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Beyond Learned Helplessness – Is There Such a Thing?


Have you noticed how people sometimes point in a given direction when referring to the future? Some people like to point forward. Others may point off to one side, usually to the right. And the past is commonly located behind or off to the left. Do some people watching and see for yourself:)

We all need a way to organize time in our minds. We need a way to locate the past and future and distinguish them from each other. Otherwise, time might cease to exist (actually I don’t know about that but it couldn’t be good)!

Our sense of time develops over time. Newborns probably don’t have much of the concept. Toddlers are starting to get it but don’t expect them to wait longer than right about now. By the time we’re adults, we (hopefully) can see far into the future and anticipate the consequences of our behavior.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of our sense of time. And it’s safe to assume that each of us longs for a bright, happy, safe, and prosperous future.

Some of us may not have the best relationship with the future.

Imagine being raised with chronic disappointment. Maybe your parents had a habit of promising the world, then making excuses. Maybe when you wanted something, you were rejected over and over and over. With enough of this kind of thing happening, how might the potential for that bright and happy future begin to change in your mind?

We can easily imagine – and some of us can remember the hope begin to fade. Learned helplessness sets in. The happy future we once longed for is now a strange fantasy that seems forever out of reach.

If you were raised in a high anxiety environment, it’s possible that your nervous system remained on alert so often that you rarely had the luxury of contemplating, learning to anticipate, and make concrete plans for the future. Dealing in the future is a skill that some people are better at than others.

What if you came to believe that a real, happy future wasn’t possible for a different reason?

This is where I find it difficult to explain what I’ve experienced. First of all, I don’t know how accurate I am. Secondly, I have no way of knowing if what I think happened with me could have been avoided under any circumstances. But it’s interesting to speculate and maybe it will give you an idea to experiment with or even research further.

What if learned futility were a thing?

I’m not saying it isn’t already a thing. If you Google it, however, there isn’t much on the first page (so much for my research). There is such a thing as the philosophy of futility but nothing like what I’m suggesting (that I know of – let me know if I’m wrong about this).

Learned futility would be similar to learned helplessness, which contains the belief that you are (surprise) helpless. Learned futility would suggest that, helpless or capable, nothing you do is going to matter, so it’s not even worth caring about.

Helplessness would kill your motivation to act because you do not believe in your ability.

Futility kills your motivation because – even if you are highly capable – no one cares. Your efforts, no matter how valiant, won’t have any impact. They will probably go unnoticed or – worse – be scorned. The reactions of other people, in general, inform our sense that something matters. When we learn that others don’t care – that what we do does not matter to them – it affects our judgment about what’s worthwhile.

If a few total strangers don’t care, it might not affect us. But when what we do doesn’t matter to our primary caregivers in childhood, it’s all too easy to conclude that nothing matters at all, including our own lives. Then, this ongoing sense of futility tends to stay with us, like learned helplessness might. 

Learned futility sucks, along with so many other things we pick up in childhood. The thing to do is recognize learned futility and reevaluate. Easier said than done, I know. It helps tremendously if there are people in your adult life who care. 

Soon – if this post hits a nerve for anyone – I’d like to write an article on how to visualize a future timeline. This skill may be helpful to those of us who struggle with an ongoing sense of futility. For anyone interested in the NLP timeline technique, here’s a brief overview

Beyond Learned Helplessness – Is There Such a Thing?

Mike Bundrant

Mike Bundrant is the author of Your Achilles Eel: Discover and Overcome the Hidden Cause of Negative Emotions, Bad Decisions and Self-Sabotage and co-founder at The iNLP Center which offers online certification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and life coaching.

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APA Reference
Bundrant, M. (2019). Beyond Learned Helplessness – Is There Such a Thing?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 Dec 2019
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