From Learned Helplessness to Learned Optimism.

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Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.

Learned Helplessness occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try – even when opportunities for change become available. It is a behaviour exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control.


 The brain’s default state us to assume that control is not present, and the presence of “Helpfulness” is what actually learned. First however, it is unlearned when faced with prolonged aversive stimulation.

According to  Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania‘s Department of Psychology, Dr. Martin E. Seligman: At the core of pessimism is the phenomenon called Helplessness. Helplessness is the state of affairs in which nothing you choose to do affects what happens to you. Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.

Helplessness is the state of affairs in which nothing you choose to do affects what happens to you.

In his Book Learned Optimissm, He writes about Learned Helplessness in the context of Infancy and Old Age:

Life begins in utter helplessness. The newborn infant cannot help himself, for he* is almost entirely a creature of reflex. When he cries, his mother comes, although this does not mean that he controls his mother’s coming. His crying is a mere reflex reaction to pain and discomfort. He has no choice about whether he cries. Only one set of muscles in the newborn seems to be under even the barest voluntary control: the set involved in sucking. The last years of a normal life are sometimes ones of sinking back into helplessness. We may lose the ability to walk. Sadly, we may lose the mastery over our bowels and bladder that we won in our second year of life. We may lose our ability to find the word we want. Then we may lose speech itself, and even the ability to direct our thoughts.

The long period between infancy and our last years is a process of emerging from helplessness and gaining personal control. Personal control means the ability to change things by one’s voluntary actions; it is the opposite of helplessness. In the first three or four months of an infant’s life, some rudimentary arm and leg motions come under voluntary control. The flailing of his arms refines into reaching. Then, to his parent’s dismay, crying becomes voluntary: The infant can now bawl whenever he wants his mother. He badly overuses this new power, until it stops working. The first year ends with two miracles of voluntary control: the first steps and the first words. If all goes well if the growing child’s mental and physical needs are at least minimally met, the years that follow are ones of diminishing helplessness and of growing personal control.

The long period between infancy and our last years is a process of emerging from helplessness and gaining personal control.

Many things in life are beyond our control—our eye color, our race, the drought in the Midwest. But there is a vast, unclaimed territory of actions over which we can take control—or cede control to others or to fate. These actions involve the way we lead our lives, how we deal with other people, how we earn our living—all the aspects of existence in which we normally have some degree of choice.

“Nothing I do matters”

The way we think about this realm of life can actually diminish or enlarge the control we have over it. Our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues. For example, if we think we are helpless to make a difference in what our children become, we will be paralyzed when dealing with this facet of our lives. The very thought “Nothing I do matters” prevents us from acting. And so we cede control to our children’s peers and teachers, and to circumstance. When we overestimate our helplessness, other forces will take control and shape our children’s future.

Explanatory style

Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness. An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness. Your way of explaining events to yourself determines how helpless you can become, or how energized, when you encounter the everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats.

THERE ARE three crucial dimensions to your explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.”


PEOPLE WHO give up easily believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent: The bad events will persist, will always be there to affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are temporary.”

If you think about bad things in always’s and never’s and abiding traits, you have a permanent, pessimistic style. If you think in sometimes’s and lately’s, if you use qualifiers and blame bad events on transient conditions, you have an optimistic style.

“Optimistic people explain good events to themselves in terms of permanent causes: traits, abilities, always’s. Pessimists name transient causes: moods, effort, sometimes’s.

Pervasiveness: Specific vs. Universal

“PERMANENCE is about time. Pervasiveness is about space.”

People who make universal explanations for their failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area. People who make specific explanations may become helpless in that one part of their lives yet march stalwartly on in the others.

“People who make permanent and universal explanations for their troubles tend to collapse under pressure, both for a long time and across situations.”

Personalization: Internal vs. External

When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves (internalize) or we can blame other people or circumstances (externalize). People who blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem as a consequence. They think they are worthless, talentless, and unlovable. People who blame external events do not lose self-esteem when bad events strike. On the whole, they like themselves better than people who blame themselves do. Low self-esteem usually comes from an internal style for bad events.

In his book, Developing the Leader Within You 2.0, Author John C. Maxwell advised – Disown your Helplessness

Whatever-it-takes leaders aggressively pursue solutions. You never hear them say, “There’s nothing we can do about it.” Those are the words of someone with a victim’s mind-set. Professor and expert on organizational behavior Robert E. Quinn wrote:

A victim is a person who suffers a loss because of the actions of others. A victim tends to believe that salvation comes only from the action of others. They have little choice but to whine and wait until something good happens. Living with someone who chooses to play the victim role is draining; working in an organization where many people have chosen the victim role is absolutely depressing. Like a disease, the condition tends to spread.

To be successful, leaders need to disown their helplessness and help the people on their teams do the same. They can do that by empowering others. Here’s how:

• Never make excuses.

 • Create a can-do environment where people are expected to solve their problems.

• Model a whatever-it-takes attitude to your team.

• Provide training that enables team members to succeed. 

• Challenge people to take responsibility for their performance.

• Make everyone feel valued and important as part of the team.

• Give solid feedback after team members try to tackle a challenge.

• Celebrate with team members who are succeeding.

• Give people increasing challenges to test their growth and give them wins.

We experience helplessness at infancy, old age, sickness, when we fail to achieve some of our goals, during abuse, etc. For example last year I Passed 6 IT certification exams and also failed 5 times, it was very tough having to fail repeatedly for exams I thought I was prepared for and I got to a place of helplessness. It can be tough when you think you have put in your all into a business, preparing for an exam but you still fail, you nurture a marriage but it still crashes, develop a relationship and you still get betrayed. Life is a roller ride of challenges, the key is to keep hope alive, be optimistic for a brighter future and keep moving.

A leader is a dealer in hope. Napoleon Bonaparte 


The world is going through collective helplessness with COVID-19 pandemic cases of more than 160 million and more than 3.3 million dead. There is a lot of despair, worry, anxiety, uncertainty, dejection, and a mental illness crisis. In times like this, having hope for a bright future can be extremely tough with rising unemployment, economic downturn, political unrest, and negativity in the media. We become helpless as we feel there is really nothing we can do to change the system.

All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.

Lifelong Learner | Entrepreneur | Digital Strategist at Reputiva LLC | Marathoner | Bibliophile |

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