Life happens. Repeated disappointments, lost hope, and thinking that there is nothing you can do is a feeling familiar to everyone. If you are experiencing a crisis and have accepted it as the new normal, you have probably given in to a common phenomenon called learned helplessness. However, take heart: you are not defined by your failures or achievements! Get back control over your thinking and start implementing easy steps that will fuel your brain with much-needed horsepower!

What is learned helplessness?

So what exactly is learned helplessness? According to the American Psychological Association, learned helplessness is a phenomenon in which repeated exposure to uncontrollable stressors results in individuals failing to use any control options that may later become available.

The theory of learned helplessness was developed by American psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman in the late 1970s. While conducting experimental research on classical conditioning, Seligman discovered dogs that had received unavoidable electric shocks failed to take action in subsequent situations—even those in which escape or avoidance was, in fact, possible — whereas dogs that had not received the unavoidable shocks immediately took action in subsequent situations. The experiment was replicated with human subjects (using loud noise as opposed to electric shocks), yielding similar results.

How can it be that two individuals in the same situation with the same limitations yield different results – one thrives, whereas the other experiences a dark moment of the soul? In his book “Necessary Endings”, psychologist, author and leadership consultant Dr. Henry Cloud explains, “When the (mind) map says that nothing you do matters, then you stop focusing on the things that you do have control over, things that actually do matter and that can make a difference. But when you regain control of yourself, strong results can be obtained, even in crummy environments.”

Because learned helplessness is a learned behavior, there are ways it can be unlearned!

The following exercise introduced by H.Cloud is an effective tool to reverse learned helplessness. Just as simple as taking a prescribed pill, which has years of research behind it, and getting well, this exercise can yield powerful results.

  1. Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page, creating two columns.
  2. In column number one, write down all of the things that you have no control over that are making your life difficult, such as the economy, the stock market, the weather, your boss, increase in healthcare costs, the election, etc. Those are the things that you have no control over that truly are affecting you.
  3. Worry about these items. Obsess over them. Think it through over and over FOR ABOUT FIVE OR TEN MINUTES.
  4. Set the list aside until the next day when you can do the same thing all over again. You need to worry about this stuff, and get into, “Ain’t it awful!” for a few minutes because it IS! Don’t be in denial. Besides, your brain needs to complete the loop of making sure that you know how bad it is. Otherwise, it will continue to remind you of it, probably in the middle of the night or every time you have a good idea. So, focus on it. BUT…only for about five or ten minutes.
  5. After you have had your “worry time”, draw a circle around that time block and stop thinking about that column. Put a boundary around it. No more thinking about those things!
  6. Go to the second column. In this column write down everything that you DO have control over that can drive results. You can always add more activities as they occur to you. Focus on it every single day. Make prioritizing and doing those activities the primary focus of every day. Work the list.

The reason why this simple exercise is so powerful, says Cloud, is that it speaks directly to our brains’ executive functions and our desire to have control. The brain begins to “attend” to the actual activities that it can control, and it “inhibits” the thoughts, behaviors, and information that interfere with positive actions.

While you cannot control the markets or the reactions of other people, you can focus on things that are within your reach. You may be surprised to discover how energizing and life-giving it is to work with your currently available resources, be it talents, time, relationships, skills, etc. Thriving, growing, and moving forward is possible even when everyone else is saying it’s bad timing. Try the exercise and see for yourself!



American Psychological Association,
Cloud, H. Boundaries For Leaders. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2013.
Cloud, H. Necessary Endings. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2010.
Nolen Jeannette L., Learned Helplessness. Encyclopaedia Britannica,