this state of mind “learned helplessness”. It can occur when you repeatedly try to accomplish something in an uncontrollable situation and fail. After these failures, your brain may “learn” that success is beyond your control and all your efforts are futile. Thus you “learn helplessness”. Once conditioned to be helpless, a person gives up and, when exposed to events in the future that he or she can control, he or she still feels helpless.
This is one of the reasons why the poor get poorer. As shown in research, many times the poor develop beliefs that, regardless of how hard they work or how much they earn, they will never escape their financial straitjacket. By believing that, regardless of what they do today, they can never positively impact their future, they are destined to fall short of their potential. Those who struggle with learned helplessness blame themselves for everything, face low self esteem, and fight depression.
Fortunately, research has identified methods for overcoming this state of mind. First, one must focus on the possibility of change. Integrative therapy or counseling can help people open their minds to the possibility that their current situation can improve. In therapy one can identify the attributions that cause their learned helplessness. The three main attributions are:
Next, one must expand his or her horizons and think beyond all self-imposed restraints. Recent studies have shown that by thinking big, people can increase their motivation to take initial steps and progress towards goals, even in the face of challenges and disappointments. Lastly, one can set small, easily achievable goals where success is certain. One of the best ways to overcome the feeling that you cannot affect your future is to experience successes.
When you are ready to throw in the towel, realize that this feeling might be due to learned helplessness. Perhaps, it is time to take steps to overcome this vicious condition.