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Learned Helplessness and Victim Mentality

What is learned helplessness?

Learned helpless was first studied in the 1960s by psychologists Martin Seligam and Steven F. Maier when they observed the helpless behavior of dogs who were classically conditioned expect an electrical shock. They discovered that the dogs who were repeatedly exposed to the painful stimulus (which couldn’t be avoided) eventually stopped trying to escape even after they were put in a situation where they could escape as opposed to the group of dogs that were subjected to the same stimulus but with the actual possibility of escaping. When this same theory was applied to humans, Seligam found out that one’s motivation to react is subdued when control over the situation is lost, even after the situation has changed. 

Learned helplessness which is mainly caused due to the lack of control either real or perceived, usually creates negative beliefs about one’s ability to overcome a situation or their tendency to take on blame when things go wrong. For example, if a child is repeatedly bullied at school and nothing has happened to change the situation, he might eventually start believing that there is no way out of his situation. As a result, he might stop fighting back or trying to run away. The perception that one cannot control their situation will eventually elicit a passive response to the harm that’s coming their way.

Humans usually perceive learned helplessness in two ways: universal helplessness and personal helplessness. Universal helplessness is when one believes that nobody is able to find a solution, and as a result everybody will suffer. They believe that the environment is structured in a way so that no one can control the events. Those with personal helplessness believe that the solution exists and everyone else is able to discover it but they can’t. According to them, its their own inability that causes them failure. In addition to that, personal helplessness is also believed to be rooted in one’s identity. An individual may feel helpless to change something or overcome their problem because they simply believe that it is a part of who they are.

Learned helplessness is often originated in one’s childhood with unreliable or unresponsiveness of caregivers contributing largely towards it. When children need help, but no one actually comes to their aid, they may be left feeling as though nothing they do will change their situation. And repeated exposure to experiences that bolster such feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can result in growing into adulthood with the mentality that there is nothing one can do to change or resolve their problems. Further, repeated exposure to trauma or negative experiences may foster the underlying mentality that one is stuck in a situation and that there is no way out. While helplessness or a sense of not being in control of a challenging situation can be experienced by anyone, continuous exposure to such events can result in a perceived sense of helplessness even after the actual helplessness has disappeared. 

How can learned helplessness lead to victim mentality?

Learned helplessness and victim mentality are closely related. Learned helplessness typically leads to low self-esteem, lack of motivation and the feeling of being inept. The constant feeling of “nothing I do would ever change my situation” or the persistent thought of “I have no control over a situation” can eventually lead one to refrain from taking up responsibility or blame when something goes wrong because they believe that their actions have no impact. Instead, they will attribute its cause to something beyond their control. Since they believe that nothing they would ever change anything and that life just keeps happening to them regardless, they will remove the aspect of personal accountability from the situation and blame it on something else.

This will create the victim mentality in which one would feel as though they are beset by the world and is always at a disadvantage as result of actions of others or other external things. Individuals who develop this mentality more often than not may have suffered through trauma and hard times while not having developed proper coping mechanisms. As a result, they may have developed a negative view about others and the world as a whole. And since they don’t believe its their fault, they may shy away from taking responsibility or taking action asserting that the circumstances aren’t in their control. Even if someone tries to help or offer a solution they might come up with reasons as to why it won’t work instead of working on things that could actually help them. Some common assumptions and behaviors among those with victim mentality are:

  1. Thoughts such as “Life is against me” or “It’s not my fault that this happened. Bad things just keep happening to me”
  2. Feeling as though they are stuck in life and would approach everything with a negative attitude. 
  3. Having trouble coping with problems in their lives and feeling powerless against them.
  4. Constantly feeling bad for themselves or expecting the pity of others.
  5. Finding it difficult to examine one’s self and make necessary changes that’ll improve their circumstances. 

Further it is possible that this victim mentality is almost used as a response for the learned helplessness in an individual. Sometimes its not just the fate of things as believed by the victim that makes things more difficult for them. But they might subconsciously or consciously seek out a secondary gain such as being excused from doing something or receiving the sympathy from others as a result of them being a victim of an “unfortunate situation”. For example, an individual with a victim mentality may feel a sense of relief or even pleasure when they receive pity from others for their misfortune. They may even exaggerate it and seek the attention of others in order to validate their sense of helplessness and lack of control over the situation which may allow them to not take responsibility or accountability over their actions. 

Another example of such is when someone is diagnosed as having a mental disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder. They might use that label of diagnosis to excuse themselves from doing activities that can induce anxiety instead of trying to work on their anxiety and taking action to get better. They might subconsciously believe that their anxiety can never be overcome and as a result may not push themselves to get better or take responsibility for the actions that’s caused as a result of their anxiety.

Culture of victim mentality

  • External locus of control:

People who have this mentality often believe that the things and events that take place in their lives are a result of an external party. They believe that life simply happens or that circumstances happen as a result of someone else’s fault. Hence, we may often hear them say things such as “I’m just really unlucky” or “why does everything bad happen to me?” This external locus of control makes it incapable for one to accept responsibility for their own actions and attribute that responsibility to an external factor that isn’t in their control. 

  • Negativism:

Those who have a victim mentality tend to exacerbate the things that happen to them. They tend to overly focus on the negatives and think catastrophically which keeps them from seeing all the positives and the good things about a situation. As a result, their problem-solving strategies tend to become blur and they often fail to think of possible alternatives to solve their difficulties or take control over their actions.

  • Continuous sympathy and attention:

Sometimes the continuous reception of attention and sympathy from others almost drives those with a victim mentality to stay in a continuous loop of feeling helpless and not taking any action. The society plays a key role in it as it is seen as something good when one can help or sympathize with a victim of a negative event. Hence there is a tendency to bolster the victims role with phrases such as “ oh poor thing “ , “ he has no one so I should be there for him” , “ He has been through so much we must cut him some slack” etc. While it is generally a good thing to validate the pain of another and help them, such phrases could also validate the “perceived helplessness” of a victim further allowing them to stay in that situation rather than taking action to overcome it. 

Overcoming learned helplessness

            This is a learned behavior. In other words, it is not something a person is born with. It is something a person adopts and learns through their social environment or through their experiences with trauma. Therefore, this same behavior can be unlearned or prevented by practicing independence from a young age. Individuals can teach themselves to take responsibility for their past and future actions. This allows them to learn that even though they can’t control how others around them react, they still have the power to control their own actions. Secondly individuals with this mindset are often actual victims of past trauma at one point in their lives and adopting a victim mentality may have acted as a coping strategy. Hence it is important that they practice self-love and is patient and compassionate to themselves during their recovery. This may also aid in positive self-worth that would give them the confidence to take control over their lives. Thirdly routinely engaging in activities that restore self-control can also be valuable. 

              In addition to that, individuals can also seek professional help such as psychotherapy in order to overcome their learned helplessness. Therapy will aid in exposing and understanding the real causes behind this phenomenon such as childhood trauma, lack of functional relationships with authority, impact of parental figures during childhood, past trauma etc. After gaining clarity on the root causes the individuals can then start to focus on how to face their issues which will provide them with a new sense of influence and control over their lives. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective form of therapy that is helpful in overcoming distorted thinking patterns arising from such past experiences that contributes towards learned helplessness. The goal of it is to identify negative thought patterns and reconstruct them to replace them with more positive and rational thinking such as learned optimism.

Article by: Rushika Sumanadeera

References

Cemalcilar, Z., Canbeyli, R., & Sunar, D. (2003). Learned Helplessness, Therapy, and Personality Traits: An Experimental Study. The Journal of Social Psychology, 143(1), 65–81. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224540309598431

Good Therapy Team. (2019). Helplessness / Victimhood. Good Therapy. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/helplessness

Matherly, C. (2019). Learned helplessness [Slides]. Research Gate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331642454_Learned_Helplessness_-_Dr_Matherly

Nolen, J. L. (2015). learned helplessness | Description, History, & Applications. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/learned-helplessness

Nuvvula, S. (2016). Learned helplessness. Contemporary Clinical Dentistry, 7(4), 426. https://doi.org/10.4103/0976-237x.194124

Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). Learned Helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23(1), 407–412. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203

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