How to Overcome Feelings of Helplessness

overcome feelings of helplessness

As much as we may hate to admit it, we all feel helpless sometimes. Unable to do anything to help ourselves. Powerless in the face of negative events.

Failure appears inevitable. Our efforts seem pointless. We’re like Sisyphus rolling the giant boulder up the hill, over and over again.

There are of course degrees of helplessness, ranging from the occasional feeling of overwhelm or uncertainty about what to do to something more deep and lasting.

Though it may seem foreign and rare, a feeling of helplessness can show up in many instances of our life and work. Maybe our board or manager sets our performance targets consistently too high, thus setting us up for failure. Or our boss keeps rejecting our ideas. Maybe we’re fighting hard for something at work but keep getting shot down. Or we don’t like our job but feel stuck and unable to make a change.

Maybe we’re doing poorly on our exams even after studying hard, wondering if there’s any point to trying. Or we’re stuck on a team with someone who consistently drops the ball and refuses to change. Or we’re feeling discouraged about losing weight given prior attempts that didn’t work out or last.

Maybe we’re parents making no headway in limiting our teenager’s screen time. Or we have a sick child and no clear treatment plan.

Maybe we look at the news of the day—from weather disasters and climate change to war, poverty, and disease—and feel helpless in the face of it all. Or we live in an economically depressed area with chronic poverty and crime, leading generations of people into chasms of resignation and despair.

Perhaps we’re the friend of someone addicted to drugs who’s spiraling down and won’t accept help, or the spouse of someone with dementia that’s steadily worsening. Maybe someone we know has been paralyzed by a stroke. Or we’re the spouse of a controlling or violent partner, not sure what can be done.

Clearly, feelings of happiness can hit us in life even if we’re not generally prone to them. As painful as helplessness may be, it’s part of the human condition. We even begin our lives as helpless newborns.

Sometimes, feeling helpless can be a form of catastrophizing, in which we take a challenge in front of us and mentally morph it into something we’re incapable of overcoming.

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Different Types of Helplessness

Here, we should distinguish between actually being helpless (as in the case of a newborn, or a turtle flipped over onto its shell) and feeling helpless. We can feel helpless without actually being helpless.

Such feelings of helplessness often begin in childhood, depending on how we were treated and raised (including potential neglect or abuse), and can also come from periods of stress or trauma.

Which brings us to what researchers call “learned helplessness.” It’s when we’ve experienced a stressful event repeatedly, leading us to believe that we’re incapable of doing anything about it even though that may not be true. It’s a well-researched phenomenon that’s been studied in both animals and humans since the 1960s.

“Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows
from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.”
-Dr. Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
An example of learned helplessness
An example of learned helplessness

In this state, we fail to respond to adversity, even though it turns out that we could actually help ourselves if we stuck with it and kept trying. Even when there are possible solutions, our sense of futility prevents us from looking for them.

Note that learned helplessness doesn’t always generalize across all situations and settings, according to researchers. In other words, we can feel helpless about some things and hopeful about others. Some people never give up, regardless of what they face, while others are much more prone to feeling helpless and throwing in the towel.

One of the main drivers of learned helplessness is our explanatory style for events in our lives—and whether it’s optimistic or pessimistic. When faced with adversity, people with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to assume automatically that the cause of trouble is permanent, pervasive, and personal (what’s been called the “3 Ps of cognitive distortions”):

  1. permanent: when we view something negative as perpetual and unchangeable, not something temporary.
  2. pervasive: when we view the adversity as omnipresent and inescapable, not something specific to this particular situation.
  3. personal: when we view bad things as our own fault (e.g., because we feel worthless and unlovable), not the result of outside factors.

According to psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, who began groundbreaking research on learned helplessness back in the 1960s, “While you can’t control your experiences, you can control your explanations.” In his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, he writes, “Optimists recover from their momentary helplessness immediately. Very soon after failing, they pick themselves up, shrug, and start trying again. For them, defeat is a challenge, a mere setback on the road to inevitable victory. They see defeat as temporary and specific, not pervasive.”

By contrast, he notes that “Pessimists wallow in defeat, which they see as permanent and pervasive. They become depressed and stay helpless for very long periods. A setback is a defeat. And a defeat in one battle is the loss of the war. They don’t begin to try again for weeks or months, and if they try, the slightest new setback throws them back into a helpless state.”

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The Downsides of Helplessness

Unfortunately, such feelings of helplessness can impact every aspect of our lives, from our physical and mental health to our relationships and performance at work.

In terms of our mental health, helplessness can:

  • make us feel overwhelmed
  • suck up our mental and emotional energy, leaving us with less strength and will to work on solutions to our problems
  • prevent us from experiencing contentment and happiness
  • increase the risk of anxiety and depression
  • lead to frustration and even violence if we can’t find productive outlets for our fears and frustrations

When it comes to our physical health, helplessness can:

  • harm our sleep
  • lead to more frequent physical illness

In our life and work, helplessness can:

  • reduce our confidence and motivation
  • lead us to avoid challenges
  • make it harder for us to handle stressful situations
  • make us feel like a victim and resort to blaming others
  • reduce our interest in activities we previously enjoyed
  • make us want to withdraw from friends, family, and colleagues
  • cause us to lower our expectations for what we can achieve
  • lead to avoiding decisions
  • lead to procrastination, giving up, and self-pity
  • prevent us from taking full responsibility for our lives—and from taking necessary actions
  • harm our performance, starting a negative cycle in which we feel bad about failure and then do even worse in the future
  • become a default mindset that downgrades most aspects of our lives


The Real-World Dangers of Helplessness

In a famous study conducted by psychologists Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin, two very different interventions were given to the residents of two different floors in a nursing home. On one floor, the staff gave residents plants in their rooms and the opportunity to attend a movie screening every week, but the residents had no choice over these matters. By contrast, the staff gave residents on the other floor a choice of plants, the responsibility for watering them, and the decision of which night to watch the films.

Researchers measured differences between the residents over time. Their findings? More than a year later, the residents who had more control were happier and more active and alert, as rated by nurses and residents, than those who had less control. They also had better health and half as many deaths in the period studied.

After reviewing an array of research on and examples of these matters in different cases, the researchers noted that “feelings of helplessness and hopelessness… may contribute to psychological withdrawal, disease, and death.”*

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What to Do About It

Given these substantial downsides and real-world implications, the stakes are high. So how do we transform our mindset from feeling helpless into feeling powerful, strong, capable, and resourceful? The good news, according to Dr. Seligman and others, is that we can “immunize” people against learned helplessness—and help them move out of that unhappy state.

Here are several strategies, tactics, and mindset shifts from the research literature:

Focus on what we can control, instead of the things we can’t, and work on identifying and accepting the things that are outside our control.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.”
-the “Serenity Prayer”
The Serenity Prayer
The Serenity Prayer

Recall situations in which we’ve overcome challenges. It may be that we’re more resilient than we think—especially when we have a deeper why—a clear purpose and set of core values—to motivate us.

Get “small wins” with simple mini-bursts of productivity on simple things (e.g., cross things off a short to-do list) to get some momentum.

Catalog our strengths—including our knowledge, skills, talents, and abilities—and brainstorm how we might use them to overcome our current predicament.

Change our self-talk by analyzing and questioning our beliefs, disputing the idea that we’re helpless. For example, we can ask whether the belief about helplessness is true, whether there may be an alternative explanation for the source of our pain, and whether our current beliefs are useful to us (or harmful). Along these lines, Dr. Seligman recommends using the “ABCDE model:”

  • Adversity: identify a specific hardship we’re currently facing that makes us feel helpless.
  • Belief: note the beliefs we have when facing that adversity.
  • Consequences: note the usual effects caused by having those beliefs about being helpless.
  • Dispute: challenge those unproductive beliefs by interrogating their accuracy and completeness. (Are they true? Can we be sure? What other explanations might there be?)
  • Energization: enjoy the jolt we feel when we successfully dispute harmful beliefs that previously made us feel helpless.

Recall that our thoughts aren’t always accurate (far from it) and sometimes mislead us, getting us into trouble. When thinking, we tend to subconsciously use heuristics (mental shortcuts, for the sake of efficiency, given the amount of energy our brain consumes) and rationalizations. Our thinking is also subject to cognitive biases, which are systematic errors in our thinking that occur when we’re processing and interpreting information. We can also have a faulty memory, skewed perception, or a problem with our attention.

Reframe our thinking from helplessness to curiosity about what it might take to be able to address the issues at hand, in the process becoming a detective and/or a learner.

Set realistic goals and identify steps we can take to start making progress on them, with a commitment to track progress and make needed adjustments along the way.

Engage in regular self-care practices, such as:

  • Exercise, since it helps regulate the chemicals in our brain in ways that boost our mood and motivation as well as our strength and stamina.
  • Good sleep, eating, and hydration habits.
  • Grounding and relaxation practices (e.g., yoga, meditation, or deep breathing).
  • Avoidance of harmful ways of coping, such as numbing and substance abuse.

Recognize the patterns of when we feel helpless and recall the kinds of things that help us break these downward spirals.

Make a list of people we can count on and reach out to them, leaning on trusted relationships—and community—to provide support, encouragement, and perspective.

Reach out to a therapist, counselor, or support hotline when needed. Options include:

Though we all feel helpless sometimes, we should distinguish between being helpless and feeling helpless, recognizing that sometimes we’ve placed ourselves in a mental prison and just sat there, when all the while the bars weren’t locked.


Reflection Questions

  1. Are you facing any challenges that make you feel helpless?
  2. In what areas?
  3. Which of the approaches listed above will you try in an effort to break the cycle?


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Postscript: Inspirations on Overcoming Helplessness

  • “…an individual’s sense of personal control determines his fate.” -Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
  • “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” -Maya Angelou
  • “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” -Albert Einstein
  • “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” -Babe Ruth
  • “Often, we feel helpless in lots of situations in our lives. The way anger gets a grip on us is it seems to be a way to extricate ourselves from helplessness.” -Martha Nussbaum
  • “Helplessness is answered many ways, but one of them is violence.” -Sam Shepard
  • “Self-pity is our worst enemy, and if we yield to it we never do anything wise in the world.” -Helen Keller
  • “Our online news feeds aggregate all of the world’s pain and cruelty, dragging our brains into a kind of learned helplessness. Technology that provides us with near-complete knowledge without a commensurate level of agency isn’t humane.” -Tristan Harris


Related Terms and Mindsets from the Research Literature

  • agency”: our capacity to influence our functioning and the course of our life’s events by our actions—and the feelings of autonomy, control, and freedom that come with it.
  • learned optimism”: the process by which we learn to recognize and challenge pessimistic thoughts in order to develop more positive behaviors.
  • locus of control”: whether we view control as something we have inside of us (an internal locus of control) or something that exists beyond us, as in others, luck or fate (an external locus of control).
  • self-efficacy”: our belief in our ability to complete tasks, achieve goals, overcome challenges, and succeed.

* Source: Langer, E. J., & Rodin, J. (1976). The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(2), 191–198.

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Taking Full Responsibility for Your Life


It’s a word we hear a lot. We take on more responsibilities as we go through life. Responsibility for the rent. Car payments. Mortgage. Deadlines. Getting the job done. These things can be daunting.

But there’s another aspect of responsibility that cuts the other way, that empowers us: taking responsibility for our lives.

And not just responsibility. Full responsibility.


What Does It Mean to Take Full Responsibility for Our Lives?

What does this mean? Carry out the logic and it leads to a sweeping conclusion:

Taking full responsibility for our lives means taking full responsibility for everything in our lives.

Carry out the logic still further and it leads to a stunning insight, one that’s capable of transforming our lives:

Taking full responsibility for our lives means taking full responsibility for everything in our lives, regardless of what has happened or why.

That means taking full responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, words, actions, circumstances, and impacts. It means taking full responsibility for our health, relationships, education, career, finances, choices, behaviors, and free time.

Our ability to accept responsibility for things depends on our sense of agency: our perceived ability to influence events and direct them toward the achievement of our goals.

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Locus of Control

That brings us to what psychologists call “locus of control”: the extent to which we feel that we have control over the events of our lives. Are we the captains of our fate, steering the ship toward our horizon of choice, or are we drifters on a raft, being carrier by the current and winds randomly out to sea?

Drive and direction matrix from the book, LIFE Entrepreneurs, by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek


Researchers distinguish between an internal locus of control (when we believe that control over what happens resides within us) and an external locus of control (when we attribute success to luck, fate, or other outside influences). Note that locus of control occurs on a continuum; it’s not a one-or-the-other situation.

According to researchers, people with an internal locus of control tend to:

  • be healthier
  • report being happier
  • exhibit more independence
  • achieve greater success in the workplace

So far, we’ve seen that it means to take full responsibility for our lives. It sounds simple enough. But it’s quite difficult to do it consistently—and it’s exceedingly rare.


How to Know If You’re Not Taking Full Responsibility?

Most people bounce back and forth between taking responsibility for their lives and shirking that responsibility. How to know if we’re not taking responsibility?

When we’re avoiding responsibility, we’re tending toward the following:

  • blaming others
  • complaining about things
  • feeling hopeless
  • experiencing “learned helplessness” (when we stop trying to change things because we’ve become conditioned to believe that a bad situation is inescapable)
  • feeling powerless
  • drifting through life without traction on our deeper aims
  • settling for a less than ideal situation


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The Incredible Benefits of Taking Full Responsibility

Taking full responsibility for all aspects of our lives, regardless of what has happened or why, is one of the most important things we can do to improve the quality of our lives, relationships, and work outcomes. It comes with many benefits. Taking full responsibility can:

  • boost our confidence
  • provide us with a more resilient sense of calm which isn’t dependent on others
  • increase our decisiveness
  • improve our health
  • reduce our stress levels
  • lead to taking more action in life
  • help us achieve our goals
  • free us up to see the good in people and situations
  • help summon our courage
  • lead to better relationships
  • help us improve our follow-through
  • invoke our power to choose
  • dramatically improve our leadership
  • help us craft our life intentionally


What We Must Give Up When We Take Full Responsibility

Clearly, the benefits are extensive. But they come at a price. Taking full responsibility means giving up on several bad habits and guilty pleasures. For example:

It means giving up on complaining.

“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.” -Maya Angelou

It means giving up on making excuses.

“He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” -Benjamin Franklin

It means giving up on blaming others.

“An important decision I made was to resist playing the Blame Game. The day I realized that I am in charge of how I will approach problems in my life, that things will turn out better or worse because of me and nobody else, that was the day I knew I would be a happier and healthier person. And that was the day I knew I could truly build a life that matters.” -Steve Goodier

It means giving up on being a victim.

“Abandon the idea that you will forever be the victim of the things that have happened to you. Choose to be a victor.” -Seth Adam Smith

What to do instead? Instead of complaining, making excuses, blaming, or playing the victim, change your mindset toward one of agency and accountability. Instead of deflecting toward others (or toward bad luck), turn your gaze within and ask:

What is my role in this?

How have I contributed to this?

What will I do about it now?

Get curious about what happened and why, and what you might do differently in the future to make it better or avoid the same mistake.


What Taking Full Responsibility Doesn’t Mean

Taking full responsibility means holding ourselves totally accountable, but it doesn’t mean being a “Lone Ranger,” disconnected from others.

Even as we take full responsibility for our life, we can—and should—reach out to others for help. We can ask for their input, or for them to help hold us accountable.

For most people, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness. We’re wise to take full responsibility for our relationships too, instead of expecting others to know what we want or waiting for others to change.

Being accountable doesn’t mean being alone. It means being the captain of our lives, being a “life entrepreneur.”

And it ultimately means changing the trajectory of our lives toward more fulfillment and better outcomes.

“The luckiest people are those who learn early… that it’s essential to take charge of your own life. That doesn’t mean you don’t accept help, friendship, love, and leadership—if it’s good leadership—from others. But it does mean recognizing that ultimately you’re the one who’s responsible for you.” -John W. Gardner


Reflection Questions on Taking Responsibility for Your Life

  1. In what areas are you:
    • complaining?
    • making excuses?
    • blaming others?
    • being a victim?
  1. What will you do, starting today, to take back the initiative and take full responsibility for the situation?
  2. Are you taking full responsibility for everything in your life, regardless of what has happened or why?


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Postscript: Quotations on Taking Responsibility for Your Life

  • “Self-leadership means taking responsibility for our own lives.” -Andrew Bryant & Ana Kazan, from Self Leadership
  • “Character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” -Joan Didion
  • “The degree to which you accept responsibility for everything in your life is precisely the degree of personal power you have to change or create anything in your life.” -Hal Elrod
  • “Personal responsibility is the foundational key that opens the door to freedom…. the moment you choose to accept personal responsibility for all your inner experiences independent of what appears to have caused them, the escape hatch automatically swings open, providing you with the opportunity for passing into the land of freedom. You become authentically empowered, and you discover there really is a calm at the center for the fiercest hurricane where you can reside. In fact, eventually you realize that you are that calm.” -H. Ronald Hulnick and Mary R. Hulnick, from Loyalty to Your Soul
  • “Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anyone else expects of you. Never excuse yourself.” -Henry Ward Beecher
  • “Don’t believe the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” -Robert J. Burdette, 1883
  • “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” -John Burroughs
  • “Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • “Never tell your problems to anyone… 20 percent don’t care and the other 80 percent are glad you have them.” -Lou Holtz
  • “Don’t complain; just work harder.” -Randy Pausch
  • “See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” -Eckhart Tolle, from The Power of Now
  • “I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong. That is what a leader does—even if it means getting fired. If anyone was to be blamed and fired for what happened, let it be me.” -Jocko Willink, from Extreme Ownership
  • “You are responsible for the energy that you create for yourself, and you’re responsible for the energy that you bring to others.”  -Oprah Winfrey

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!