Learned Helplessness

Survival can look many different ways. Don’t judge what served to help you survive – neither let those coping strategies hijack the life you have today.

Learned helplessness is a coping strategy. In high-conflict situations, it is an effort to fly under the radar. However, once the danger has passed, the helplessness can linger and lead to an unfulfilling life.

Being helpless is defined as “1. unable to help oneself; weak or dependent. 2. deprived of strength or power; powerless; incapacitated. 3. affording no help” (Dictionary.com).

Children are genuinely helpless. They do not choose where they live, what they eat, where they go, et cetera. They do not have choices that are not provided for them.

Learned helplessness is different. It is a conditioned behavior, i.e., a behavior learned by experience, in which a person comes to understand that he/she has no power to improve his/her circumstances. The result is that he/she quits trying and becomes overly compliant and apathetic. It is not that he/she has run out of options – he/she is unaware that there are any options.

We often see learned helplessness at work in abusive situations where hopelessness and helplessness are intertwined. There is a high correlation between helplessness and passivity (Feist, Feist, & Roberts, 2018). No matter what he/she does, his/her abuser strikes out. The abused party has learned to have no confidence in him/herself to affect change.

In less dire circumstances, learned helplessness can appear as procrastination, lack of effort, low self-esteem, low self-efficacy, low or absent motivation, frustration, increased stress levels, not asking for help, attributing any success to factors outside of him/herself, e.g., luck (Cherry, 2021 & Leonard, 2019).

An example is a person who allows life to happen to him/her rather than taking control of his/her life. For example, the person who is continually passed over for promotions but hasn’t pursued developing his/her skills to be more valuable to the company. He/she doesn’t believe him/herself to be so good that additional training isn’t necessary. He/she believes that it will not make a difference. He/she is both frustrated by and resigned to his/her “lot in life.”

Helplessness, hopelessness, and passivity are commonly linked to depression and anxiety disorders (Aronson et al., 2016). If you recognize that you may have learned to be helpless, counseling may be in order to help you unpack why you surrendered your power, how it served your survival at the time, and the host of ways it continues to impact your life today.

When you are ready to enact change, coaching can undergird your efforts by helping you to focus on your strengths and leverage them to create the life you want.

Contact me for help identifying your strengths and options and transitioning from surviving your trauma to thriving.

Angela W Startz, MA-HSC


HopeWorks Counseling


Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., Akert, R. M., & Sommers, S. R. (2016). Social psychology (9th ed.). Pearson.

Cherry, K. (2021, April 5). What is learned helplessness and why does it happen? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-learned-helplessness-2795326

Dictionary.com. (2021). Helpless. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/helpless

Feist, J., Feist, G. J., & Roberts, T. A. (2018). Theories of personality (9th ed.). McGraw Hill Education.

Leonard, J. (2019, May 31). What is learned helplessness? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325355

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