Updated March 2016
Hi everyone. Today I want to write about a subject that many of my clients and readers can relate to as Highly Sensitive People. It is something called Learned Helplessness. Learned Helplessness is that feeling of powerlessness that we all feel at times, and for some of us it is more pervasive and all encompassing than for others. There is much hope in talking about it because if you can understand the roots of this feeling, you can understand that it is “learned” behavior and that you can become aware of it when it hits you and ultimately heal from it completely.
I first heard about Learned Helplessness in my introductory psychology class in college. And you probably have heard the story as well–the story of Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov used a dog in an experiment in human behavior to demonstrate the result of conditioning. I can’t recall the exact details except that the dog was given rewards or withheld the rewards and the resulting behavior of the dog was recorded and studied. There were other dog experiments by a psychologist named Seligman in which he shocked sets of dogs to demonstrate learned behavior and conditioning and punishment.
The main thing I remember vividly about the whole thing was that at the end of the Seligman experiments, the dogs were shocked repeatedly both when they completed a task correctly and also when they did not. The poor dogs were so confused that they layed down depressed and GAVE UP and even whined–and this was Learned Helplessness that the dogs were experiencing. I still remember learning about this vividly because I felt SO bad for these dogs–I was empathizing and upset beyond what the average person reading this would expect to be.
At that time in college I did not have the insight or self-awareness yet to realize it was because I resonated so much personally with how the dogs were treated. As a highly sensitive, empathetic person I knew just how those dogs must have felt and I related to them giving up and laying down, hopeless, and helpless, in fear, and self-doubt. Those dogs were experiencing the same damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t no-win situation that those who were bullied consistently (or even neglected or controlled) by a caretaker or narcissistic or controlling parent were subjected to day in and day out as children. Years later I remember talking to a counselor about this, knowing just how a dog in those experiments must have felt and it helped the counselor have a picture of the frustration, fear, desperation, loneliness, despair, hopelessness, and helplessness.
After I voiced this to the counselor, I was able to picture myself as a small child with the same compassion I had for such a dog and finally realized that I deserved so much more. The roots of my anxiety were then exposed–no wonder I felt anxious all the time, no wonder I was a perfectionist and afraid to disappoint anyone, no wonder I didn’t know how to relax, no wonder I had no access to my own dreams and desires and was filled with self-doubts and negative messages in my head. It helped to talk to someone about how I felt what I experienced could compare to the treatment of those dogs–the feeling of not being given consistent love and support and feeling rewarded only if obedient and punished with emotional rejection if not.
My life coaching experiences and studies have taught me the following in regards to those highly sensitive people with a narcissistic parent: The Scapegoat child of a N parent can very much relate to this constant punishment and criticism. But the Golden Child (GC) can relate as well because they are often the obedient one who needs desperately some kind of loving approval and, out of fear, becomes what the parent or wants for them to become. Outwardly to others it may appear as if the GC has it all–the love, attention and admiration of the Narcissistic parent. But inside there is so much emptiness and pain, an absence of the knowledge of self and true feelings–feelings that had to be hidden away because they were too painful to bear. The false self is developed and honed in, the GC knows exactly how their N parent feels even before they do. The GC develops a radar that helps them to survive the lack of love and support–and they develop an illusion that they are the ones at fault if, even with their best efforts, they fail to win the acceptance of the N parent. They blame themselves and have very low self-esteem, crushed by criticism, holding relationships at arms length so no one will get too close and cause them further pain.
The roots of co-dependence are also linked to this learned helplessness–victims of such abuse telling themselves that there must be something wrong with them and that they are deeply flawed and it usually goes in one of two ways–either they decide they need to find another person to love them and take care of them and then they will be happy (co-dependence) or they become a porcupine not letting anyone one else near, lashing out at anyone who suspects that they just might have some insecurities underneath their outwardly successful yet workaholic exterior shell. People who suffer from panic attacks and even agoraphobia often have learned helplessness from childhood as a root cause as well.
“What can a person do?” you may be asking if you relate to what I am describing. Plenty! Just being aware and believing that this happened to you as a child is the first step. Just as you have compassion for the dogs in the experiments, you need to develop this same compassion for yourself and make a decision to stop being so hard on yourself. Make a decision to be kind to yourself every time you are feeling bad–it is almost always childhood pain coming up to tell you the truth of what really happened to you. Become aware that the negative messages in your head were put there by someone else and that you did not deserve them. Change them to positive messages. Write in a journal all the things you were good at as a child and never given credit for. Writing out the truth is powerful and go back and read it often to remind yourself.
It takes time so be patient with yourself. Taking baby steps in the direction of healing is wise because there is pain to work through and release but you can do it! You have many gifts and talents that have never been acknowledged yet and only you can bring them out from their repressed state of Learned Helplessness.
Whether you were the scapegoat in your family or the obedient golden child, you can heal from the trauma of Learned Helplessness. Often people who experience post traumatic stress from an abusive childhood fall into this state of learned helplessness when their wounds are triggered. It can feel like an inability to function, a numbness–but sometimes the feelings along with that are a mix of rage and despair.
If you have lashed out at loved ones with an intensity beyond what is appropriate then you probably were a victim of a person that controlled you in an abusive way far far too much with no remorse. If you were extremely sensitive (extremely emotionally gifted 🙂 ), just a mean look from his/her eyes could cause a traumatic reaction in you as a child and the fear may have felt like a spear through your heart. The rage and despair you feel is understandable and appropriate but needs to be directed, voiced, and released at the person that did this too you in a journal, letter that won’t be sent, and/or perhaps even read outloud with a safe witness friend, counselor, or coach present (never to them or to their face) . You will find a sense of relief each time you release some of this truth and the light inside of you will become brighter and brighter and you will feel lighter and lighter. You will begin to experience the essence of your true self and the vitality you deserve. This is the process of healing. Don’t hold onto the anger and resentment that comes up but release it completely each time, visualizing the negative emotions going up to heaven or into the earth,whichever appeals most, to be healed by love and light–Imagine love and light coming to you as well to replace these negative emotions each time to center yourself again to a peaceful state.
Why did you experience learned helplessness while your siblings did not? Perhaps you had the gift of high sensitivity and along with that the knowledge and expectation of a higher level of love. And when you did not receive this love that you innately knew existed, you had no choice but to blame yourself because…it made no sense to you. Your siblings possibly just got mad at your parents and rebelled–they may have had no higher vision of a loving existence so it didn’t feel as traumatic to them.
So you see, the cure and the answer to all of your self-doubt and learned helplessness is LOVE. Love yourself as you deserved to be loved and give yourself the love that you so easily give to others because that is your gift. Compassion and love for yourself will help you overcome all of the many symptoms of Learned Helplessness just as consistent love and affection and kindness would help Seligman’s abused dogs to learn to trust people and trust themselves again. I hope my words have been helpful to you.
“Just as you have compassion for Pavlov’s Dog, you need to develop this same compassion for yourself and make a decision to stop being so hard on yourself. Make a decision to be kind to yourself every time you are feeling bad…”
PWC, Thank you for your comment. So glad you liked the part about compassion for yourself–such an important part of the healing process from narcissistic abuse. I like your website–another great support for victims of narcissists.
“severly punish you with emotional rejection if you did not!”
Yes, this is my Nmom and Nsis’s way of punishing me. Long, cold silent treatments. Never any discussion. Her way or the highway. This fostered my deep fears of abandonment. I struggle with that fear almost daily and in every relationship I have.
Love. It’s almost a foreign concept to me. What is real love? The love I know from my FOO has many, many strings, rules and requirements attached. I’m learning. One day at at time!
Thank you for your always thoughful and helpful posts!
Christa, Thank you for your comment and for sharing how damaging the effects of emotional punishments can be. Silent treatments are a passive-aggressive way for an N to abuse a highly sensitive soul. There is an absence of love in this kind of manipulating, guilt-inducing behavior and the motive is to control you and undermine your confidence and the way you do things. It is aggressive behavior and you have the right to be angry about being treated this way. I understand these deep fears of abandonment because as a highly sensitive soul it is so painful not to receive the love that even as a child we innately know we deserve and that it exists.
Fear is the opposite of love. Of course you struggle with this fear because the child in you had to give up in order to survive this daily lack of love in your foo’s environment. But you are getting stronger–you are drawn to reading about healing. Love is compassionate. Love listens with the deepest heart with empathy. Love appreciates and understands and accepts you unconditionally just for “being” you–just for existing. Love has no strings attached and love makes you feel safe. Christa, you deserve to feel this love and it exists. I believe God is the Source of this love and he is not a person but is Love itself. I believe that in the miracle of our existence we were given free will so we could learn how awful it is to be without love so that we will decide to walk away from these kinds of toxic people and environments. Then we can love ourselves and spread love in order to help those who need it the most–other highly sensitive people who are struggling with these issues. Christa there is much light and love in you and you are open to learning this lesson one day at a time and that is everything! You are a giver of light and love it is clear and the world is a better place with you just being here. Be kind to yourself and you will heal. I appreciate your openness–thank you for sharing your gratefulness and your question about love. Your comment will help others who have not yet found their voice–you are finding yours. 🙂 Love and light, Roxanne
I cannot even express in words how your words touched my soul. I can only express in tears. Thank you so very, very much.
“Love is compassionate. Love listens with the deepest heart with empathy. Love appreciates and understands and accepts you unconditionally just for “being” you–just for existing. Love has no strings attached and love makes you feel safe.”
This is a beautiful description, and an apt reminder to myself what is really love, and what often is masqueraded as love by self-serving parents- greed, selfishness, weakness, manipulation, resentment, anger, sadism, domination, and control.
Thanks for the article, it was a nice pick me up today. Especially the part about treating yourself with compassion and tolerance.
mmm, Thank you so much for your lovely comment–thanks for letting me know. Sending you a warm welcome to our community!
I can relate to the silent treatments with no discussion.
If I happen to say something they do not like in a phone conversation, they just sit there in complete silence until I get uncomfortable and let them go. That will be followed by usually about a month of the silent treatment. Once they decide that I have been punished enough they will call and act like nothing ever happened. Insanity.
Zoe, thank you so much for your comment to Christa. I could write the same thing to you that I just replied to Christa–you are reaching out to support others and that is so helpful to other readers out there reading this but not yet ready to speak out about what has happened to them. It is powerful to tell the truth.
It is awful how your foo treats you with these silent treatments and then act like nothing ever happened. You are right to call it insanity. You are the sane one expecting real love and compassion each and every time you communicate with them–it is their loss that they are not capable. You are on the right track to healing from this abuse. Thank you for giving your support to Christa and for sharing it for others to get support from as well–you are a shining light to others and a gift of strength to this planet, Zoe. Love and Light, Roxanne
Keep doing what you’re doing Roxanne, it’s very important.
I hate that i forget that i should read at least 2 posts from this blog each week, it makes me feel so much better and uplifts my soul. Overally i’m healing, and i feel a lot more compassion for myself. Alot of this growth is because of this blog. Thank you Roxanne, thank you.
Joe, Thank you so much for your kind and supportive words for my work! It uplifts MY soul to know that my blog helps you in such a way. I am so glad that you are healing and especially that you are feeling a lot more compassion for your self. Yay! This is exactly my hope for all my hsp survivor readers. I know I am helping and I can feel the presence of my readers who do not comment or email–I know you are out there. The feedback is very valuable to me and I appreciate it very much. Thank you Joe for letting me know that it is very important. I am excited about many new additions and changes coming up for this blog in 2011. Thank you again, Joe :).
It is never too late, right? I am 53 and have just started my journey of discovery.
Hi Patty, Thank you for your comment. Right! It is absolutely never too late. In fact, it might be the exact right time for you to begin your journey of self discovery, healing, and awakening to your true purpose and true self. Many of us with the most to offer are late bloomers in life which is an asset because we have much life experience to learn and grow from and more wisdom to offer others. Welcome to our community! Warm wishes, Roxanne
I’m not sure if I count – but – I just thought I’d try. I’m 37 now and in therapy for agoraphobia. I was the golden child ( actually, more like the goose that laid the golden egg), and after I graduated law school, I couldn’t think how I could handle the real world if every little mistake I made embarassed my mother, or made me show how much – underneath it all – I really was a failure. I just couldn’t take the risk. Now the panic attacks protect me from the outside world and my inevitable shortcomings. Thanks for validating the reality of my childhood, how my parents were (are), and the strong empathy I have for abused animals. You’ve helped me so much. Thanks. 🙂
Hi Katrina, Thank you so so much for your comment and for letting me know that my post was helpful to you! You absolutely count! Oh my goodness, Yes!–You are exactly the kind of highly sensitive gifted soul that I hope to hear from. What a wonderful achievement to graduate from law school–your academic giftedness is only part of your giftedness though, your emotional giftedness (high sensitivity and intuition) was the part that was taken advantage of by narcissistic parents with no remorse about how their blaming and shaming was hurting you! How awful! So wonderful that you are now getting supportive therapy for your agoraphobia and panic attacks. Your comment will help many others–I am going to add the words panic attack and agoraphobia to this post and as tags so that others who may be suffering can find my post on the internet and see that hope and healing are possible. It validates all that I am doing knowing that I am helping someone such as yourself–your gentle soul is such a gift to this planet–just you being here is enough. 🙂 Thank you for shining your light–I never thought about how my post brought awareness in support of abused animals–I will add that as a tag as well. What a wonderful cause! See, you have already made a difference in the lives of others by your kind and caring words. Words are powerful–with a law degree you already know this :). Sending you my warmest wishes and heartfelt thanks, Roxanne
🙂 Thank you.
This is such an eye-opener! I have always been told that I am smart and have so much ability, but inside I’ve always felt like the most moronic, incompetent person on the face of the earth. I’ve always felt a profound disconnect between myself and the world – like nothing I do ever affects anything in a good way. It’s like my engine is running, but I have no transmission – no way to exert the will inside me on the world I live in.
My mom was not overtly mean, just oblivious. No one exists for her except as to how she perceives they impact her. She does not understand how anyone could think differently from her, and expresses endless puzzlement at things that don’t fit her very narrow paradigm. Some of my earliest memories are of being told by her ‘You were supposed to be a boy. We had one boy and two girls, so you were supposed to be a boy, to make it even. We were going to name you after your father, but, oh well.’ When my brother was killed in Vietnam, my mom lamented how, since he was the only boy, now there was no one to carry on the family name. I felt so, so guilty. Another thing I was told: ‘I always said I would never have a child at 36 years if age, and, guess what? You were born the day after I turned 36!’ Just stupid stuff like that, that seems so silly on one level, but still hurts deeply.
I am now the caregiver for my 90 year old mom, who lives with me. I’ll say one thing for her, she made me into a top-notch care-taker:-). The sad thing is, she can’t even enjoy it. I do my best to cook food she likes, wash her clothes as she likes, tape tv shows she likes, etc., but she complains constantly. She has mild dementia, true, but it seems awfully selective. The other day I asked her to try to be more positive, and she said she didn’t know how. I said maybe she could ask me how my day was going. She said, puzzled, ‘But I already know everything about you…’. More accurately, she knows everything she cares to know about me, which is nothing. Why does typing that bring tears to the eyes of a 54 year old woman (me) who surely should have by now gotten over the hurts inflicted by a shallow, self-centered, compassionless human being? God, it hurts. Is there any hope for me?
Hi Elizabeth, Thank you so much for your comment and for sharing your story. There is so much hope for you to heal your inner wounds that still lie dormant–reaching out to this website is the first step but you are already speaking in your true authentic voice! In spite of never having been “seen” by your narcissistic mother, you speak eloquently and honestly about your injustice–your strength to speak out about it will help many readers out there too ashamed to even dare to believe they have the right to share their inner confusion.
I am so glad my post on learned helplessness was eye opening for you. Opening our eyes and getting “clarity” about what we deserved as children in order to be fully functioning will start you on a path that is as exciting as it is painful–painful in that we must revisit the injustices of the past now that we are “safe”–exciting in that when we heal a layer of repressed pain, we have more of our true self available to us to comfort us through the next painful layer… Eventually we emerge as whole once we trust in this process but it takes a long time, patience, and being very kind to yourself along the way. Your mother is not capable of “seeing” you for all of your giftedness, compassion, and the rich inner life full of love and light that your soul exudes. But we can see it! Welcome to a community that celebrates your highly sensitive soul! You are far from incompetent or moronic–that is just the voice of your inner critic that was your mother’s voice that you internalized.
Hoping that this blog will help give you the gas pedal to travel freely into your feelings and discover your “will” has been waiting for you to come and rescue “you”. 54 is a great time for new beginnings–many people I hear from are “awakening” to their truth at this middle time in their lives–it’s the perfect time when we now have so much wisdom and life experience behind us. You are to be commended for taking such good care of an N mother who gives you nothing positive in return–a sign you have MUCH inner strength and determination to persevere because you KNOW you are a good person. Trust this knowing and let it be the beginning of a new wonderful path of self-discovery. Understanding that a narcissist has no empathy or compassion for the feelings of others or remorse for their actions hopefully will help you to see how much you missed out on in your formative years–now is a great time for healing and we wish you all the best! Warmest, caring wishes to you, Roxanne
Thank you for answering, and thank you for this site. I really appreciate the time and care you’ve extended to me, and all the others who’ve found their way here. In looking over your articles, I’ve found so much interesting stuff! For instance, I found out years ago I was an INFP, and was interested to see the information on that. I’m interested in exploring the HSP stuff, too – been told I am way too sensitive all my life:-). Anyway, thank you.
Hi Elizabeth, Sorry for the delay in replying, just returned from vacation. Thank you so much for letting me know I have been helpful to you and that you find support in my blog and the HSP info. And thanks for sharing that you are an INFP–makes sense! 😀 Always nice to meet a fellow introvert-intuitive-feeling type such as myself (INFJ)! With love and light, Roxanne
[…] “dogs were so confused that they layed down depressed and GAVE UP and even whined–and this was Learned Helplessness that the dogs were experiencing“. The Narcissist instills this in his or her victim through behaviors including systematic […]
Hi Kim, Thanks so much for linking to my site-this dog analogy is so helpful to us survivors of emotional abuse as children to gain clarity on the extent of our deep-seated fears and self-doubt! Please know that it wasn’t Pavlov’s dogs that were shocked incessantly but the dogs in the “Seligman” experiments–Pavlov’s experiments were about classical conditioning and measuring the salivary responses of the dogs with food and the use of a bell–he didn’t shock them. Just wanted to clarify that fact which may have been unclear in my post. Thanks again! With love and light, Roxanne
Thank you Roxanne
I (male 41) am in a rough spot, and suspect having parents with N traits, especially my mother, but I mostly know because the pain and fear I am in is so bad, it cannot be over the recent breakup I had, probably with a borderline or N girl. I tried to write my story here but ereased it again .. it is too long .. but I want to say I feel connected to what you say and I want to start caring for and loving myself, if it will free me from the horror I experience now. Can you give me some tips on hw t love yourself ? I also wrote you on facebook. Many thanks
Hi Martijn, I answered you on facebook. Thank you for your comment and for sharing your story. Warmly, Roxanne
[…] The Connection To Learned Helplessness in Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) So you see, the cure and the answer to all of your self-doubt and learned helplessness is LOVE. Love yourself as you deserved to be loved and give yourself the love that you so easily give to others because that is your gift. Compassion and love for yourself will help you overcome all of the many symptoms of Learned Helplessness just as consistent love and affection and kindness would help Seligman’s abused dogs to learn to trust people and trust themselves again. I hope my words have been helpful to you.Roxanne […]