Learned Helplessness: You’re Not Trapped

Boy hanging upside downDo you find yourself stuck in bad situations, feeling as if there’s no way out? Do you tend to give up before trying in order to avoid the pain of self-perceived, inevitable failure? Do you blow off your successes, assuming it was an accident things went so well? If so you might have a well-known psychological condition known as learned helplessness, which causes emotional or physical pain every day for millions. The good news is that you are not stuck. Help is available.

Learned helplessness often begins in childhood for those who’ve experience neglect or abuse, or who’ve witnessed a parent show signs of this condition. Perhaps as an infant, their cries for their mother were met with silence. Eventually they learned that there was no reason to cry, since their mother would not come to their aid.

Maybe this child sought help from a parent to keep them away from an abuser, but the mother did nothing to help. In families with learned helplessness it’s not unusual for these mothers to respond either with silence, or to say there are no other options available and they just have to live with it. The mother allows the abuse to continue because she feels there’s no place to go, no money to support her children and herself. She settles. The child learns to do the same.

When a child works hard in school, bringing home good grades, yet continues to receive nothing in the way of praise from their parents, they give up in their efforts—realizing that it is a futile effort if they expect to gain love, praise, and attention from their parents. If a good teacher is involved, sometimes this can keep the child motivated to accomplish their best.

When children perform to receive love and other signs of positive feedback from their parents and their needs are unmet, they often give up due to learned helplessness. Abusive parents punish their children for not doing well enough or for not doing enough. It’s not about the child. It’s about the parents’ own unresolved issues. Sometimes the parent messes up, but blames it on the child. Either way, this teaches the child that no matter how hard they try, they can never do well enough. They give up, again due to this sense of learned helplessness about their situation in life.

People who struggle with learned helplessness blame themselves for everything. They struggle, as a result, with low self esteem and depression. When a parent tells their child (literally or through unspoken words) that their life is as good as it will get—that they cannot and should not expect their life to improve—the pattern then carries to another generation. This is why we sometimes see families who become more and more unhealthy, generation after generation. They give up, assuming any efforts put forth on their part will be futile.

As this child becomes an adult, they continue using this psychological approach in their adult efforts, with fear as the driving force behind these attempted efforts. These adults may fear that success is impossible, so they give up before they get started or they stop before they succeed. They may be fearful that others will judge them—or worse, they may judge themselves harshly for not being good enough. This condition is called perfectionism. Adults in this situation either give up on attempting important milestones in their adult lives, or they give up before they can complete these milestones. These include dating, receiving higher education, choosing a mate, choosing a career, being a parent, etc.

In most cases, feeling they will never achieve better, no matter how much they try or how hard they work, these individuals end up settling. They feel they have no control over their situations and surroundings in life. Research has shown that learned helplessness inhibits ones emotional growth and development and can leave a person struggling with depression, anxiety, and guilt. These individuals feel that they should achieve more and feel stupid, lazy, worthless, and non-deserving of accomplishing more. In addition, any failed attempts serve as reminders to the person that they are stupid, lazy, worthless, and non-deserving of accomplishing more in life. A self-fulfilling prophecy unfurls, leading many to finally give up altogether since the pain of not succeeding—in these individuals’ eyes—is too painful to face.

If you feel like a failure much of the time, experiencing depression, anxiety, and guilt because you feel that you avoid risks and personal growth, consider speaking with a licensed therapist. Sometimes the hardest part is realizing this is an issue for you. You can overcome this way of experiencing life; the past does not have to dictate your present or future.

Children have no power or control in their lives, but adults do, even when they don’t yet realize it. With the help of a knowledgeable and compassionate therapist, you can explore where these feelings of learned helplessness originated from, overcome this unhealthy way of thinking—replacing the old beliefs with new and healthy beliefs—and learn to have compassion for yourself.

© Copyright 2010 by Joyce Thompson. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Francis W.

    January 19th, 2010 at 3:04 PM

    What an inspiring read! Thank you for sharing that, Joyce.

  • jordon

    January 19th, 2010 at 4:01 PM

    Such individuals need to be told and shown that they are capable of getting a good result and can believe in their own abilities to achieve things. Its not that they will always meet with failure, and that whenever there is a failure, they should try ahrder again an not just give up.

  • luke J.

    January 20th, 2010 at 3:48 AM

    Positive thinking can make a person capable of doing something even if he was initially incapable of doing it. Similarly, if a person is pessimistic, he will not be able to do things even if he has the potential to do it… this just goes out to show how important the mind is…

  • Brandii

    January 20th, 2010 at 8:36 AM

    If you are guilty of learned helplessness, do you tend to choose a partner that is too?

  • Joyce A. Thompson, MS, LMFT

    January 20th, 2010 at 9:11 AM

    Thanks to each of you who have taken the time to comment on my article. I’m happy to hear that the article has provided inspiration to you Francis! That was my intention. I had a very difficult childhood myself and for years I suffered with learned helplessness…But once I found the ‘right’ therapist who ‘got it’, I was able to resolve those old issues and go on to accomplish much! I have wanted to be a therapist since childhood, and I have now fulfilled my dream so that I can go on to help others who feel there is no hope for them. I cring at the thought of saying someone is “guilty” of learned helplessness, since they didn’t ask to be so short-changed in their life as a child (or in an abusive adult relationship) and since it’s a condition which causes so much emotional suffering. But Brandii, I do understand what you are asking. It is true that people tend to choose a partner near their own level of emotional functioning. Threfore, those who suffer from low self esteem, a lack of confidence, and learned helplessness do tend to pair up with someone who struggles with the same issues.

  • Christy

    July 14th, 2016 at 9:09 PM

    Thank you for your article. I know I have learned helplessness. You described how I feel. It has taken over my life and I live a very small and painful life. I am in therapy with a skilled and compassionate therapist for many years. I have not been able to make much progress towards a happier life. I still feel quite helpless to improve my life. I don’t even know what I would want to do. I get paralyzed by anxiety and doubt. I wish I too could overcome this as you did.

  • leslie l

    January 19th, 2018 at 5:39 PM

    I struggled with this, but am overcoming it! I read the comments where people are stuck in therapy and not making progress. One person has tried several different people with little success. I want to say, “Keep looking, don’t settle!”. But the situation you are experiencing makes it very hard to have the gumption to believe that you can find the right one. What a mess. I wish I could help and that is why I am setting up a foundation. Did you know that virtually all chronically homeless people struggle with learned helplessness? So do people generationally stuck on Welfare! I believe there is a way out that is smooth,sure and relatively swift, but we need to assure, as a society, that these issues get addressed promptly, before the damage of repeated perceived failures of a .lifetime really build up and that the sort of care the individual receives is especially tailored to this unique condition,

  • Marion C

    November 17th, 2016 at 7:59 AM

    Thank you Joyce for this article. My grown son is experiencing depression and this describes what I see. Would be interested in further information and possible ways to help him. Thank you again, Marion

  • Georgia

    January 20th, 2010 at 12:04 PM

    This is so sad to me that there are kids who have to learn from a very early age that they either have to fend for themselves or els eno one else is going to do it for them. No wonder there are so many screwed up people in this world! I would bend over backwards to help my own children and often wonder why there are other parents out there who do not feel the same. It makes me feel even sadder to know that they have to carry this sort of experience around with them for the rest of their lives because so often the things we learn and become in our childhood dictates and controls so much of our adult lives. I hope that reading this will encourage those who feel that this was the way that they were raised to seek help from a professional, someone who can help them unravel this kind of mess and make them feel happy like they too deserve to be.

  • Rosalee

    January 21st, 2010 at 4:48 PM

    I know a middle aged woman that blames her deceased parents for the state of her adult life today. I wouldn’t mind if she didn’t refuse to do anything to change her thinking on or release that pain. There’s always an excuse to not do anything I or her family feel could help her. This will sound selfish but it gets tiring listening to the “poor me” stuff. She doesn’t see her own refusal to change her life is the problem and not the suggestions.

  • Belle

    January 21st, 2010 at 6:13 PM

    Why tell yourself you’re not good enough when you can tell yourself you are? :)

  • Louise

    February 26th, 2015 at 4:47 PM

    Your ridiculous comment – complete with smilie face to seal the deal on your total lack of understanding – unfortunately represents much of society’s ignorance regarding mental health issues. My stating the following fact probably won’t make a bit of difference to you, but just maybe it will trigger thought for others: Those suffering from this condition are UNABLE to think well of themselves; it is their ill-conceived, but nevertheless near impermeable TRUTH that they can’t do anything right. Even if they tried parroting your little mantra, it would have absolutely no positive impact because they wouldn’t believe it.

  • Louise

    February 26th, 2015 at 4:56 PM

    Your comment – complete with smilie face to seal the deal on your lack of understanding – unfortunately represents much of society’s ignorance regarding mental health issues. My stating the following fact probably won’t make a bit of difference to you, but just maybe it will trigger thought for others: Those suffering from this condition are UNABLE to think well of themselves; it is their ill-conceived, but nevertheless near impermeable TRUTH that they can’t do anything right. Even if they tried parroting your little mantra, it would have absolutely no positive impact because they wouldn’t believe it.

  • Brandii

    January 22nd, 2010 at 5:36 PM

    Hi Joyce, thanks very much for replying to my question. I’m so sorry I asked it in such a tactless fashion. Guilty wasn’t the best word I could have used. I’m relieved that you knew what I meant despite that. Thank you again.

  • themuse

    January 23rd, 2010 at 8:44 PM

    I believe anything you can learn you can unlearn. Having your heart in experiencing true change is what makes the difference. Some get so comfortable in their misery they don’t want to relinquish it so choose the known over the unknown.

  • Ken

    February 2nd, 2010 at 4:46 PM

    I know that nobody wants to hear this but not everybody can be successful. We need people at McDonalds and waitress’s at bars. We need underachievers as much as we need overachievers…I think that a shift in social attitude of not looking down on those jobs and people would be much better benefit to society as a whole.

  • Bill

    July 14th, 2015 at 5:31 PM

    Nothing wrong with those jobs but there is something wrong with the pathetic slave wages they pay

  • Helena

    September 7th, 2010 at 5:33 PM

    I disagree with you Ken. Firstly, you should think of the structure of society as malleable rather than as being in a fixed state, and secondly, my best friend is a part time waitress and is using the income to fund her education to become a psychologist. Not everybody in a low paid job is a chronic under achiever. And nobody is looking down at anyone here, as the point of the article was to educate and support those who experience learned helplessness.

  • Joyce Thompson, MS, LCMFT

    May 18th, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    I received an email from a reader, expressing her anger with me for writing this article. She felt I had written the article from a “naive speculation of the subject”. Actually, I wrote the article based upon my own personal history as a trauma survivor, upon the history of many of my peers (both past and present), from many peers in the past who have been with me in support groups for childhood abuse issues, and from my own client base (since I do extensive work with trauma survivors). The person who contacted me was a psychology student who felt that I had attempted to make the subject of ‘learned helplessness’ worse than what it really is. From my personal experiences with this topic, I feel that the subject can truly be crippling for many. My intent was to offer hope to the readers. I believe that most anyone can heal from this learned behavior and can overcome much. I am wise enough to know that learned helplessness can come from a variety of experiences. But in my own experiences, I oftentimes see it coming from childhood issues. I just wanted to clarify this matter and I invite readers to send me an email if they have further questions or concerns.

  • Ash

    May 19th, 2011 at 1:09 AM

    Angry writer here,
    my email to you was in concern, due to the fact of if everyone was treated with therapy upon speculation alone, whether it be naive speculation, or speculation from someone who has been through this themselves, imposing your own thoughts on a topic without sound experimental evidence can be risky. If all therapists did this there would be a world within which it’s impossible to get the same level of treatment anywhere, as everyone won’t be on the same page.
    After all Seligman Freud would have put any psychological problem of learned helplessness in a woman down to penis envy. Did he have proof? No and his thoughts were also down to speculation and his experiences of his patients.

    The view of you’re parents are the main cause for learned helplessness, seems to be an extremely narrow view on the subject, with it often coming from schooling, work, families or anything! The article just seemed to be from the point of view that the soul point of view that it is the parents fault, although i’m glad its recognized this isn’t the case.

  • Lola

    December 4th, 2011 at 1:24 AM

    Thank you so much for this article. It really inspired some hope in me, and I related to some of your examples. Thanks again.

  • Lynne

    January 2nd, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    Do you have any advice for a parent with an only (adult) son who fits the profile of learned helplessness? He still lives with his dad and seems to be carrying on a learned-helplessness tradition, according to what I’ve just read. He has two degrees, has never had a job, and has said he can’t seem to do what he needs to do to move on with his life. I had never heard of learned helpless until seeing a reference in the newspaper this morning – fascinating! Thanks.

  • Karin

    March 13th, 2012 at 7:48 AM

    This comment is mainly for “Ash” – If you are going to attempt to leave a somewhat intelligent response, by name dropping pioneers in the field, can you please at least show enough respect to get their names correct? Sigmund Freud would appreciate it!

    That being said, I would like to know how to support a person with Learned Helplessness. I have a close friend, as well as a student, who suffer from this. It is an interesting parallel as I am afforded the opportunity to see this from both ends of the spectrum. However, the student has now taken on such severe LH that his behavior comes across as lazy and unmotivated. He does not see the value in learning anything and at the ripe old age of 9, believes he knows everything he needs to know in order to be able to take care of himself as an adult.

    The adult, on the other hand, has a lead a very successful professional career, but suffers from such low self esteem from always being told (since childhood) that everything he does is always wrong, he is very difficult to console at times and does not believe that someone could possibly have positive, loving feelings for him. His experiences have taught him that he deserves to be ill treated, because that is how he has been treated consistently in the past. He does not feel he is good enough to be treated any other way. He is in counseling,and encouraging that may be the best I can do for him. But I thought I would ask anyway.

    So – what suggestions can you give to get my student and hopefully my friend on a path of recovery? I do not want my student to get lost in the system. Yet I am unsure of what strategies I can use in the classroom to even motivate him enough to take the first step. Are there any journal articles you have come across that you would recommend I could read? This is not uncommon territory for me, as I have started my PhD.
    Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

  • Amy

    January 7th, 2013 at 12:01 PM

    This article describes me to a T. I first heard the term while watching a an excellent lecture on youtube about depression (youtube.com/watch?v=NOAgplgTxfc). I can say that yes, it is truly debilitating. I am dumbfounded by the contradiction of knowing I am smart yet accomplishing so little. Knowing that there is a name for my struggle is such a relief. Are there any books on the subject you can recommend? Thank you again.

  • sheila

    February 9th, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    Thanks, this information is very helpful to me!


  • Yvonne

    April 29th, 2013 at 4:55 PM

    Thank you for this article. I will try to remember to talk to my therapist about this, as you suggested. It is extremely crippling. I can empathize with what Amy said (Jan. 7).

  • Bora

    May 20th, 2013 at 2:28 AM


    Ash probably did not attempt to write the first and last name of Freud. Seligman is the first person who coined the term “learnt hopelessness”. Ash is maybe a victim of a poorly formed sentence :) Check this out: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Seligman

    I agree with Ash that it’s dangerous to suggest counselling for anyone who feels underachieving in life. Counselling should not be equalized so easily with, for example, taking pain killers. Not that the author attempts to do that necessarily but Ash is probably trying to warn people that seeking for counselling blindly (and passively) will not solve the issue and it might be even more depressing to see that even counselling doesnt work. So one must be careful when considering it.

    I also thank the author for igniting the discussion around it. Obviously, there are many people who suffers from this problem given the cruel meritology in which the society established its norms to describe the “successful” and “loser”.

  • Jennifer W

    December 16th, 2017 at 6:41 PM

    @ Bora
    ‘Counselling should not be equalized so easily with, for example, taking painkillers’
    Ummm… yes… yes it should! Sorry, but I 100% disagree with that sentence! If you have depression you have 2 options; pills or therapy. Which stands to help you long-term? THERAPY! Anyone can go into therapy, you don’t need to have learned helplessness or suicidal ideation or lots of trauma. You can simply go because you are struggling to move forward in your life. True, it will be short-term work if that truly IS your only issue, but you’re still allowed to enter therapy! The whole point of therapy is to increase your self-awareness to empower you to make independent choices. So you don’t have to be self-aware to begin with! You just have to want help and be open to it. The lightbulb has to want to change… That’s all!
    I am a psychology student aiming to be a Counselling Psychologist so I’m taking modules in both mental health AND psychotherapy. I am also in long-term, on-going psychotherapy as a person who has a long-standing mental health condition and does suffer from learned helplessness. My only disagreement with this article though is LH is NOT a standalone, diagnosable condition. I feel there is danger in treating it as such since It presents in depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety conditions, personality disorders etc etc… it’s a symptom OF another condition. If you only treat the LH, you might miss something else. If you were abused as a child and have LH, chances are you are somewhere on the spectrum of trauma conditions which range from PTSD to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) etc. So your condition is probably better described as one of those. Having said that nobody but a psychologist/psychiatrist can actually diagnose mental health conditions (GPs can prescribe pills for depression, but they can only give you an educated guess at what is wrong… not a true diagnosis), so please don’t all madly dash off and diagnose yourselves. LH is not a diagnosable condition, since it doesn’t appear in the DCM or ICD .
    I stand as a staunch advocate of therapy (obviously or I would not be going into it). So I also want to say… there ARE free therapy services out there who are NOT manned by unqualified staff… sorry but that’s rubbish if you’re talking about the UK. If you work as a therapist in the UK, you have to be registered with either the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP) or the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), EVEN IF YOU ARE A VOLUNTEER! THAT IS FACT. Neither organisation registers members who have not got the necessary training and experience (and what is required is extensive and usually involves the therapist having had therapy themselves). If you have a student therapist, you will be TOLD they are a student and you will have the option to go elsewhere. However, if you have learned helplessness you will NOT be placed with a student, cases such as these are in the realms of the more experienced trauma therapists WHO DO EXIST! There are also therapists who operate a sliding fee scale, who give low cost counselling to those in need. How do I know this? My current therapist at RHCP in Leicester is one such therapist who actually runs the company with the specific intent to offer low cost but professional services to those in need. LOW COST AND VERY GOOD THERAPISTS DO EXIST! Sometimes, the best way to get help is to ring around ask other therapists. Ask for specific names of therapists who can help but offer low cost therapy. Therapists operate in a network. They all have supervisors, their supervisors have supervisors. They also seem to befriend therapists and spend their lives surrounded by other therapists. If the person you ring cannot help, chances are they might know someone who can.
    (I have written in capitals in places so my point cannot be missed or lost or misinterpreted. This is such an important message that I don’t want it to be forgotten)
    Help IS available, keep looking PLEASE. You don’t need to have any special insight or whatever in order to get help, you simply have to want it!

  • Sarah

    November 19th, 2013 at 2:13 AM

    I recently had an epiphany that I have suffered from learned helplessness, much of my life. A rotten childhood, verbal, physical and sexual abuse all do a number on a kid, and that is carried into adulthood. Learned helplessness IS WITHOUT A DOUBT, CRIPPLING. Years of therapy helped, but I’ve suffered a major “relapse,” due to being ostracized and scapegoated, by my sick siblings, after my mom died. I am the one who refused to keep secrets, any longer and I stood up to my narcissistic/psychopathic elder brother and the evil/psychopathic elder sister, who also breached her fiduciary duties to me in distributing my mom’s estate. Taking her to probate court, will help me to overcome this renewed struggle with learned helplessness. I am very smart, have been exceptionally pretty, and should have had all the confidence in the world. I spent so many years just working through the garbage that was heaped upon me by sick people. Knowing why I have felt so helpless, for so many years is very healing. I’m NOT helpless! I am strong and powerful, I SURVIVED! I will continue to be a survivor, and to win back my SELF, my self respect, my self esteem and reach and be who I really am supposed to be, now that I am free, FREE of those abusive, mean, ruthless, people who made my early years a living hell, and tainted so much of my experience of the world. I will help myself, as I am worthy and capable! Thank you for your article.

  • Karen

    September 20th, 2014 at 6:12 AM

    I am 54 years old and just had that epiphany this morning. Early in life I sought counseling on several occasions and I’m baffled that the topic of learned helplessness was never mentioned. I grew up in a very emotionally and physically abusive home. My mom was the abuser. My two sisters and father all suffered her wrath daily as well. I seem to have found ways to deal with depression but now my battle is to quit smoking. I have health issues directly related but am hard core and have felt helpless to stop. Maybe I’m not so helpless in that area either.

  • DG

    November 29th, 2013 at 6:12 PM

    If the state of being powerless is such an illusion, and there’s an escape in therapy … why can’t I afford therapy? Is my lack of funds a product of my own imagination, too?

    I find this view surprisingly convenient to the profession that espouses it. It’s also rather selective about the experimental data … other experiments with canines show that they have a social structure which is hierarchical and at the bottom of the hierarchy is the omega. The omega is excluded from resources and socialization, and becomes a sort of scapegoat for the rest of the pack. Every pack will generate its omega, regardless of the nature of the members; the pack needs an omega and it will have one. This, too, explains a lot about how people become powerless, but it forms no part of therapy … because the rest of the “pack” in human society has no incentive to change and consequently won’t spend any money on therapists to do so. But the “omegas” do have an incentive to alter the situation, and are willing to spend to change it.

    How convenient that it’s all actually their own fault that they continue to be in that position. If it weren’t, there would be a terrible loss in sales for the profession.

    I noticed too that the conclusions derived from the Seligman and Meier experiment extend way, way beyond anything that was empirically verified by the experiment. The dogs may have failed to try to escape the electric shock, but there’s no evidence that there was any transfer of behavioural response to unrelated stimuli, such as cold water. There’s absolutely nothing in the empirical evidence from that experiment to suggest that the dogs adopted some sort of globalized helplessness, only that they could be conditioned to a particular stimulus. Pavlov already demonstrates this and Seligman-Meier tells us little we don’t already know.

    Just in case this lump of coal is seen for what it is, the author includes a caveat emptor to relieve the profession of any responsibility to produce results: you might have to see a bunch of different therapists before you find the “right one”. This is like me selling you computer after computer which doesn’t work, promising that eventually, one will. You show me your working computer and say, “see? mine works.” Forgive me for not being inspired with much confidence in your product here.

    But by far the most interesting part about all this, is that the theory directly contradicts itself. It places all the responsibility for change on the victims. Presumably because … we are helpless to change society! We just have to accept the way things are, stop trying to resist, and give alms to the high priests of therapy for our salvation. What a farce.

    Medicalize social problems, trivialize the victim’s experience, for fun and profit. All based on a cruel and pointless animal experiment. No wonder the Scientologists hate therapists so much … they’re competing in the same scam and the Scientologists haven’t been nearly as succesful at it.

    Well, I’m reminded of an old ditty titled “The Preacher and the Slave” and part of it goes like this:

    Long-haired preachers come out every night
    Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
    But when you ask how about something to eat
    They will tell you in voices so sweet

    You will eat bye and bye
    In that glorious land above the sky
    Work and pray, live on hay
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die

    Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out
    And they roll and they jump and they shout
    Give your money to Jesus they say
    And you will eat on that glorious day

  • Krish

    October 5th, 2014 at 8:00 AM

    Wow! Thank you. That’s so clarifying. It’s a phenomenon that can as easily be called taught helplessness. Some scientists hurt some dogs and as a result the dogs felt unworthy of change. It’s so obvious. That’s me! Blessings!

  • Anna

    February 26th, 2015 at 5:36 PM

    Much ranting, DG, as in your seizing this site as an opportunity to present your own “Theory of Everything”. I imagine you intended to impress others with your intelligence and insight, but I am uncomfortable with your vehemence, randomness, and flawed reasoning. For example, the comparison between computers and therapists was astoundingly inept. And, out of all of this, your contribution on the specific issue of learned helplessness is ???

  • Bill

    July 14th, 2015 at 5:28 PM

    I agree! Who can afford therapy??? There have been times when I could afford it and I did go from therapist to therapist hoping to get better but never found any real help. They basically all just explained to me about CBT which I can just read in a book without paying 200 an hour. I come from a background of severe bullying, alienation , ostracism and abuse by my primary caregivers. Surely it should be up to the society that damaged me to fund my repair.

  • leslie l

    January 19th, 2018 at 6:01 PM

    Someone needs to say it straight to your face : what a pile of rubbish.
    Quite apart from learned helplessness, which is a symptom of a larger condition, you have to deal with your pervasive negativism. However, your smug assertions of how unfair and awful everything is for the “victims” really say as it all. Regardless of your past or circumstances, it falls to you, and to each one of us, to refuse to be victims and to choos hope and healing with the aid of a trained professional. Stop with the belly aching and excuses and get on with it.

  • Jenn

    January 19th, 2018 at 10:02 PM

    What you have failed to grasp Leslie is that you cannot change the way others feel with contempt and dislike. You can only help them with compassion and empathy. You have absolutely no idea what these people have been through so please keep your unhelpful and unkind comments to yourseld

  • Anon

    December 13th, 2014 at 1:17 AM

    I’m in mourning over the years of my life I spent trapped and believing there was no way out. Friends tell me that I should just remind myself that I deserve more, but I don’t feel undeserving. I’m very proud of who I am and I feel like I deserve a lot. That was never the problem. The problem was every time I wanted more I felt like I was being ridiculous or unreasonable – life isn’t supposed to be fun, personal fulfilment is for rich people etc. All the stuff I was told as a child. I’ve been in abusive relationships, I spent four years with someone I didn’t find physically attractive who didn’t treat me well, I’ve been with gay men, despite being a high achiever in education/career, I don’t go for opportunities. The reason isn’t that I feel I’m not good enough – I feel very strongly that I am – it’s that I believe nothing good will happen or when good things happen I still won’t be happy so what’s the point? Trying to get out of this mindset by pushing myself into things more – I don’t want any more regrets – but I feel like I’m going to need the world to give me some proof before I’ll really start to believe that I’m not just a hamster in a wheel.

  • Bill

    July 14th, 2015 at 5:19 PM

    I’m exactly the same.

  • Karen A R

    November 21st, 2017 at 1:25 AM

    It has been the same for me too.

  • Anon

    December 13th, 2014 at 1:32 AM

    @DG Have you tried looking for charities that deliver therapy? Have you absolutely, definitely, checked all resources and all opportunities to have therapy? Before you say yes, just think about it for a second. I will be very surprised if there are no charities that deliver therapy. I’m in the UK where technically I could get free therapy, but the NHS waiting list is too long for my needs so I phoned charities and asked their advice and was signposted to people who could help. Now I have two therapists. For free.

    Also, the evidence on dogs (in this case wolves). Wolves have omegas only in certain situations. They react differently in captivity than they do in the wild. Wolf packs aren’t that way because ‘that’s what society is’, they are that way depending on the environment they are in – they are adaptive. Society is also adaptive, which is why we no longer need a social hierarchy and there is much greater social mobility (for those who try all options).

    The evidence from this experiment may or may not be confined to electric shocks. But if it is, that doesn’t disprove anything. Everybody in the world will have some degree of learned helplessness. They will believe there is something they can’t have or can’t do. For some it might be confined to one particular issue (I’m not good at science so I’m just not going to try, I’ll never be able to understand it etc.) – these people had the experience (probably at school) that they didn’t understand science despite trying multiple times. Other people have a more generalised learned helplessness – these people are likely to be from homes where core needs were not met (love was not received, support was not given, they were not attended to, some may even have been abused). As a child, you are pretty much powerless so you accept life ‘as it is’, believing there are no other options. When you get older you carry those beliefs with you. These people will have a more generalised learned helplessness and be more negative all round. Without social support/love we are all unhappy because these are core needs. The person who does not believe they will be supported is constantly unhappy because they are lacking a core need. This person has generalised learned helplessness and will believe that nothing will make them feel better and will find reasons outside of themselves to explain this away.

    As for the victim being the one responsible for change. I can honestly say, I’ve never seen myself as a victim. I see myself as a survivor. I don’t care if the world changes to suit me, I’m going to take control of what I have control over. I choose who I want to be around (if I don’t get social support, I walk away), I choose my career (I hadn’t gone for every opportunity), I choose how I want to look at life (your thoughts are your reality), and I choose not to be the person I was brought up to be. I choose to be my own person and to challenge all the beliefs I was raised with and test whether they are really true.

  • Bill

    July 14th, 2015 at 5:17 PM

    But who can afford therapy??? Very few people. There are some free counselling services but they are not very good and they are run by unqualified volunteers. Yet another reason to add that it’s all hopeless. In the past I have seen some therapists but I end up leaving because my helplessness is so entrenched that I begin to believe that seeing a therapist is pointless and does not change anything.

  • steve

    January 18th, 2016 at 2:26 AM

    how do you know if it is a learned helplessness rather than actually being helpless? for instance if the subject is physically and ecconomically disabled and there are real barriers? how big do those barriers have to be before they really are helpless? is there a point at which it stops being psychologically blocked and begomes impossible to achieve things?

  • Veronica

    July 7th, 2016 at 1:26 PM

    My issues are different than this. My caregivers didn’t let me cry, insult me, or make me feel that I didn’t do things well enough, they didn’t ever LET ME do anything that would require the skills I needed to be an adult! They controlled what friends I saw and what toys I played with ( and my strict Christian upbringing made sure that most of them didn’t want to hang out with me anyways.) When I wanted to wash dishes, do chores, babysit (when I got older,) it was, “GO BE A KID!!!!” She read my diary, refused to let me have a room with privacy until I was almost 16. The funny thing was that she was super encouraging, affectionate, giving, and praising. I just never got the chance to learn how to and that I could make it on my own.

  • Fritz

    August 25th, 2016 at 9:39 AM

    I’m struggling with my brother who has a a bad run of luck. He was bullied as a kid, was always the last kid picked for a team, if he got picked, an outsider in school, and diidn’t date until after college. He’s never been in a relationship that lasted more than a month. Married a mail order bride to get our parents off his back and she ran off with another man. Lost his job and his home in 2009 and has not been able to find work because he’s overqualified.
    When he says he didn’t bring this bad fortune on himself, I really can’t argue with him. He’s never been in trouble and lived life by the rules our parents taught us. He didn’t do anything to get himself bullied other than being the shy kid in class. He doesn’t get to hire himself. He couldn’t force his wife to stay married to him. He had a terrible boss (we both worked for the same place).

    He’s learned to hate people because they’ve been the source of his pain . There’s nothing I can say other than he got screwed. He’s worked hard, kept his nose clean, and he just doesn’t seem to reap the rewards. Help.

  • Fritz

    August 25th, 2016 at 10:10 AM

    Forgot to add that I personally feel very guilty about this because my parents and I were telling him to suck it up and persist in bad situations and he probably should have cut his losses and walked away. As a result, he feels no connection between his efforts and results and has quit tryiing to improve his situation.

  • Trish

    October 3rd, 2016 at 6:54 AM

    Thank you for your article. I have had an anxiety disorder in varying degrees for the last 14 years – including periods of agoraphobia (including currently). So much of this resonates with me. I was pretty self sufficient growing up, younger than my siblings by many years and having to fend for myself after the dissolution of my parents marriage. Overweight for all my life, I was bullied mercilessly in my early teens. I definitely have issues of self worth – even though I see myself as a good person who is smart. It is such a conundrum knowing the person I was who was so capable and now in some areas of my life I’m so incapable. I’ve been to several psychologists and this has never come up. They all say I have great insight and I need to overcome my fears but they seem to get ever more paralysing. I will definitely investigate this further and hopefully find the key to getting me back on track.

  • Arturo

    February 24th, 2017 at 5:59 PM

    This is me.

  • Nora

    June 11th, 2018 at 8:46 AM

    I feel I have been struggling more and more with anxiety and depression since I got away from by toxic parent. I grew up with my mother, who is disabled, suffers evident but untreated mental health issues and self-medicates through alcohol abuse. She was quite violent, verbally and physically, for an array of reasons I still fail to understand. She would scream and hit me for hours on end just for looking or talking in the wrong way (whatever that was supposed to mean). I never had the heart to call for help because I knew me and my brother would have been taken away and I felt extremely guilty leaving her by herself. I honestly thought I could just sit it out until I was 18. As a child I used to think she was this way because she had forgotten what it was like to be a child and not be aware of one’s “mistakes”. So every night in bed I would go over my feelings about the abuse so I would never forget (felt like a good idea back then but now I see it has gotten me used to ruminating quite a bit). I was terrified -and still am really- I could become just like her once I became an adult. Something that consoled me was the absence of my father. The ideal image I made up of him in my mind comforted me in the belief that I could just as well turn out like him and not like my mother. It seemed like a good strategy against learned helplessness but I kind of set myself up for a greater blow. At 18 I moved closer to him and found out he was far, far from perfect. His second wife divorced from him and he spiraled down into severe alcoholism and a cocaine addiction. Later I found out their marital problems started out because she did non want me living near them (something about him spending too much money on me). I just found out also my little brother has started using cocaine and I just feel like it is destiny for me to sooner or later fall down some kind of addiction tunnel. I am studying at Uni now but more and more often I lose my concentration and find myself not feeling motivated or concentrated enough to do anything for days and then the ruminating starts. Today is such a day. I feel like no matter how hard I try it is probably all useless. I was supposed to be graduating this summer but I have had to postpone to next year. I think I aimed too high. Now that I realize I do not have a shred of family to fall back onto if I fail, my anxiety is only increasing.. I feel that I postponed symptoms of LH during childhood through a fantasy which revealed itself unsustainable in the long run. I do not know how to get back to a positive mindset. I honestly do not have the financial resources to go to therapy, but I am also distrustful of it. Both my parents and my brother have gone to therapy but it did not help them, not even a little, they all dropped out of counseling and continue in their selfdistruction just like they did before.

  • P

    June 30th, 2018 at 2:22 PM

    Learned helplessness as a way of life – lifestyle changes

  • George

    October 20th, 2018 at 2:25 PM

    Thank you for giving a name to this modus vivendi, to see the ‘truth’ about self sabotage and how we devolve our personal power is liberating

  • Misty

    July 16th, 2019 at 2:26 PM


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