Helplessness is the opposite of power. Many people are stuck in helplessness and hopelessness. Helplessness can be a pernicious trap. If you are helpless you also tend to be helpless about your helplessness.

The book Helplessness by Martin E. P. Seligman, contains a comprehensive theory of helplessness, including cause and cure - all supported by ample experimental evidence.

A basic experiment illustrates the nature of the origin of helplessness: A "naive" dog (one that hasn't been specially treated or conditioned) is placed in a "shuttle-box" (a box with two compartments, separated by a barrier a dog can jump). Electric current is applied to the compartment with the dog, shocking it. The dog soon jumps across the barrier into the other compartment, escaping the shock. A second dog, secured in a hammock, is "conditioned" with electric shock . This dog can shut off the current by pressing its nose against a panel. It quickly learns to do this. When this dog is placed in the shuttle-box and current applied, it also soon jumps across the barrier, escaping the shock. A third dog is also conditioned in the hammock. But this dog has no way to escape the shock. When it is placed in the shuttle-box and the current applied, it lies down and whines, enduring the shock.

(Note that in the above paragraph, dog one is shocked in a shuttle-box, dogs two and three first in a hammock then in the shuttle-box. It may be necessary to read the previous paragraph several times so you understand the mechanics of the experiment.)

According to Seligman's theory, the third dog acquired "learned helplessness." In the hammock it learned that no action it could take would change the outcome of being shocked. It learned that the outcome was independent of its actions - and it generalized this "conclusion." The dog was affected in three important aspects: motivationally, cognitively, and emotionally. In the shuttle-box the third dog was not sufficiently motivated to persist in finding a way to escape the shock. The cognitive link between action and consequence (outcome) had been severed in the dog's brain as a result of the conditioning in the hammock. And the dog had become more prone to anxiety.

Many (if not most) humans have to some extent been conditioned like the third dog. We were all helpless babies... and human babies remain relatively helpless for a much longer time than the babies of most other mammals... Many of us experience a variety of situations where we are helpless to influence certain outcomes - exemplified by phrases like "nothing is as certain as death and taxes."

Learned helplessness tends to be a generalized phenomenon. When a dog or human "learns" that there is no connection between action and outcome in a particular domain, this is often generalized to other areas of life...

Helplessness, then, can be recognized by:

  1. Lack of motivation, listlessness.
  2. Cognitive breakdown between actions and outcomes - inability to link actions to the consequences they bring about - also manifests as blaming others or external factors for your situation, condition, and outcomes.
  3. Negative emotions: boredom, anxiety, frustration, anger, hopelessness, depression (sometimes suicidal).

Apply this procedure to cure helplessness:

  1. Recognize your helplessness, lack of motivation, listlessness.
  2. Recognize that as a baby and subsequently you've had many experiences where you were unable to control consequences or outcomes.
  3. Recognize your negative emotions: boredom, anxiety, frustration, anger, hopelessness, depression. Acknowledge them to yourself, for example, by saying, "I recognize that I feel helpless, hopeless, and depressed."
  4. Consciously and deliberately choose to experience any or all of these emotions. Make a cognitive link between that choice and what you experience, for example, by saying to yourself, "I consciously decide to feel helpless, hopeless, and depressed. Therefore I feel helpless, hopeless, and depressed."
  5. Perform a simple action such as washing the dishes or combing your hair. Observe the consequences or outcome. Form a cognitive link between your action and its outcome. (Examples below.)
  6. Divide a sheet of paper into three columns. In the second column list both positive and negative outcomes you've experienced during the past 24 hours, including emotions. In the first column write down your corresponding actions or inactions that preceded those outcomes. In the third column write down the causal or cognitive links between actions/inactions and outcomes. Consider only your own actions and inactions. (How to express the causal or cognitive link is explained below.)
  7. Don't blame others or external factors for anything.
  8. Pat yourself on the back for all the positive consequences you did produce.

One evening I was watching Jodie Foster being interviewed on TV. Suddenly she says, "I developed an awareness of the causality of my actions by the time I was ten years old." Most of us never develop that awareness fully. Most of us grew up with a reduced awareness of the causality of our actions. It's so much easier to blame others, to run to "authorities" to "save" us... or just to do nothing. How often do you hear of a small plane that crashed in bad weather or smog soon after takeoff or while attempting to land under similar circumstances? Could the major problems that beset the world (war, drugs, crime, gang violence, pollution, inflation, unemployment, homelessness, degenerative diseases, etc.) actually be indicative of the extent to which humans generally are unaware of the causality of their actions?

In general, a causative or cognitive link between action and outcome is expressed in the form of a heuristic (rule of thumb), hypothesis, or prediction along these lines: "If I do 'A' under conditions 'B,' then the outcome is 'C' - 'D' percent of the time." Examples: "If I wash my hands with soap and water, after reading the newspaper, the outcome is clean hands 99% of the time." "If I wash my hands with soap and water, after fixing my car, the outcome is clean hands 5% of the time." "If I wash my hands with "supercleaner," soap, and water, after fixing my car, the outcome is clean hands 95% of the time." These hypotheses or predictions are continuously tested and refined. This is the basic way we learn how the world works.


The person with a sense of personal power tends to feel optimistic most of the time. When helpless we also tend to feel pessimistic. Just like helplessness is something we learn, we can learn optimism. Helplessness is an "unskill" and optimism is a skill.

Martin E.P. Seligman has also written a superb book Learned Optimism. He says:
"The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad lack, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.

These two habits about thinking about causes have consequences. Literally hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. These experiments also show that optimists do much better in school and college, at work and on the playing field. They regularly exceed the predictions of aptitude tests. When optimists run for office, they are more apt to be elected than pessimists are. Their health is unusually good. They age well, much freer than most of us from the usual physical ills of middle age. Evidence suggests they may even live longer."

Learned Optimism includes a self-test to determine how optimistic or pessimistic you habitually are. Before doing the test I thought I was very optimistic. Yet the test revealed that I was only moderately optimistic, and in some areas, quite pessimistic unconsciously.

Seligman uses the concept "explanatory style" to distinguish between optimist and pessimist. Explanatory style describes how we interpret events or situations and describe them to ourselves. Suppose someone's financial situation is that he owes $20,000. The optimist might say, "I owe $20,000. No big deal." The pessimist might say, "I don't know what I'm going to do. My finances are a mess. I'll never get out of debt."

It is important to make a distinction between the fact and the interpretation or explanation. The fact is: "I owe $20,000." The optimist's interpretation is: "No big deal." The pessimist often doesn't state the fact at all. The pessimist seldom distinguishes between fact and interpretation. In a discussion with the pessimist it might take many minutes before he can simply state the fact: "I owe $20,000, period." The pessimist tends to think that his interpretation or explanation is fact. His interpretation or explanation tends to render him helpless and pessimistic.

The table below, based on my understanding of Seligman's Learned Optimism, illustrates the differences in explanatory style:

Good event or situation
"It will last for a long time"
"It will spread generally."
"I caused it."
Bad event or situation
"It is temporary."
"It is very localized."
"I didn't cause it."
Good event or situation
"It is temporary."
"It is very localized."
"I didn't cause it."
Bad event or situation
"It will last for a long time."
"It will spread generally."
"I caused it."

The optimist may sometimes have to temper his explanation with a dose of reality, particularly the "I didn't cause it." Irresponsibility can be a danger for the optimist.

Seligman's book contains simple, powerful exercises anyone can apply to become more optimistic. I highly recommend it.

Recently in the National Enquirer, Dr. Robert H. Schuller wrote his "10 tips to beat the recession":
"Well, you can be an optimist. Or you can be a pessimist. Optimism produces health, healing, energy and power. Pessimism produces just the opposite. But how can we be optimistic in 1992 when things look so dark and gloomy? By remembering and practicing the following:

  1. Optimism is a choice - not an inheritance. Tell yourself: I have the freedom to look at any negative situation and take either a negative or a positive attitude...
  2. I am a human being. That means I can learn. I can establish a plan. I can set goals. And if I set a goal, I will achieve at least part of it - if not all of it.
  3. Change is inevitable. If I'm unemployed right now, I can still be grateful and optimistic - because things will not be the same a year from now. Tough times never last, but tough people do.
  4. I will look at what I have left - not at what I have lost. I will regroup the assets I have to create a smaller, but more solid emotional and financial base.
    The husband of one of my employees, for example, lost his job. Without his income, they can no longer afford the mortgage payments on their home. They've decided to rent it out and move into less spacious quarters - lifting an emotional and financial burden.
  5. I will keep my optimism growing by tapping into positive memories. We all have positive memories stored within us that we've forgotten. Recall them - especially your past successes and times you overcame pressing problems. Tap into them. Learn from them. They will bring power into your life.
  6. Calm down. Relax. Think. My advice to thousands of people over the years has been: Never make an irreversible decision at a low point in your life...
    In the Air Force, young men training to become pilots are taught: "If something terrible happens, what do you do? Nothing! Just think!" Quick decisions are impulsive and reactionary. They will only accelerate the problem.
  7. Practice reacting positively. Believe that every scar can be turned into a star! Positive thoughts produce positive results. Negative thoughts always produce negative results.
  8. Believe that anything is possible! You can improve your future if you set clear goals. Devote more time to achieving those goals. Work harder than you've worked before.
  9. Start small. Think tall. Look over the wall! Don't try to achieve your goals overnight. Take small steps at first but never lose sight of the end result you want. You can shape your future - until eventually, the outcome will be terrific.
  10. Make an irreversible, irrevocable and irretrievable commitment to keep a "PMA" toward setbacks, problems, failures, and losses. What's a "PMA?" As multimillionaire W. Clement Stone says, it's a "Positive Mental Attitude!"

I often sit with Gene Autry when his baseball team the California Angels plays in Anaheim, Calif. I was sitting right next to him when the Angels lost the game that put them in the cellar. He turned, looked at me and said, "Well, we're still in the major league!" With that positive attitude, he won't stop at anything to rebuild his team.

Expect difficulties, problems and low times. But, like Gene Autry, tilt your mental attitude toward the positive! ... Remember, you too, can have that winning optimistic attitude. It's your choice!

The techniques for
curing helplessness and learning optimism are
inside angles individuals can learn and apply to
increase their personal power.

Preface - Contents - Introduction - Chapter: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 - Bibliography