Learned Helplessness and Abusive Relationships

by Roohi

If you are in an abusive relationship and have no idea why you just can't walk out of that door, you probably need to know about learned helplessness.

Whether you are a victim of physical, mental, or emotional abuse, the fact remains; it is never too easy to walk out of an abusive relationship. Learned helplessness is one concept that has often been linked to abuse and the difficulties that people face in changing their circumstances.

That's not all; learned helplessness can also explain things such as shyness or poor performances at work or school. Let's take a look at what is learned helplessness and its relationship with abuse, shyness and work and school performance.

Why you need to learn about learned helplessness

Let's try a few questions first:


Are you a victim of abuse, physical, mental, or emotional, and think that there is nothing you can do to change your circumstances?


Do you avoid blaming your abuser by justifying that he or she is helpless in controlling this behavior?


Do you think that you can just not improve your performance at work, school, or any other social setting just because you have failed in the past?


Are you extremely shy, anxious and depressed and avoid social situations just because you have had a few unpleasant social experiences in the past?


Well, these are only just a few questions that can easily be explained by the concept of learned helplessness.

How was learned helplessness discovered?

The concept of learned helplessness was discovered in animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier. These psychologists discovered learned helplessness in classical conditioning experiments.


In these experiments, animals are hurt by giving electric shocks repeatedly. They try to escape but they just can't. When the animal finds that he can do nothing to avoid the pain, he just stops trying to expend his energy in attempting to escape or change the situation. This helplessness is learned to the extent that when he is finally provided an opportunity to escape the electric shock, he just doesn't do anything. He just endures the discomfort quietly and does nothing to avoid the pain.

What is Learned Helplessness?

As you probably deduced from the above experiment, you learn to be helpless in a situation and do nothing to change it or avoid the pain even when you are presented an opportunity to do something about it.


Let's look at the answers to the questions asked in the beginning of the article.

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Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Known as the father of the new science of positive psychology, Martin E.P. Seligman draws on more than twenty years of clinical research to demonstrate how optimism enchances th...

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Learned Helplessness and Abuse

So, you are going through physical, mental or emotional abuse in your relationship and you probably know that you can walk out of it anytime you want. Of course, it is not that easy. However, the crucial point to look here is do you look at reasons for staying in the relationship rather than quitting it? Where will I go? He will kill me if I do. It will end when he finds a job or when we have a baby or when we move to that new house...


Even when presented with opportunities to get out of this relationship, you just justify staying in it. You have basically learned to be helpless and no offers and help to change the situation seem to motivate you to get out it.

It's My Life Now: Starting Over After an Abusive Relationship or Domestic Violence

Those who have never experienced an abusive or violent relationship often believe that upon finding a way out, victims’ difficulties are solved: their life is good, they are saf...

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Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

"He doesn't mean to hurt me-he just loses control.""He can be sweet and gentle.""He's scared me a few times, but he never hurts the children-he's a great father.""He's had a rea...

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Learned Helplessness and Performance

So, you have failed your math examination once, maybe twice, or maybe even thrice. So, you decide that there is nothing you can do to perform well in your examinations. Maybe even your parents have been reinforcing your thinking process. You are just not good at math and you will never be able to perform well at the subject.


When one day, you are presented with an opportunity to learn from someone who is an expert in the subject, you are just not motivated enough. You are just not good at it and no amount of help can do it for you. So, you have basically learned to be helpless in improving your performance.


Of course, this example can be applied to any school, work, or social situation.

Learned Helplessness and Social Situations

You are shy. You have an unpleasant social experience. Your shyness is reinforced. You decide that you aren't good at dealing with social situations. You further withdraw into a shell.


So, even when you are presented with help to get out into the world and overcome your shyness, you just refuse because you think there is nothing you can do about it.


Anxiety, depression, and loneliness are other symptoms that are often exacerbated by learned helplessness. Just because you think that there is nothing you can do to change these, you end up feeling more anxious, more depressed, and lonelier.

How to Get Rid of Your Learned Helplessness?

Well, the first thing that you need to do is to accept that there is a problem and that it resides in you and not in your abuser, not in your parents who keep on insisting that you are no good, and not in that one single unpleasant social experience.


You focus on the problem and on the underlying beliefs. So, if your problem is an abusive relationship, you focus on the underlying beliefs that are forcing you to quietly suffer in silence. These are the beliefs and patterns that you need to work on.


It sounds quite simple but it is not that easy. Remember you are going against a system that you have accepted and have been following for a long time. If your abuser (your spouse, your parent, your boss) has you convinced that you are no good without him or her, it is time to take steps to be independent and show that you can indeed survive without this person. Your abuser may not like this. So, be prepared for some strong opposition here. This is especially true for women in abusive relationships.


To summarize, whether you are in an abusive relationship or dealing with depression, anxiety, or loneliness, it is time to ask yourself: Have I learned to be helpless in this situation? Keep in mind that the situation can be anything.


If the answer is yes, then it is time to question the underlying beliefs that have led to this learned helplessness and take steps to get back to living a better life.

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

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Updated: 10/31/2012, Roohi
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


katiem2 on 10/31/2012

Roohi, So true, couldn't say it better myself. :)

Roohi on 10/30/2012

Yes, indeed Katie. I have already done this. Both of us have been doing this for the last 4 years now and have slowly realized how we continued to feel as the wrong ones. Now we see the world with different eyes. We were not wrong. We are the good ones. It's them who are the wrong ones. They are the ones who were trying to control us by their actions. Making us believe that we would be nothing without them. The truth is that they would never be anything without us.

katiem2 on 10/30/2012

Just realizing it is wrong, real and happens to many others is a huge source of strength to those experiencing abuse, it's not us, there is nothing wrong with us we are merely kind people caught in a unbelievable situation with one of the many abusive men. Off to share this post. My most positive thoughts are with you and your mother. Maybe you could record situations for her as you experience them later playing them back in private. She will come to the reality that it is in fact as outrageous as her inner most self has whispered to her. Be careful to listen silently with no comments. Let her absorb it on her own and process it as she needs to. Again, my most positive thoughts are with you and yours. :)K

Roohi on 10/30/2012

Katie, your inputs are always much appreciated in this respect. I probably still don't have the courage to share it all publicly but I have experienced the verbal abuse episodes that you describe. And so has my mother. Hopefully, someone out there will indeed benefit from this article as well as your inputs. Thanks again for your valuable comments!

Roohi on 10/30/2012

Brenda, I am glad that it is indeed over for you. Recognizing that you are in an abusive relationship is the toughest thing. But once you do recognize it, there is a whole new life waiting for you out there. Believe me, just like you, even I have realized it. Yes, indeed you do have choice, you just have to make it.

katiem2 on 10/30/2012

Very true, recording my verbally abusive husband was the Ah Ha moment for me. Once I secretly recorded him I realized while playing it back that I never got a word in, he dominated the conversation as he blamed me for causing the problem while all the while I merely didn't act in a way he wanted me too. He would explode, the rage would ensue and verbal attack was extremely outrageously abusive. I only realized the enormity of it all once I was able to hear it played back in a safe environment. The shock of what takes place is always lead by the cover up of the attacker who refuses any responsibility. The only way to diffuse it is to let the rage take it's course without your input. Sad how long it takes anyone suffering with such abuse to actually realize they are in an abusive situation that is not acceptable AT ALL. Oh don't let me get started. Great article. Sincerely, katiem2

BrendaReeves on 10/30/2012

Wow! This used to be me all over. I'm happy to say it's not anymore. I had a very abusive mother and married an abusive man. It was all mental and verbal abuse, but abuse just the same. I recognized I was a victim, but thought I didn't have a choice in the matter. It was just the state of affairs I was given. It wasn't until a psychiatrist pointed out that I had a choice, that I did something about it. When you have been an abused child, and fall into the same pattern in a marriage, it's even harder to heal, grow, and get out. That's all you've known. You don't realize there's another life waiting for you. Great article!

Roohi on 10/24/2012

I agree Katie. Abusive people have you so convinced that you are wrong and they are right that you find yourself just stuck and unable to move. It takes a lot of courage to see the truth and walk out. But when you do walk out, you are assured of a better life.

katiem2 on 10/24/2012

Very helpful facts as to the side effects of abusive relationships. It is such a complex thing and one that takes much time and understanding for those in them to realize they are in fact in an abusive situation they do not cause. Abusive people are very good at making the victim feel to blame. Great article on a much needed topic of debate. :)K

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