How To Avoid Learned Helplessness



“The realist sees reality as concrete. The optimist sees reality as clay.” — Robert Brault

Optimists know something that pessimists don’t.

They know how to explain negative events to themselves in a way that’s empowering.

When something goes wrong, be careful how you explain it to yourself.

An optimist explains negative things that happen as temporary, objective, and situational.

On the other hand, a pessimist explains things as permanent, personal, and pervasive.

In the book,  Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Martin Seligman warns us against making negative events permanent, personal, and pervasive.

“Learned Helplessness” Leads to Inaction and Passive Behavior

Learned Helplessness happens when you teach yourself to be helpless by how you explain the things that go wrong in your life.

Learned helplessness is when you believe nothing you do matters.

This leads to inaction and passive behavior.

In other words, you just give up.

You give up, because it seems that no matter what you do, nothing will work.

It won’t matter.

Don’t Make Negative Events Permanent, Personal, or Pervasive

When you explain things to yourself as permanent, personal, and pervasive, you teach yourself to be helpless.

Or, to be more precise, you build a habit of learned helplessness.

A pessimist explains things that go wrong as permanent, personal, and pervasive.

For example, you might tell yourself, “this will never change” or “it’s me” or “nothing ever goes right.”

This can lead to learned helplessness or depression.

Explain Negative Events as Temporary, Situational, and Specific

So what’s the solution for “Learned Helplessness”?

Practice explaining things better.

Don’t make negative events permanent (“This will never change … This always happens.”)

Don’t make negative events personal.  (“This always happens to me … Why always me”)

Don’t make negative events pervasive. (“Everything always goes wrong … Nothing ever goes right.”)

An optimist explains events as  transient, situational, and specific.

For example, you might tell yourself, “this too shall pass” or “it’s the situation” or “in this case, things didn’t go so well.”

When you explain negative events this way, you condition yourself for learned optimism.

You empower yourself to take action.

You can learn to be an effective optimist.

Look on the bright side, every negative event in your life is another chance to practice your learned optimism.

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  1. Guess I’m a bit of an optimist in that regard – I don’t see how compounding a crap experience by sulking helps anyone. I’m the crazy one who usually starts cracking jokes when it seems a bit hopeless.

    If you’re going down…might as well go down chuckling? 😉

  2. I may initially moan a bit and let out a disheartened gasp of “woe is me,” when troubles befall me but I tend to bounce back to my rightful senses pretty fast. And it is funny, there really IS a silver lining in every cloud.

    And just a bit (or a lot,) off topic, SORRY about the broken links to those “fabulous hats” on my current post — but I have fixed them! technikile diffikultees — blame blue bunny!

  3. If one puts in “short-lived” instead of transient then the 3 Ps get replaced by 3 Ss, which can be an easier way to remember this at least as I see it. This reminds me of the, “Life is not static,” lesson that has been a pattern that I keep seeing over and over. It motivates me to try to make my life rather than just watch it as after all I am the star in my life.

    Taking something personally can have a couple of different attitudes I’m realizing. There is the, “Why me?” pessimistic attitude but there can also be the, “How can I change this?” or “How would I want to do this differently next time?” that can be motivating to do things differently to get a better result.

    Doesn’t having a “this too shall pass” have a passive implication? I just noticed that and wonder if that is a contradiction to the “empowering yourself to take action?” I suppose another interpretation is that there is wisdom in knowing when to act and when to stop acting.

    So many things to think about and so little time to live. “It’s Not Personal” has a similar theme for the personal aspect that may be useful to others to read and see how it applies here.

    Just a few thoughts to add into this discussion.

  4. I’ve read about this idea before and I think it’s so interesting. Glad you brought it to my attention again today, J.D.!

  5. My Grandmother and Mother took a pessimistic approach to each situation that was problematic and I think they both trained their children well to respond in that way. It was my optimism that assisted my mum in the last three years of her life to cope and find a happiness – her death actually allowed me to start re-training the optimism and positiveness I feel back into my first thinking …though I am still well trained to have the “victim’s release” story when I perceive someone is truly listening to me. It is so valuable to have someone listen with empathy and acknowledge feelings and experiences to finding the release to let go and move onward to one’s better self.

  6. J.D. … what did you do on your trip? Read 35 books? You’re prolific! Good stuff man.


    I did a story with a fascinating fellow named Doctor Paul Pearsall (I called him Dr. P) several years ago. He actually used the 3 ‘s as a rule when dealing with bad news or toxic people.

    Don’t take criticism or adversity Personally,

    Don’t view setbacks in one area of of your life as Pervasiveto all other areas, and most of all,

    Know that nothing is Permanent (except death and that’s still up for discussion).

    Anyway — hope all is well.



  7. Very well said!

    When things really do seem permanently ugly, I tell myself to take another look in 24 hours . . often a little sleep, a little food, a little shift in focus causes things to look much differently.

    Thanks for the great post!

    – Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

  8. The inner dialogue that we have with ourselves makes the difference between confidence and insecurity. We need to encourage ourselves in tough situation. We need to believe that our actions will make a positive difference. This takes a lot of practice, but the more we find the positives in difficult situations the stronger we will become.

  9. Hi JD

    I think the longer we let ourselves stay in the 3 P’s the more difficult it is to climb out.

    It’s also why it’s good not to have only one focus in life. If you have several aspects to your being, when one takes a bit of a knock it doesn’t seem as if everything is on a slippery slope.


  10. @ Louisa

    Finding the funny side of life is definitely empowering, not just for yourself, but it lifts everybody up around you.

    Well put … I always thought I wanted to go down fighting, but chuckling sounds pretty compelling.

    @ Jannie

    Sometimes finding that silver lining is tough. I watched Married with Children last night and Al happened to mention every cloud has a “silver bullet.”

    @ JB King

    Great points.

    You’re definitely the star in your life and I find a useful metaphor is to think that you’re the director in your life and you can choose what you point the camera at. Direct your best life.

    Owning issues and driving them is empowering. Asking what can I do or how can I change this or what can I do differently next time are great questions.

    This too shall pass comes in handy when things are beyond your control. It’s a reminder of the change of seasons and the cyclical nature of so many things. Sometimes it means accepting and letting go. Sometimes it means riding the wave. Sometimes it means not swimming against the current.

    It’s funny how so many things aren’t personal, once you know how people work.

    @ Positively Present

    It really is a nice little concept we can use throughout our lives.

    @ Patricia

    Great point that we learn from our parents, who learned from their parents. We model what we see and our parents are our first mentors in life.

    It’s great that you can identify and reflect on the pessimistic side and the optimistic side. To really know one, helps know the other, and it sounds like you’ve been effective at learned optimism.

  11. @ Steve

    Thank you. I tried to lay off the books, but I bought a few while on vacation. I’ll have to move out soon … the books are taking over.

    Now that is some beautifully prescriptive, actionable advice. I like the precision.

    Yeah, just when you thought death was permanent, I captured some ghosts on camera while I was in Key West. We know life isn’t static, but I guess death isn’t static is either (those little buggers went through a spectrum of colors.)

    @ Marie

    Giving yourself a time buffer is a great way to get new perspective. I use to understimate the power of “sleep on it,” but now I get how a fresh perspective can help us see the forest from the trees.

    @ Karl

    Well put. Given how much inner dialogue we have throughout our lives, you’d think we would all be our best coaches, yet it’s so easy to be our worst critics. The shift from critic to coach starts by shifting our inner dialogue.

    @ Juliet

    So true. It’s self-fulfilling and a vicious circle, as well as a spiral down.

    I like to think of my life as a portfolio of results, so that I can ride the storms and when some investments aren’t working out, I can shift focus to something more effective.

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