How Learned Helplessness Damages Victims, By A Guest Blogger


When stories of women in abusive relationships hit the media or the break room, comments tend to be about the woman. “Why did she stay?” is a common first thought. “If that was me, I would have just left” is another. “She shouldn’t have tried to hit him first.”

The abused woman is blamed for her abuse by her abuser in private, and when her story becomes public, blame is placed at her feet there as well. It’s no surprise so many women feel helpless when it comes to their abuse: they are told they cause it and deserve it.

In studies of “learned helplessness”, animals that are repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus, which they cannot escape, will eventually stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, the animal’s learned helplessness means that it takes no action. Instead, it will choose to remain, helpless to free itself. The only cure we have seen, in these studies, is to show the animals through physical contact and aid, that they can remove themselves from the situation. By providing outside empowerment, the animals learn that they are not helpless and can save themselves from suffering.

Most victims of abuse suffer from this learned helplessness, forced to endure abuse to the point they do not avoid it even if it is escapable. There appears to be a direct correlation between depression and learned helplessness, making breaking free of it even more difficult.

When abuse starts, it generally doesn’t begin with a beating. It starts with a beating down of the person’s sense of self. Abusers start with cruel comments and controlling behaviors, segregating the person from family and friends, and planting seeds of doubt into the victim’s mind. Physical abuse may start out slowly: grabbing too tightly, shoving, shaking. As all of this adds up, depression and feelings of helplessness may grow. They are forced down, emotionally and—eventually—physically. And the entire time it happens, they are told it is their fault. Even if they see a chance for freedom, they feel too helpless to grab for it. They can no longer escape.

And when they do reach up, they hear from outsiders how it was their fault for staying.

I am not a victim of domestic violence, but I have worked with many people who are. It takes great strength not only to stand up for people, but to help them learn how to stand up for themselves. We need to become stronger for victims of domestic violence. We need to be their voice when they cannot use their own, and teach them how to speak for themselves again. It can be frustrating, but through patience and love we can make these changes. We need to stop blaming the victims for the abuse they suffered, and put it squarely where it belongs, with abusers. They are the ones who should feel the shame of society for their actions.

At this year’s Campus Movie Fest, a poet named Lucy created a film that shows how the victims of abuse can be made to feel that what they are feeling is normal—and that through the help of others, even just one person, they can take control of their life again. (here is the link for the video

Ways you can helped loved ones who are experiencing domestic violence  – you can go here:”)

Photo Credit Goes To:




4 thoughts on “How Learned Helplessness Damages Victims, By A Guest Blogger

  1. Absolutely agree! In many ways emotional abuse is worse than physical abuse as it is tough to prove when the victim is being blamed.

  2. Great blog! Unfortunately, society has learned how to blame the victim instead of helping the victim. Re-victimization is real and the real reason why she doesn’t leave! Thanks.

  3. This is a great piece, I hope that it reaches some people in need. It is always a reflection of the abusers character and never the victim. I know there are many people in this position and confused by it. Glad there is positive help here.

    1. Well written and think it’s right on. The point about when abused women “reach out” society blames them for putting up with the abuse is a critical one.

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