menu/ LEARNED HELPLESSNESS
There are people who rely on learned helplessness as a means to cope with negative events happening in their life. Keith Joseph McKean points out that learned helplessness is based on three things:
  1. Internal blaming - "It's me!"
  2. Global distortion - "It'll affect everything I do!"
  3. Stability generalization - "It will last forever!"

Parents/caretakers play major roles in whether or not a child develops learned helplessness. Learned helplessness can develop early in one's life. Therefore, adults need to be aware of how their type of criticism they use will affect children.

If adults are continually using negative criticism, the child will eventually have low self-esteem and will come to a point to want to give up trying. This can lead to the child having negative viewpoints throughout his/her life.

The type of reinforcement given to the child by the caregiver can determine whether or not the child will develop learned helplessness as a coping mechanism for everyday life events. The child will eventually feel he/she has no control over these events.

Heyman, Dweck and Cain confirm the influence of constant negative criticism on children by revealing how young children in their study assumed when they were receiving negative criticism they must have been "bad" children. Therefore, the children felt they were deserving of such negative criticism.

But, researchers claim as a child gets older the child feels the negative criticism is based on their lack of abilities, not based on if they were "good" or "bad." This study cites that children who have a secure attachment will demonstrate positive self-evaluations whereas children who don't have this positive attachment will demonstrate negative self-evaluations.

Learned helplessness can develop in any stage of one's life, not just childhood - it affects behavioral, cognitive and affective domains at the same time.

When a person is wanting to give up or has a continuous habit of putting things off, this is learned helplessness affecting his/her behavioral domain. A person's self-esteem will be low and feeling of frustration will be high. With these effects a person's ability to solve problems will be very low due to the fact that the person has no confidence in themselves.

These factors affect the cognitive domain. The affective domain is when a person will show signs of depression. When one fails, the blame will be that person's lack of abilities and when one succeeds this will be due to "luck."

Also, a characteristic of a person with learned helplessness is low self-esteem. Low self-esteem will decrease one's confidence in trying to change negative things that are going on in one's life. When a person with learned helplessness experiences success he / she will make themselves and others believe it was due to "luck" and not based on ones' own abilities.

This pessimistic explanatory way of dealing with events can affect a person's job performance and a student's academic performance which can eventually lead to wanting to give up. As stated earlier, learned helplessness can develop at any age.

Learned helplessness can be seen when comparing depressed elderly women and non-depressed elderly women (65-96 years) on successes and failures. The non-depressed women would describe their success due to positive reasons such as, their success was due to their own abilities. Whereas, the depressed women would use more of a negative reason by saying their success was due to "luck" and not based on personal abilities.

When it came to explaining failures, the non-depressed women would blame them on "bad luck" and the depressed women would blame it on their so-called lack of abilities. The depressed women would blame negative outcomes due to inner forces and positive outcomes due to outer forces. These depressed women show how people with learned helplessness will use these reasons to give up and not put an effort to take control of their lives.

Strube emphasizes a situation where learned helplessness traumatically effects lives. Women in abusive relationships have developed at some point in time learned helplessness. These women have low self-esteem and blame themselves when things go wrong, therefore, they feel they deserve the physical and mental abuse (similar to the young children who felt they deserved the negative criticism they received because of being "bad").

Society and family play a partial hand in this abuse by putting unnecessary pressures on the woman by making her feel it is her responsibility to make the relationship work. These pressures need to be removed and support from family needs to be increased.

Society as a whole needs to take a stand against abuse. Just as these studies show how learned helplessness can develop during early childhood and continue through adulthood, I know of a woman who has overcome learned helplessness.

There was this little girl who wasn't afraid of anything. She didn't even know what fear was. Then one day a traumatic event happened in her life. After that she knew what fear was.

She was made to feel what had happened was her fault. She tried hard to thing of what she did to deserve being treated so badly. For many years she felt she was a "bad" girl. After that experience came many other negative experiences. She felt she caused them because she was "bad" therefore, she deserved these bad experiences. She decided to be so "good" that nothing bad would ever happen again. But, bad things kept occurring. She figured it didn't matter if she was "good" or "bad" because she had no control over anything that happened in her life.

All through life whenever she failed she would just decide that was expected, so why try?

When she did achieve anything good, she would count that as being "lucky" - not because of her abilities. At times of success she didn't like to acknowledge it to anyone because she knew there would be someone there to remind her how "bad" she really was. She got to the point whenever she would achieve anything in life she never gave herself a chance to enjoy the precious moments. She felt she didn't deserve any praise for accomplishments. She even blamed herself for a relative's death.

For some reason, she felt she must have done something bad and she was to be punished by having him taken away from her. She continued for a number of years failing to achieve any goals that were set for her. She tried to finish college a number of times but continued to fail. She did not fail necessarily in grades but in giving up on everything in life. She just figured there would be something that would stop her so she didn't try.

During her early adulthood years she had no goals set and would just go along in life doing what it took to get by. She constantly placed herself in negative situations; abusive relationships, other relationships that were doomed to fail, and she felt any mistakes on the job were due to her lack of abilities. She felt she had no control over any events in her life.

She felt she was doomed for the rest of her life. She felt her family didn't expect anything from her since she was a woman. She was to get married and raise a family - nothing else. She became engaged numerous times but failed at actually going through with the marriages.

No matter how hard she would try, she always failed. Her negative surroundings and negative reinforcements over many years caused her to develop learned helplessness.

By her late twenties she knew something had to change.

After receiving professional help and joining a support group [see below], the once frightened little girl has turned into a woman who knows now that she has control over her life. Now in her thirties, she has gone back to school and has set short-term and long-term goals to help herself succeed in life. Now her belief is that if she has given it her best she has succeeded (no matter what others would rule as success and failure).

There are still days when she feels she has failed. At first she will start to blame herself and she will stop and tell herself over and over she is not to blame. She will then look back to analyze why she did not achieve what she had set out to do and if she didn't do her best, she would do her best to try and correct this. but, when she did her best, she will tell herself she must accept it and go on.


She is learning to accept that when she does something good, she knows she worked hard for it and deserves it without feeling guilty, and she didn't get it from the luck of the draw.


She has a new life after thirty years of living with learned helplessness. Society and parents play major roles in making sure a child avoids learned helplessness. Children must be encouraged to use their cognitive abilities to their fullest, be given positive criticism and be shown adaptive ways to cope with negative events that happen in their lives.

A person's self-esteem is very important to one's future. No one can eliminate negative events in anyone's life but one does have the power to help someone cope in a positive manner.

Copyright 2002 Terri Holcomb

The hollow wind had turned and was now blowing towards me great black sheets of water - those high cracking ice-capped waves: hoarfrost in between my lashes, cold crystal honeycomb melting on my lips. If souls were hued, then mine was pale.

Like illness, sadness was something I had always borne in solitude.

Certain natures accomodate too easily to mourning - natures accustomed to unequivocal emotional expenditure with no returns; it then only becomes a matter of focal adjustment to squander the sum of one's consciousness on another's absence. Self-abnegation, self-defeat. A permanent hunger.

I was tired of grief. No longer fixated by the unresolved, I wanted to let it go, let it all go.

Would the world end if I left the past behind?

- from The Pure Weight of the Heart by Antonella Gambotto


strategies for crisis intervention with the suicidal sufferer

By Howard Rosenthal, Ed.D., N.C.C.

The animal behavior studies of Seligman and Maier (1967) reveal a learned helplessness pattern which is somewhat analogous to the predicament which leads individuals to experience suicidal crises.

The initial sessions of crisis counseling necessitate the eradication of the helpless feelings and should focus on the individual's ability to regain control over the environment. This article addresses five concrete crisis intervention strategies which allow the intervener to accomplish this desirable goal.

If suicidal individuals universally possess one trait in common it seems to be a gross sense of horrendous hopelessness -a feeling that nothing can change.

The crisis counselor must, therefore, have access to a therapeutic armamentarium capable of ameliorating the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors which accompany this potentially deadly attitudinal stance.

Initially this sense of hopelessness stems from experiences in which the person was genuinely unable to escape a depressing situation.

An impressive analogy to this sense of exaggerated "nothing I do matters" has been illuminated by studies with laboratory animals. Seligman and Maier (1967) observed that dogs restrained by harnesses, and thus unable to escape emotionally traumatic (but not physically harmful) electric shock, did not try to jump to safety after being shocked even after the harnesses were removed.

The suicidal person, much like the dogs in the study, generally comes to the conclusion that in certain situations no response to environmental stimuli makes any difference.

A 17-year-old high school student, for example, had tried everything imaginable to receive positive reinforcement and praise from her father, It finally occurred to her that her father's favorite pastime was watching professional football so she took up women's powder-puff football in an attempt to remedy the situation.

After much practice, she succeeded in mastering the sport rather well and couldn't wait to share her grid iron accomplishments with her dad. One day, after a particularly impressive performance on the field, she came home and recounted the day's successes to her father in hope of some praise. Instead of showering the child with approbation, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said, "Big deal, your mom and I are going on an exciting vacation this weekend."

The youngster was now thoroughly convinced her behavior failed to make an impact on the environment and she took an assortment of prescription medicinals in an attempt to end it all.

Adults can also experience a sense of powerlessness over their surroundings.

A middle-aged secretary became openly suicidal after repeated physical abuse from her husband. Time after time the woman called the police, who did not take her situation seriously because her husband was a prominent political figure who had a reputation as a caring and kind individual. The police couldn't believe that he was involved in such violent behavior.

They accepted his version that his wife's wounds were the result of chronic accident-prone behavior caused by her mental illness. The woman felt a dire sense of entrapment in the situation and saw suicide as the only refuge from the intolerable physical pain which resulted from the beatings.

In cases such as these the crisis intervener must direct the initial sessions toward abating the feelings of learned helplessness and must orient the client once again toward mastery over his or her environment.

Seligman and Maier finally had to push the previously restrained dogs to safety when shocked. In an analogous fashion, the task of the crisis counselor becomes one of cajoling the client into a safe state of mind.

Fortunately, there are a number of effective techniques which can help the person regain a feeling of control over the environment.

1. have the suicidal person sign a written contract

This immediately reassures the distressed individual that his or her behavior does in fact have an effect on another person. A contract as simple as "I will call you if I feel like trying my suicide plan again" is helpful. It is best if both the client and the Crisis Intervener sign the document and both keep a copy.

Written contracts are preferred to verbal since the client feels that he has a portion of the helper with him at all times. Moreover, in our society, important or legally binding contracts are generally put in writing. Persons working on crisis phone lines, however, should not hesitate to implement verbal agreements. Even a verbal contract is better than no contract.

2. do something to manipulate the individual's environment

In the aforementioned case of the suicidal teenager, the Crisis Intervener might have remarked, "Look, why don't you let me talk to your dad about how important praise is to you. Sometimes parents listen to other adults. It sounds like you really need somebody to go to bat for you in this situation."

It would be difficult, if not downright impossible, to overestimate the value of convincing the client that you are on his or her side.

Suicidal feelings often fall by the wayside once a client sees that she is not trying to tackle the situation alone. Furthermore, the technique serves to reinforce the client's feeling that he is not sick, crazy, or acutely disturbed just because the situation is upsetting. By utilizing this technique, the Crisis Intervener literally demonstrates to the client that though the situation is perhaps undesirable, it is not catastrophic and can be approached in a rational manner.

Thus, the person generally experiences some improvement, even in cases in which the intervener is unable to change the situation.

3. have the client chart self-defeating thoughts + feelings

In nearly every case of suicidal ideation the intervener will discover a tendency for the suicidal person to be self-critical. The fact that this behavior pattern was initially instilled by significant others in the person's life is almost totally irrelevant during the first several sessions of crisis counseling and, at best, needs to be mentioned only in passing.

A more in-depth look at the inclination can be pursued if the client undertakes psychotherapy. The key issue is that the person become cognizant of his or her self-berating propensity.

The suicidal secretary mentioned earlier in this article was told: "Look, you seem to be awfully tough on yourself. It is as if you are carrying around a mental scorecard at all times, and every time you don't get a perfect score you club yourself over the head with a mental baseball bat.

Every time you find yourself clubbing yourself with that bat because you felt it was your fault that your husband abused you - which, of course, we know it wasn't - I want you to mark it on this piece of paper. In fact, anytime you mentally think or feel anything critical of yourself I want you to make note of it."

The client is not necessarily instructed to change the thought or feeling, since that may be asking too much too soon, especially in the midst of a crisis. This methodology helps build self-esteem, promotes lifesaving insight, and the mere act of tabulating or charting a given behavior often tends to lessen the frequency of its occurrence.

4. examine the individual's ability to express anger in a socially acceptable manner

Peck and Litman (1975), in a study of adolescent suicide, found that 42% were involved in physical fights and an equally large number had physical fights with members of their own families. The psychodynamic notion (Shneidman, 1973) that the suicidal person really wanted to kill someone else seems to ring true in many instances.

Salter (1949), the father of Conditioned Reflex Therapy, stated with some degree of sincerity that the person who jumps from a window wouldn't have done so if he pushed somebody else. If the person is extremely shy and withdrawn, the Crisis Intervener can suggest that the individual ask for something he or she wants in a setting which is nonthreatening.

This could be as mundane as asking for a glass of water in a restaurant or requesting a tire pressure gauge from a service station attendant. Aggressive clients, on the other hand, can be taught more empathic ways of expressing their feelings. In any case, homework assignments-especially those which focus on an inability to deal with anger-are highly recommended.

The homework is effective inasmuch as it is directed toward giving the person more control over his or her predicament.

5. give the person the message that additional help is forthcoming

This axiom is in accordance with Greenstone and Leviton (1982), who indicate that the counselor must hold out realistic hope that solutions are, in fact, possible. A key mistake crisis counselors often make is that they end the session in a terminal manner.

A statement such as, "I've enjoyed working with you, good luck," may well be appropriate at the end of an extended program of therapy, but it is hardly the verbalization of choice when ending a session intended to ward off a suicidal crisis.

A desirable approach is to indicate that something extremely helpful is about to occur. Our physically abused woman was told, "I will take you to the court to get a police protection order and then I will drive you to a women's shelter when I see you for our session tomorrow."

Client's experiencing an inability to deal with anger can benefit from messages of the "I'll be taking you to see Dr. X who runs an assertiveness training group" variety. Our suicidal teenager could be instructed: "During our next session I'll explain some ways you can almost surely get some praise out of your father and some strategies so you honestly won't feel bad even if he rejects your efforts."

The paradigm suggested herein is hardly a panacea. It may merely serve as a preface to long-term psychotherapeutic treatment. Nevertheless, when carried out in a spirit of confidence and hopefulness, it can greatly reduce suicidal feelings which are the result of the learned helplessness syndrome.

Copyright 2003 Emotional First Aid

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