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What is Learned Helplessness?

Updated: May 2, 2019

Do you know what learned helplessness is? If you don't, I'm glad you're reading this because I believe everyone should understand what learned helplessness means. Learned helplessness is a psychology term, however you hardly hear the term spoken in the mental health community. This is disappointing because learned helplessness is such a huge symptom of poor mental health, and if people were aware of their learned helplessness, then they'd have an advantage over their well-being.

learned helplessness definition, psychology terms, mental health

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is:

"A condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression."

Learned helplessness is the cancer of mental health.

You may think this is an overstatement, or that I don't take cancer seriously because I am comparing it so something you might not be very familiar with. Or if you are, and you disagree, I'd love to hear why in the comments below.

Learned helplessness prevents growth. It prevents the motivation you naturally have to work, and so you're stuck in an endless cycle of "I want to, but I can't." Have you ever sat down and thought, "What is this 'can't' I keep talking about?"

How Does Learned Helplessness Harm Mental Health?

When you get used to the feeling of having no control over your life, you begin to act in a way that reflects that. Many people who have had traumatic experiences out of their control, start to believe they'll never have any control. If you give up, you will never get better. Only giving up releases control of your life, and that's what learned helplessness is- to be blunt.

I'm not bashing people who experience learned helplessness, I've experienced it many times, even for months at a time. It's something that fed into my depression and made it worse, instead of motivating me to seek help for myself. I believed there was no help for me, and I even ignored suggestions from a therapist I used to have, because I didn't think they would make a difference.

This lack of motivation can cause you to plateau, or decline in well-being. Nobody wants this, and many people who don't have motivation to get better don't even know they're lacking that motivation.

learned helplessness definition, psychology terms, mental health

What Can I Do to Prevent or Stop Learned Helplessness?

If you think this situation sounds familiar, or you just want to protect yourself from falling down that slippery slope, then maybe evaluate the experiences that could have influenced you to feel chronically helpless over your own life. To prevent learned helplessness, observe what control you do and don't have over your life, and find ways to cope with the situations you can't control.

Breaking yourself away from learned helplessness is not an easy or fast process. It will take time for you to get in the habit of self-care, find ways to take control of your life, and find peace with the control you don't have. No one has control over their entire life, and some have more than others (even though that's not something I'd like to admit). But this is your life, and if you let past experiences control your future, then you will not have a future. You'll be living in the past for the rest of your life!

learned helplessness definition, psychology terms, mental health



  • Make a list of things you can't control in your life

  • Make a list of the things you can control in your life (spend a lot of time on this list)

  • Compare the lists and see if there's anything you could transfer over from what you can't control, to what you can

  • Take some time to practice self-care*

  • Be realistic and blunt with yourself, don't "baby" yourself; take care of yourself but don't coddle your mental health

  • Find new ways to get motivation and stay motivated

  • Try to observe when you're quick to tell yourself you "can't" and then re-frame your thoughts

*Self-Care: For ideas on self-care, you can visit either of the two options below!

self care bubble baths ideas

Hopefully this post helped some of you become aware of what learned helplessness is, how it can be harmful, and what you should do to prevent it. I would never try to downplay a past traumatic event in someone's life, or try to tell them to "get over it" because there are things I haven't completely let go of yet. But I just wanted to encourage healthy behavior and help others avoid backsliding in their mental health.

If you have any comments or questions, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below. I try to respond as quickly as I can to everyone, and if you believe this post was beneficial, please share with your friends and family!

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learned helplessness definition, psychology terms, mental health

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