Picture a baby elephant tied to a small wooden stake, unable to break free despite its innate strength. Over time, the elephant grows into a magnificent adult, capable of uprooting trees with ease. Yet, when tied to the same small stake, the elephant remains immobile, convinced of its own powerlessness. This poignant image serves as a powerful metaphor for the psychological phenomenon known as learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness elephant mind health

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a state of mind in which an individual believes they have no control over their circumstances, even when opportunities for change exist. This debilitating belief often stems from repeated experiences of failure or uncontrollable situations, leading to a sense of hopelessness and resignation.

The Origins of Learned Helplessness

The concept of learned helplessness was first explored by psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s through a series of experiments involving dogs. Seligman discovered that when dogs were subjected to inescapable electric shocks, they eventually stopped trying to avoid the pain, even when given the opportunity to do so. The dogs had learned that their actions had no impact on their circumstances, leading to a state of helplessness and passivity.

Seligman’s groundbreaking research has since been applied to human behaviour, revealing the profound impact that learned helplessness can have on an individual’s mental health and well-being.

The Impact of Learned Helplessness

The impact of learned helplessness can be far-reaching, affecting every aspect of an individual’s life. Those who have developed learned helplessness may struggle with:

1. Motivation: Learned helplessness can lead to a significant decrease in motivation, as individuals believe that their efforts will be futile.

2. Self-esteem: Repeated experiences of failure and perceived lack of control can erode an individual’s self-esteem, leading to feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.

3. Resilience: Learned helplessness can compromise an individual’s ability to bounce back from challenges and setbacks, as they may view obstacles as insurmountable.

4. Risk-taking and pursuing opportunities: Individuals with learned helplessness may avoid taking risks or pursuing new opportunities, believing that their actions will have no impact on the outcome.

5. Self-defeating mindsets and negative cycles: Learned helplessness can perpetuate self-defeating mindsets and negative cycles, as individuals become trapped in a spiral of hopelessness and inaction.

Breaking Free from Learned Helplessness

Breaking free from the chains of learned helplessness requires a fundamental shift in mindset and a willingness to challenge deeply ingrained beliefs. It involves recognizing that our past experiences do not define our future potential and that we have the power to shape our own destinies.

Strategies for Overcoming Learned Helplessness

1. Cognitive Restructuring: Identify and challenge negative thought patterns. Reframe experiences and develop a more empowering narrative.

2. Setting Achievable Goals: Focus on small, manageable objectives and celebrate each success along the way. Build a sense of self-efficacy and control.

3. Cultivating a Support System: Surround yourself with encouraging and empowering individuals who believe in your potential and challenge you to grow.

4. Practicing Self-Compassion: Be patient and kind to yourself throughout the process of unlearning helplessness. Embrace the power of resilience.

5. Embracing a Growth Mindset: View setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth rather than evidence of inadequacy.

The Power Within You

Remember, you are not defined by your struggles or failures. You possess an innate strength and resilience that, when nurtured and believed in, can overcome even the most daunting of circumstances. By breaking free from the chains of learned helplessness, you open yourself up to a world of limitless possibilities and the joy of living life on your own terms.


In a world that often presents us with challenges and obstacles, it is easy to fall into the trap of learned helplessness. However, by recognizing the ways in which our past experiences shape our beliefs and actively working to challenge limiting mindsets, we can reclaim our sense of agency and create the lives we desire.

So, take that first step. Challenge your self-defeating beliefs. Set small, achievable goals. Surround yourself with supportive and empowering individuals. And most importantly, believe in your own ability to create positive change. For when you embrace the power within you, there is nothing that can hold you back from achieving your dreams and living a life of true fulfillment.


Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49-74. 🔗

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman. 🔗

Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: International Universities Press. 🔗

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House. 🔗

Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123(4), 349-367. 🔗

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow. 🔗

Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Girgus, J. S., & Seligman, M. E. (1986). Learned helplessness in children: A longitudinal study of depression, achievement, and explanatory style. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(2), 435-442. 🔗

Seligman, M. E. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23(1), 407-412. 🔗

Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press. 🔗

Seligman, M. E., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1), 1-9. 🔗