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How to Help Your Client Beat ‘Learned Helplessness’

3 techniques to encourage your depressed client to take action (with video demonstration)

Learned Helplessness
You can help your depressed clients out of learned helplessness

“Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.”

– Arnold Schwarzenegger

Whatever your thoughts on the ‘Austrian Oak’, this is a pretty good description of a central experience of clinical depression.

Consider these examples:

  • a man is rich but will not spend any money; memories of his desperately poor childhood haunt him.
  • a woman has a relationship with a kind and caring man but feels angry and distrustful of him; she’s haunted by memories of her abusive ex.
  • a child is never allowed to have friends or make her own decisions; as an adult she shuns relationships and feels unable to steer her own course.

Feeling helpless when you’re not, because you were helpless in the past, is known as ‘learned helplessness’ (a term first coined by psychologist Martin Seligman). It leads to passivity and loss of energy and needs to be addressed when helping lift depression.

Here’s three ways you can start to steer a ‘victim’ of learned helplessness towards confidence, self assertion and vital optimism:

1. Use metaphor

People’s minds work in metaphorical way and are often more responsive to a parallel pattern than a direct appeal. “You are suffering from learned helplessness!” is too stark a message, and risks making a person feel (paradoxically) more passive – because they haven’t had the chance to make the connection themselves.

So I might ask a client to imagine a beautiful bird that, through no fault of its own, has been shut away in a cage for many years. One day the cage door is left wide open. Now the bird can fly free! But even though it still has its wings, even though the circumstances have plainly now changed, the bird makes no move to leave. Why? It believes it is still trapped…

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Depressed clients affected by learned helplessness tend to respond well to ideas couched in such metaphorical terms.

2. Vive la différence! (Difference rules, OK!)

Learned helplessness means assuming that a new situation has the same limitations as an old one that resembles it, when in reality there are lots of positive alternatives. These new possibilities may exist because the situation is different, or because the person has changed, or both.

Consider the case of a man who’d been beaten and ridiculed by his parents as a child whenever he’d expressed an opinion, and who now fears to speak up at work. We might suggest drawing up a list of the differences between the two times:

What happened then:

  • laughed at
  • beaten
  • not listened to
  • didn’t know how to express myself
  • disrespected.

What happens now:

  • colleagues are decent and fair
  • I’ve learned to speak clearly and know what I want to say
  • respected
  • liked
  • not beaten.

This would be a great exercise to do before proceeding with hypnotic work as a way of seeding in your client’s mind the notion that there really are differences between then and now.

3. Encourage active problem solving

Psychotherapy needs to be an active endeavour to help people escape their real or perceived psychological and/or environmental difficulties. One of my depressed clients was a woman who was passively worrying that something she’d said had upset her friend. I encouraged her to actually call her friend during the therapy session, so that at least she’d know the situation (her friend was fine). Depressed people with learned helplessness tend not to act and instead just build worry upon worry.

Depressed people with learned helplessness tend not to act and instead just build worry upon worry #tipsfortherapists

If your depressed client has become very passive, it’s not a good idea to deluge them with too much positivity at once. But when they’ve relaxed with you and gradually started to feel a little more optimistic, you can gently start to steer them to pro-activity with questions like:

  • What steps can you take to avoid this?”
  • “If you were ever to start feeling depressed again, what have you now learnt that would help you stay out of depression in the future?” (implying they have control and can determine their own lives more)
  • What ways can the two of you start to improve your relationship again?”

Learned helplessness drains motivation and energy. When we learn our own potential to positively influence our own lives we can’t help but become more fulfilled.

Learn more about our structured approach to treating depression here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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  • Wendy Haxton

    Thought you might be interested in this as it’s not about a client, but myself. Like the person in your example, my parents systematically undermined and mocked me, so that I turned from a confident small child into someone with no self-belief at all. They focused on my poor memory (they were both very clever) and fear of forgetting things prevents me from even learning them. This has hampered me all my life and, like you in the past, I have spent it in a series of dead-end jobs, much to the puzzlement of friends, who keep saying, ‘But you’re clever…’ A year ago, when I turned 60, and had applied for more than 1000 jobs without even an interview, my daughters paid for me to do a Hypnotherapy Course. I found it difficult as we had insufficient practical training and, having just moved to the other end of the country, I did not know anyone to practice on outside. However, despite these difficulties, I passed the course and felt on the day of certificate presentation, more elated than I had for a long time. We joined the tutors for a meal afterwards and they announced that they had some ‘fun’ medals to hand out to individuals. One girl was reduced to tears, when her approach to learning was mocked, another was laughed at because she could not access course material on her computer (she had no computer skills and had only bought a computer for the course) and they said that I was the person they had thought least likely to pass the course because I was ‘such a negative influence.’ I, at least, managed to get out of the building and into my car before I cried. I had made a huge effort to attend the course as my life since I moved had been constantly filled with difficulties, all of which I had had to deal with alone: my house had been flooded from top to bottom by a burst pipe and I had had to move firstly to an hotel for two months and then to a flat for a further two months and that was after already having moved from London to a temporary flat in Yorkshire while the house I had bought was refurbished; the vet had drowned my beloved young cat on a drip; my car had been written off in an accident while I was stationary at traffic lights, injuring my neck and finger, etc., etc. I now feel that whatever I do is hopeless. I have almost forgotten the course material and cannot bring myself to even look at it, because my belief in myself is gone. I don’t know what to do to motivate myself and feel very stupid because I am in great financial difficulty and using my hypnotherapy qualification would be the obvious way to improve my situation. Sorry that this is probably not the sort of story you were looking for. Just to say anyway, that I love your web page and its positivity and think that your ‘scripts’ are first class. I used one on an alcoholic friend (can do it ok if I do not give it ‘value’ by charging for it) and he says he feels far more in charge of his drinking, which was the change he wanted, rather than giving up altogether. Keep up the good work Mark.

    • Hi, I’m sorry to hear all this and, rest assured, I wasn’t looking for any particular response to this and your comment is just fine : ) Thanks also for the positive comments about our website too. The meal after the course that you described sounds awful and vindictive. But the non helpless part of what you described was the way you helped your friend with his alcohol abuse. Really try to focus on that, when you feel less helpless/hopeless your emerging empowerment helps others (like him for instance) live better lives. You keep up the good work too : )

      • Wendy Haxton

        Thanks for your response Mark. I love to help people and do it at every opportunity: unfortunately it seems to make no difference to the way I feel about myself, but of course that is not the object of the help.

  • W.B.W.R.M.H

    Hello Mark, I have come across your site in the start of my quest for information on Learned Helplessness. I have just learned about this condition which I think affects my 13yr old daughter. She had Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome in 2010. This is a acute pain condition brought on by an injury or surgery. Uncommon in children, difficult to diagnose by regular GPs, and debilitating the longer the condition goes untreated. My research at the time shed very little light on positive outcomes, which she achieved after 6 months. Emotional stressors can also be attributed to the onset of the condition with the injury. Whilst researching I discovered that with some sufferers the level, intensity & consistency of the pain can create new neurological pathways. How she viewed life changed after this condition, going from a very positive, well grounded child with an inherent tranquility, which unconsciously drew people to her, to someone who started to view the world from some slightly depressed state. I have just been reading articles regarding LH after a tip off frolm a doctor I work with. I am now on the hunt for a practitioner to help deal with this. Are you able to give me some criteria/skills that I would need them to have to treat this in the best way possible? I don’t want to waste time with too much hit & miss searching. Does hypnotherapy &/or NLP help with this condition? I am from Brisbane, Australia.

  • Tracy Cullinan

    Hi. It is good to find a site that has some practical solutions:) Problem for my daughter is that she seems to have already tried them all! Including medication for depression. they help for a while but then there are times when, even though she knows strategies, she chooses not to use them. Hence she is still binge eating, still procrastinating, still not thinking through her actions logically. We try and focus on the times she is doing well but it seems like no end in sight sometimes! Her self esteem is still low and it only takes one small thing to derail her positive thoughts. Tried seeing a psych but she got stressed about the time it took away from her studies. Not sure what else to do. Just keep trying to implement strategies you suggest I guess and stay positive?

  • Karen Vinter

    Hi Mark, great article. I work as a health care professional, and I have come across several patients like this. I do find them extremely frustrating to work with at times, particularly the patients who state “I wish someone would just tell me what to do!” and then when you offer several suggestions, they have an excuse for not trying every single one! A lot of patients don’t seem to realise that they are in this pattern. Do you have any tips on how to (gently) help the patient to realise that they are self-sabotaging their own future health by not trying new strategies? These patients seem to unwilling to try new things but then wonder why things don’t improve. Karen

    • simm

      I’ve learned, that getting them to COMMIT to a gym routine, is THE ONLY WAY, for these people. Why! Because most of them have been completely detached from their own physicality for soooooo long and it’s not until they are actually forced into doing proper “elevated heart rate” physical activity, are they ever to “rediscover” their own DRIVE and DESIRE to be willful TOWARDS the good ideas psychologist and psychiatrist suggest.
      The human WILL, that GUT part of us, IS attached to physicalilty. Deny the physicalilty, you’ll NEVER get anything grounded in these people.
      Every single person I have EVER dealt with that has ‘depression’ may still have the ‘isms’ of it once exercising. However, they are by FAR MORE equated with healing themselves, BEING SELF PRO-ACTIVE and CONSTRUCTIONAL, when simple but FULL EFFORT REQUIRED exercises, (NOT PASSIVE)! Are enforced into their routine IF they say to me they want to heal.
      I talk to no one any more, about any marvelous strategies that we all learn in this industry, until or unless, they begin a proper gym or swim program, WITH routine that of course HAS to be SELF APPLIED, before I speak to them. (That is chronic patients). If I can have a disable person make such efforts, WEEKLY, then jump in leaps and bounds from his sense of dress ion and habit of helplessness, then so can ANYONE ELSE WITH TWO CAPABLE LEGS AND ARMS. (My belief. I got fed up with being burnt out and my enthusiasm being smiled upon at the time, but forgotten as soon as they walk out the door). I wish someone had taught me this all that time ago.

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