Learned helplessness, learned hopelessness

Catherine Andrews
7 min readOct 18, 2020

You’re more powerful than you think.

Photo by Noorulabdeen Ahmad on Unsplash

This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about clarity, intention, and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. Subscribe here. I am also a coach who works with sensitive people so they can stop second-guessing, make decisions confidently and live the life they’ve always dreamed of. You can learn more about working with me here.

Happy Sunday, friends. Today I want to talk about my past default operating mode, and how I moved on from it.

I use this word a lot in my work with coaching clients:

Despair mode.

I see folks slip into this place so easily. A mode of freak out. Of self pity. Of negativity. Of spiraling out about worst-case scenarios. Of what’s-the-point-ism. Of fear.

For most of my 40 years, this was my default, too. I was addicted to worst-case scenarios, of my own inability to change anything in my life, to my victim narrative.

What despair mode encouraged me to live in was two states: learned helplessness, and learned hopelessness.

The first, learned helplessness — well, if you read my Princess in a Tower Syndrome post from a few weeks back, you have an idea what that looks like. I stayed stuck, using the excuse of not knowing how to do something perfectly to never do it.

In psychological terms, learned helplessness is the concept used to describe a state of not trying that from what I understand arose from an experiment done on animals. In this (uh, awful-sounding) experiment, the animals are given negative stimuli like a shock when they try to escape. After a time, they stop trying to escape completely, assuming that it is hopeless and they are unable to change the situation.

Then — and this is the real kicker — even when an escape is presented, they are unable or unwilling to take advantage of it.


Learned hopelessness, to me, is different. If learned helplessness is “I don’t know how and I’m scared to try so I won’t,” learned hopelessness is less “I don’t know how,” but more the attitude of, “Why bother? Nothing matters…

Catherine Andrews

Teaching awakening + healing through vulnerability + self-compassion. Finding hope in a messy world. Author of the Sunday Soother. http://catherinedandrews.com


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