Unlearning Helplessness

I remember back in Kindergarten for a couple of months I had to stay back after class to learn English “properly”. Long after all the other kids had gone home I still still had to learn to write the letters and to stop speaking Vietnamese in class. I just wanted to go home and watch Power Rangers. I had no time or use for learning English and I was more of a maths guy anyway. I pleaded with anyone who would listen — teacher, grandma, mum, dad, and friends. Nothing could be done about it and eventually I had to surrender to the indignation that comes with English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. I hatched a fantastic plan. I would do the English lessons and show her how useless it was in improving my english.

Looking back at my schooling journey I’ve realised that I’ve always shied away from feedback or criticism — especially from teachers. I subconsciously felt that my marks were never good enough because I wasn’t a particularly well-rounded student (I started to excel in Maths and General Ability but neglected English). I felt that the feedback was more an attack on my self-efficacy than my actual results. I lacked the ability to distance my identity from my work. As a result any mistakes that I made led to a bruising of my ego. Since I was already doing it to myself, I didn’t need a teacher to tell me how bad I was at studying. Through the early parts of childhood, though, there was no way around it. I was pushed by parents, grandparents and teachers to excel in every subject. The more everyone found about my vulnerabilities and weaknesses, the more they pushed me to improve and the more my identity of “being a bad student” grew. The cycle continued for a while…

What is learned helplessness?

In short, helplessness is when we feel an inability to control an outcome. This is your classic “Why bother? There’s nothing I can do about it.” Learned helplessness, is therefore, when this feeling is acquired through our environment.

This was a concept that I was recently introduced to but it makes a lot of sense when looking back at some events with that frame in mind. It also makes sense when looking at a few things in the world at large i.e. when people don’t vote because they don’t feel like their vote will do anything to affect the outcome.

How I Am Trying To Unlearn Helplessness

Circle of Influence

In Stephen Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he describes how people generally fall into two categories: proactive and reactive. Proactive people are people who focus on things that they can control. Reactive people focus on external circumstances such as politics and the weather.

In an attempt to become more proactive with my time and energy I’ve set up my daily schedule to meet my priorities that I described in a previous blog post. By investing the areas that I feel:

a) I have control over and

b) are directly linked to my happiness and fulfillment

This is slowly and surely allowing me to unlearn that feeling of helplessness. I’m taking attention away from things that I cannot control and would affect my mindset negatively and funneling it into more constructive behaviors. By increasing my competency in these areas I can increase my confidence and self-belief. I started with small steps until I felt comfortable to grow my circle of influence.


The basic idea of this is where I am slowly becoming more aware of how certain events trigger me. I’m trying to reframe these events and trying to remember (always difficult in the moment) that this is not a personal attack on me — often it’s just a reflection of how someone feels internally or their opinion can’t outweigh how I feel about myself. Moreover, I have to remember that the feeling of helplessness is only temporary. At certain stages, when I feel like I’m in a rut or I’m just stuck, it can be overbearing and often feels like my circumstances will never change. In these moments (like almost all moments in my life) I have to remember to remain patient and trust my ability to figure things out.

If any of this resonates with you please hit the love heart button below to let other people read it as well! Let me know a moment you overcame helplessness in the comment area below.