• Susan Fletcher, Ph.D.

The Curse of Learned Helplessness

Often in my practice, I meet people who are so transparent about what is wrong with them. Don’t get me wrong. They don’t come in and tell me their exact diagnosis and the features that are interfering with their daily living.

I wish my job was THAT easy!

Instead, people can be transparent in how they tell their story and the description of their thoughts and behavior. They don’t even realize that they are dropping clues for me. They can’t see the clues themselves.

Consider the gentleman who wants an increase in his pay. When I ask him what he has done to talk with his boss about a pay increase, he tells me:

“I know if I ask, they won’t give it to me.”

Then there is the woman who wants to go out of town for her anniversary but she believes her husband won’t go for the idea.

"There is no point. He would want to take the kids and

he would think it is an extravagant expense."

Finally, there is the high school student whose grades are low and he fails to show up for the final exam.

“What’s the point in taking the exam? There is no way I am going to pass it.”

All of the examples show exactly what Learned Helplessness looks like. It’s a sign to me that I need to fish around for other symptoms of depression.

Sure, you can be depressed and not fall into the trap of learned helplessness. You can also think with the filter of learned helplessness and not be depressed.

Often, Learned Helpless is a strong predictor of depression.

So what can you do about it?


Consider the examples of the people I just talked about. Each person behaves as if they are utterly helpless to change their situation. Even when there are opportunities to have things change or improve, their filter of Learned Helplessness prevents any of them from taking the risk of moving forward.

So the best thing to do is to make a conscience decision to just try to do something, even if you have already convinced yourself that it won’t work or that it might fail. Just trying gives you the chance to see you are wrong.

That is hard sometimes. So do this:

1. Ask yourself if you are in the trap of using a “Learned Helplessness Filter” in the way you are thinking. Maybe one of my examples in this blog post hits home with you. Maybe you can see where you do the same thing.

2. Tell a person who knows you well and that you trust that you think you tend to talk yourself out of things. That person can help spot it for you, pointing it out so you can adjust. They can also hold your hand (maybe actually hold your hand) as you take steps to shed that filter.

3. Get in the habit, on small things, of pushing forward and talking yourself into something. If you hear yourself saying, “that might not work”, then tell yourself you will try. Choose something small like adding an ingredient to a new recipe. I know, that’s crazy right? But it is important to practice moving forward when you want to back away.

Do the little things more often to get ready for the big things.

Learned Helplessness is so easy for me spot. But that doesn’t help you at all unless you see it too.