How Learned Helplessness Impacts Your Life & Your Therapy

People come to therapy for all kinds of reasons. Some people have felt stuck for a while and they need a change. Others might be pressured by loved ones – partners, friends, parents, to seek help. People hear from friends that they had a great experience, and it changed their life. Other people might need to attend counseling for legal reasons. Regardless of what brought you to therapy, we’re happy you’re here. Whether you’ve just started therapy, are thinking about starting, or have been in therapy for a while, you likely know that change is really hard. Even after showing up to sessions for weeks on end, with a therapist you really like, and you feel like gets you, change is hard. At times, everything feels really really difficult – so much so that it feels like no matter how much energy you put into something, you end up disappointed, or it’s not good enough, or it’s not the outcome you wanted. If the outcome is never what you hoped for, then you figure why bother trying?

There’s a term in psychology called “failure syndrome”, but it’s also often referred to as learned helplessness. You might have heard this phrase before, but even if you haven’t it’s likely you can recognize learned helplessness in a family member, a friend, or maybe even yourself. People who struggle with failure syndrome often have low expectations for themselves, the task at hand, or other people, and will likely give up at the first glance of a problem or difficulty. For some people, learned helplessness may appear in multiple settings. For others, learned helplessness may be specific to one setting.

For example, one person excels at work, as well as when they go skiing with their friends. However, this same person struggles when it comes to dating. While they encounter a lot of frustration, obstacles, and challenges at work and when they ski, they welcome these challenges and overcome them. Yet with dating, they expect from the very start the date will go poorly. Then, when there is any kind of frustration or a hiccup in the night, they write the date off as a “disaster” and themselves as a “failure” – so much so they resign themselves to be a loner for the rest of their life. The date wasn’t a disaster though, and they aren’t a failure. In fact, their date was having a wonderful time but then felt like they did something wrong when this person shut down the rest of the night.

And learned helplessness can show up in therapy, too. Ever get to a point where it feels like your therapy is going in circles, or you’re still feeling “stuck” in the same patterns? It’s possible you’re having a hard time overcome failure syndrome or learned helplessness. Change is exciting, and it can also be terrifying. Often, it’s more comfortable and feels safer to remain where you are because trying something different and new is a risk. That’s okay, and it’s really important it doesn’t become a pattern and you start to believe that you’re not capable of making changes. Rather than telling yourself “I can’t” or it’s “too hard” when approaching a task, recognize it as an opportunity to try something new and to overcome challenges and become more adaptable for it. You’re far more capable than you think. In the meantime, here’s some signs of learned helplessness to look out for:

1.     Your expectations of success leading up to a task or event are low.

2.     You often feel frustrated or defeated and give up if there’s difficulty with a task or event.

3.     You believe your failures is because you aren’t capable or able to.

4.     You believe your successes are become of luck or easy tasks, rather than your own abilities or efforts.

5.     When you do experience failure, you believe it’s less likely you’ll succeed in the future.

6.     You often find yourself saying “I can’t”, or “it’s too hard”. 

If you identify with any of these, that’s okay! Learning more about yourself is often the first step to creating change for yourself. And, you don’t need to do it alone. If you recognize these signs in someone you know, then maybe you can be a person of support for them.

Thanks for reading!

By: Brianne Dixon, LPCC