What is “Learned Helplessness”? Insights for Artists

As a miniature painter, have you ever found yourself feeling stuck, unmotivated, or doubting your abilities? These feelings may be the result of learned helplessness, a psychological phenomenon that can impact even the most skilled and experienced artists.

In this article, I explore the concept of learned helplessness, its prevalence in miniature painting, and its consequences. This is a fairly common phenomenon among mini painters and artists, and I have personally experienced it.

Learned helplessness is the belief that no matter what you do, nothing will ever change the outcome of your situation. This can lead to feelings of frustration and hopelessness, particularly when you’ve been struggling for weeks or months without success.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - Vertical feature banner image

Continue reading below for more details about this “thing” that may be holding you back, and check out the tips and insights that may help overcome the stumbling block of learned helplessness.

What Does Learned Helplessness Mean?

Learned helplessness is a psychological state in which a person feels powerless to change their situation, despite having the ability to do so. It can develop after repeated experiences of failure, negative feedback, or lack of control over a situation (source).

Over time, individuals may begin to believe that their efforts will not result in positive outcomes, leading to a sense of helplessness and resignation.

Here are some common symptoms of learned helplessness (source):

  • Low self-esteem
  • Frustration
  • Passivity
  • Lack of effort
  • Giving up easily

Are you experiencing any of this as an artist, miniature painter, or other creative? If so, I hope you find some insight with this article.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - a faceless mannequin against a bright background with yellow and red patterns
A nameless problem faced by many: “I don’t know what to do with my life. There’s so many pathways and directions in which to go, but I feel like no matter which path I choose, it won’t be the right one. It feels like I’m stuck spinning a wheel just hoping for something different to come along, but nothing ever does.”

How Often Do Miniature Painters Experience Learned Helplessness?

I’m actually not sure. But from my experience as an artist, I know that we can become susceptible to this “mindset” where we feel trapped in a particular way of thinking and struggle to break free, even when we know what the end result should be.

As miniature painters, artists, and creators, we’re all vulnerable to challenges within ourselves that hinder ability to freely embark on complex, detailed projects. Much of what we do requires patience, skill, and high attention to detail.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - close up of an artist's hands painting a miniature scale model
Are you an artist? Or, are you someone struggling to “create”?

I know the personal pressure to perform and product high quality work. There are days where the intensity of my day job match my desire to excel in the hobbies I enjoy. They become intertwined, and I find myself getting lost in the fear of making mistakes, receiving negative feedback, and self-doubt.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - a ink drawing stippling texture of a skull on a notebook
“It’s all your head, ” they say. Is it, though, really? I’m not so sure. There’s a lot more to this journey than meets the eye–a lot of unknowns, a lot of potential.

I suppose another way to describe learned helplessness as an artist is that it creates a sense of fear that imprisons us. So, while I’m not sure how common the feeling is in miniature painters, I know it’s something many of us can relate to.

Freedom: A Reason to Overcome Learned Helplessness in Artists

Liberty is the idea that we can do what we want without restriction. It’s the notion that no matter what your background, circumstances, or identity may be, you have the power to create and manifest meaningful work.

This is something I strive for in my art and creative projects. When I face self-doubt or feel like I’m getting stuck in a cycle of helplessness, I remind myself of this freedom and how it’s available to me.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - a faceless dark toned mannequin head with a red tree behind it
That blank expression when you’re asked, “why aren’t you excited about this?” and you don’t have an answer. That feeling of being stuck in a rut, without a way out or knowing what to do next.

It’s also important to remember that our work is often more than just the physical product; it’s an expression of our values and beliefs, as well as a reflection of ourselves. Therefore, overcoming learned helplessness can be seen as a way to gain more personal autonomy and reclaim our right to create.

The Deeper Mental State of Learned Helplessness

As previously defined, learned helplessness is a psychological state characterized by a sense of powerlessness and resignation in the face of perceived failure or negative feedback. It can be caused by a variety of factors, including past experiences, negative self-talk, and a lack of control over one’s environment (Maier et al., 2016).

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - a rock in snow melting around it
A rock and a cold place.

The psychological impact of learned helplessness on miniature painters can be significant, leading to decreased motivation, increased frustration and self-doubt, reduced creativity and innovation, and a lower quality of work.

Of course, before we can get to understanding how to address any “problem”, we should first try to understand the underlying reasons why it exists in the first place.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - a macro close up of a plastic unpainted miniature with a space marine stabbing an ork miniature on the base

For instance, if you’re a miniature painter and are struggling with learned helplessness, asking yourself questions like “am I afraid of failure?” or “what is causing me to feel this way?” can help you identify any potential root causes.

How Past Experiences Feed into the Development of Learned Helplessness

I won’t get into the myriad of psychological factors that may contribute to an individual’s development of learned helplessness, but I will say any negative experience–internal and/or external–can feed into this mental state.

For instance, if you have a history of not having control over your environment or the outcome of certain projects, those experiences can lead to a feeling of powerlessness when faced with new tasks. Likewise, if you’ve previously faced constant criticism for your work (or even any life choices) that too can lead to learned helplessness.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - A toddler girl looking for her shoe behind a curtain
It’s hard to find your way to do things when you’re obscured by the fog. Hey, so let’s take small steps to clear away that fog and start focusing on what’s important.

From my perspective, I kind of think of it like this. You’re human with a spirit. And, at some point, it is possible that you’ve lived through things that break your spirit and you’ve surrendered to this reality as an ongoing situation. At some point, I’ve (you’ve) given up and raised that white flag of surrender.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - close up of melting snow on a wooden log
Even the thaw takes time to settle in and amidst the chill, I find comfort in knowing that soon, there will be warmth again. Be patient and resilient.

Indeed, from neuroscience perspective, it is a mental state where a person has become conditioned (or shaped) to believe that their efforts are futile (source). This person has come into the deep belief that their actions, no matter how good or invested, have no bearing in the possibility of producing a positive outcome.

It’s a trap.

Are You Experiencing Learned Helplessness as an Artist?

I’ll admit I’m not an expert at this stuff. But I work with a lot of people and have experiences to draw upon. When it comes artists, the deep thinkers, introspectives, the ones who may suffer with that creative anxiety, we have to be a little more mindful.

If any of this resonates with you, if you’re feeling stuck in your creative endeavors, I invite you to ask yourself some questions.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - a faceless white or beige colored mannequin head with a bright spotlight overhead
I don’t have a good caption 🤷‍♂️. Make of this image as you will.

Do you feel like no matter how hard you try, nothing ever pans out? Do you think that all your work is inadequate or even “bad”? Have you been giving up before even getting started on projects? Are you feeling unmotivated and low in energy when it comes to pursuing creative activities?

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - burnout is real
Flame out; burn out.

If so, you may simply be burnt out. Here, taking a break from doing anything that you feel pressure to do will help you. But if you’ve been feeling this way for a while–like a long, long while–it could be an indication that you’re in the state of learned helplessness.

Specific Ways Learned Helplessness Emerges in a Miniature Painter

  • Decreased motivation and enthusiasm for their art
  • Increased frustration and self-doubt
  • Reduced creativity and innovation
  • Lower quality of work

When it comes to miniature painting, learned helplessness can manifest in a variety of ways (source). When someone is feeling powerless and not able to control the outcome, they may experience decreased motivation and enthusiasm for their art.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - an imperial fist warhammer 40k tank predator outside on the dirt overhead perspective photograph
Get out of your comfort zone.

Have you ever gotten into a miniature painting project that seemed to big for you to handle? I’ve gotten miniature painting commissions projects that were enormous. For example, I once had a huge Warhammer 40k tyranid job that I accepted–and in hindsight, was a bit nuts to do. But, I took it thinking the extra money would help.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - close up low perspective of a yellow painted Warhammer scale model 40k tank
What doesn’t belong?

Well, money is a bad motivator–especially in the long term. In this case, I was haunted by prior negative feedback which made facing down this new challenge seem impossible. This led to increased self-doubt, a huge temptation to procrastinate and a general loss of motivation to do anything related.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - two faceless mannequins with overhead lighting and spooky presence
Find support, if you need it.

For any artist, the tabletop miniature kind or those who simply make art of any genre, the sense of helplessness could result in procrastinating on projects and even avoiding working altogether because of fear that their work won’t be adequate or good enough.

Additionally, someone feeling helpless may become increasingly frustrated with their work and struggle to maintain confidence, leading them to question the value and worth of their effort.

This can have a direct impact on their creativity and innovation, as they become less likely to take risks or push themselves out of their comfort zone.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - a water color glazed white palette with dried acrylic paint in it
Decisions, decisions. Why must there be so many? It’s not just the big ones like where to live or what job offer to take. Even the small ones add up over time and can have a large impact on our overall happiness and well-being.

As a result, our work as a whole may become lower in quality and we have trouble making any real progress or improvement.

From Resigned to Resilient: How Miniature Painters Can Overcome Learned Helplessness

There are a ton of resources to help you find some more resilience in facing down challenges, whether they are art-related or your professional career.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - a stack of split firewood in winter
I love this photo of a stack of wood because it is the result of a half day’s hard work and physical labor.

The first step is to become aware of it and recognize that you aren’t powerless in your pursuits. Even if the outcome isn’t as expected, it’s ok–you can still learn from it and grow from there. The idea is to get the confidence to engage with challenges ahead of you.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - low perspective miniature wargame photo in progress gameplay
A miniature battle is happening at a local club near you! Here’s a snapshot of a game of Warmachine I played.

Doing battle is never easy.

Even the metaphorical concepts I’m speaking about might seem intimidating, but like a battle in a warzone, the best way to overcome it is by understanding the terrain and choosing your battles appropriately.

Here are five ways to overcome the sense of internal helplessness:

  1. Find and nurture confidence: Building self-efficacy through positive self-talk and visualization can be a powerful tool for overcoming learned helplessness. By focusing on their strengths and successes, artists can begin to shift their mindset and develop a more positive outlook.
  2. Set goals: Setting achievable goals and celebrating small successes can also be helpful in building self-efficacy and overcoming learned helplessness. By breaking larger projects into smaller, more manageable tasks, artists can feel a sense of progress and accomplishment along the way.
  3. Accept useful feedback: Seeking out constructive feedback from peers or mentors can also help artists overcome learned helplessness. By receiving feedback that is focused on improvement rather than criticism, artists can begin to see their work as a process of growth and development.
  4. Be self-aware; reflect on the process: Mindfulness and being present in the moment can aid in overcoming learned helplessness. By focusing on the process of creating instead of the end result, artists can enjoy painting and feel more control over their work.
  5. Embrace failure: Embracing mistakes and failure as opportunities for growth is another important strategy for overcoming learned helplessness. By reframing mistakes as learning opportunities, artists can begin to see their failures as a natural part of the creative process.

Which helps the most?

As personal note, the last point about “embracing failure” is the one that has helped me the most. In my profession, failure and rejection are normal and even expected, but I like to think of them as an opportunity for growth.

It’s almost like going to the gym, lifting weights till your muscles fail and feel like they are going to explode; calling it quits. But then you’ll come back the next day and push a little bit further. The pain from the prior day is the opportunity to make it better.

What is "Learned Helplessness"? Insights for Artists - the back muscles of a sculpted plastic miniature from Age of Sigmar Games Workshop
Keep swinging.

In all seriousness, accepting failure and learning to bounce back is a key factor in becoming resilient rather than getting stuck in that helplessness loop. Unlearning certain mental states, like bad habits I think, can only come through the experience of direct practice, which is often painful, extremely so in some cases.

Final Thoughts

I don’t have the answers. I’m not even an expert in this area of psychological study. What I do have is my own lived experience of learning to become more resilient and facing down struggles head on.

And as a hobbyist, a thinker of many things (some useful, others not), I’m still exploring this concept of learned helplessness for myself. I’ve found a few good ideas and strategies, but I’m still searching for more.

The human mind is full of surprises…complexities, really.

I suppose in the end, it’s important to remember that we are not alone in facing down challenges, no matter how difficult they may seem.

I still believe that having resilience is a key to success in most things we do in life. Don’t quit, right? I guess the question you’re going to want to continue asking as an artist or miniature painter is: Are you gritty?

I hope this article has been helpful in providing some ideas for answering (and doing) just that. Thank you for reading. Keep on thinking 💭 🧐 (and doing)! 👍🎨

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