My Struggle with Learned Helplessness

April 21, 2020 Megan Griffith

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon that occurs when someone repeatedly faces negative experiences that they can't control, and eventually, they stop believing they have any agency at all. It's something that sabotages my life over and over.

Growing up, I was shamed over and over for being who I was: sensitive, dramatic, and anxious. I learned that my emotions were wrong and I needed to defer to others in order to be "correct." I had my agency, but I couldn't trust myself enough to act on it. Then my depression and anxiety wreaked havoc on my life for years, and I felt that I'd lost my agency as well. Even as I recover, learned helplessness does everything it can to hold me back, and lately, it's been wearing me down.

Learned Helplessness Looks Like Self-Sabotage

Sometimes things start going really well for me. My blog will start to take off, I'll get more freelancing clients, I'll have several good days with my baby where I actually feel like I know what I'm doing. And then, slowly, I will start slipping back into ancient fears that I can barely articulate. When I finally gain some traction in my professional life, instead of capitalizing on new opportunities, I will ignore emails until those opportunities disappear. When I feel like a competent mother, I start losing my temper and disconnecting from my son. It's like I'm out to ruin myself, and I can't understand why.

I'm learning that these self-sabotage behaviors have a lot to do with learned helplessness. Through my past experiences, I've felt that I can't handle increased responsibility, that I can't take care of myself, that I'm always just one tiny rejection away from a total spiral. I obviously don't want my mental illnesses to get worse, but part of me doesn't want them to get better either. The way my life is right now, the level of responsibility I have, I know I can handle it. I have proven to myself that I can successfully deal with the challenges of this life. But if things change, I have no way of knowing for sure I won't fail. So I sabotage myself before that can happen.

Coping with Learned Helplessness

I'll be honest, I don't have any handy tips or tricks for coping with learned helplessness. It lives in my subconscious, ruining countless things for me, and only reveals itself afterward, when the damage is done. But it does reveal itself now. In the past, I had no idea why I was sabotaging myself at every turn. I still can't seem to stop it, but at least I understand why I do it. For me, that's an important step in the right direction. I can talk to my therapist about my learned helplessness and listen to her advice. I can try to spot it earlier and earlier, until one day, hopefully, I can catch it before I sabotage my life.

Do you deal with learned helplessness? How do you cope? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

APA Reference
Griffith, M. (2020, April 21). My Struggle with Learned Helplessness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 24 from

Author: Megan Griffith

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