Stop Learning to be Helpless

by Stephen Mills on October 13, 2009


Research has shown that it is fairly easy for most of us to learn to become helpless.  When we fail to achieve results we will often give up trying and what is worse we can generalize our failures to other similar types of situations.  We basically learn to believe we are helpless victims of our circumstances.  You are likely to not even be aware of this effect.

You can learn helplessness by just observing others.  I think we often learn helplessness without even trying to do anything about the situation.  We just accept it as a given out of habit or conditioning.

The other day driving home from the airport I hit an area of traffic gridlock that I knew was coming.  It’s always there in evening rush hour and it didn’t bother me.  I calmly crawled my way through it.  The drive home was about 50 minutes.  While I was sitting in traffic, I pondered how much time people in the sprawling city of Houston spend in traffic and how we have come to accept it as a given.  We have learned to become helpless about traffic and our commute times.

I’ve made this exact same trip numerous times and I have alternatives if I get creative about it.  I could have cut my trip time in half by delaying my drive home one hour.  I could have stayed at the airport and read a book or worked on my computer (things I actually did after I got home).  I could have put on my headphones and meditated in my parked car.  This was a Friday evening and I shop at a supermarket every weekend.  I could have stopped at a supermarket along the freeway and done my weekly grocery shopping.  I could have investigated alternative routes.  I came up with a lot of other possibilities but I won’t bore you with them.

What about the time people spend in morning and evening regular commutes?  It is very often the case that you can cut massive amounts of time off of a commute by traveling earlier or later in the rush hour.  The following is a little brainstorm of mine on alternatives to being stuck in traffic for people in a regular commute.

  • Move closer to work.
  • Take mass transit and read or do something productive during the ride.
  • Carpool and do something productive when you aren’t driving.
  • Adjust your work hours to earlier or later and avoid the worst traffic.
  • If you can’t adjust your work hours you can still travel earlier to the office or stay later and do something at the office or close to the office instead of home.  You can meditate in a quiet conference room or your car, read, work on your computer, work on your writing, work-out at a gym close to the office, eat breakfast, study, think, shop, etc.  There are almost endless possibilities.
  • Listen to inspirational, self-development, or recreational audios during your drive.
  • Speak into a digital voice recorder during your drive.  You may just be taking notes as reminders of things you need to do.  But you can also acquire voice recognition software that will transcribe recordings into text and then with minor editing you are done.  You can record your to-do lists and get them out of your head.  You can journal.  You can record emails that you need to send.  You can compose blog drafts.  The possibilities are numerous once you start thinking down this path.

I spent all these words on drive time just as an example of what you can do if you get creative with something that you have accepted as a helpless given.  You may not have a traffic issue at all, but the same process can be used for any helpless “have-to”.  I’m doing this with all my “have-to’s”.  I’m amazed at all the possibilities that I’m coming up with as alternatives to what I’ve been accepting as givens.

Put your creative mind to work on ways to end your learned helplessness right now.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

NomadicNeil October 13, 2009 at 6:27 am

I go through different phases, some weeks I spend my commuting time reading, others listening to music or meditating.
.-= NomadicNeil´s last blog ..I handed in my notice =-.


Stephen Mills October 14, 2009 at 8:21 pm

Hi Neil. That’s great. Thanks for commenting.


Jonny October 13, 2009 at 6:42 am

The guy in the photo does not look happy. Is that private life gone slightly wring 🙂


Stephen Mills October 14, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Hello Jonny. For some reason I was just drawn to that photo 🙂


Gordie Rogers October 13, 2009 at 6:47 am

Quit your job and work from home. 🙂
.-= Gordie Rogers´s last blog ..How To Develop Persistence. =-.


Stephen Mills October 14, 2009 at 8:23 pm

Hi Gordie. Thanks for stopping by again 🙂


Jay Schryer October 13, 2009 at 7:09 am

My favorite suggestion is the “use mass transit” one. I take the bus to work every day, and I love the time it allows me to listen to music and read. Also, it serves as a great transition period from home to work and from work to home. It helps me get my mind in the right “space” for whatever tasks lie ahead.
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..Memories Best Left Forgotten =-.


Stephen Mills October 14, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Hello Jay, that’s a great solution for the commuting problem for some people in some places. Some cities suck in regards to that kind of transportation options.


Positively Present October 13, 2009 at 7:11 am

Great advice, Stephen!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..finding hope on the bright side of the road =-.


Stephen Mills October 14, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Hello Dani. Thank you!


meatlessmama October 13, 2009 at 8:59 am

The hubby and I have never lived more than 15 min. from a job, we refuse to commute. But there are plenty of other places that we are forced to wait- appointments, shopping lines, etc. so I always bring something with me to do, or like your great suggestion- write down the to-do list, compile blog ideas, etc.
Great tips!
.-= meatlessmama´s last blog ..Crockpot Applesauce =-.


Stephen Mills October 14, 2009 at 8:28 pm

That’s great meatlessmama. Time is such a valuable thing and we need to seriously consider how we spend it.


Miche - Serenity Hacker October 13, 2009 at 11:03 am

Hi Stephen, great post. I think helping ourselves out of rather “helpless” situations definitely takes creativity and a certain set of coping skills. It’s a mindset, really, to look at something you “have-to” do that you find distasteful and to do something different to make it better, more tolerable, even enjoyable. It takes a total shift in perspective but it’s so worth it!
.-= Miche – Serenity Hacker´s last blog ..How to Get From Boredom to Intuition =-.


Stephen Mills October 14, 2009 at 8:34 pm

Hi Miche, you are so right. We need to get out of our mindsets, habits, paradigms, systems, or whatever else you want to call them. When you creatively look at these situations you often find a whole lot more options than you imagined.


Lana | DreamFollowers Blog October 13, 2009 at 12:12 pm

I like driving meditation, so many benefits from it.
.-= Lana | DreamFollowers Blog´s last blog ..Universal Laws of Attraction – The Missing Key.. =-.


Stephen Mills October 14, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Hi Lana, I’m going to have to look that up “driving meditation”. I’ve never heard of it. Thanks for your comments.


Tracy October 13, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Heh, I could have kicked myself when I finally realized that instead of wasting 45 minutes trying to get to the school early to be able to park, I could just time my journey to get their five minutes after the bell rang and pull right up to where my son waits. Sometimes it pays to not try to be first!


Stephen Mills October 15, 2009 at 7:11 am

Hi Tracy, yes it pays to think about alternatives. Thanks for commenting.


Karlil October 13, 2009 at 12:26 pm

I often avoid the heavy traffic by refusing to drive during the peak hour. It works well most of the time. Just spend some time reading in a coffee shop.
.-= Karlil´s last blog ..15 Ways To Get Smarter (and wiser) =-.


Stephen Mills October 15, 2009 at 7:13 am

That’s great Nik. I love it when people refuse to be helpless. Thanks!


Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills October 13, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Stephen, thanks for addressing learned helplessness, it’s an area that needs more awareness. I don’t commute, but I have always used drive time to better my life. That’s why I especially appreciated this point: “Listen to inspirational, self-development, or recreational audios during your drive.” Any time spent improving ourselves is worthwhile time indeed.
.-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..Are You a Personal Transformation Tortoise or Hare? =-.


Stephen Mills October 15, 2009 at 7:17 am

Jonathan, when I observe they way others and myself behave, I wonder how much helplessness we all have accepted. I think it does need more awareness and I think it is a huge problem. Thank you for your thoughts.


Nea | Self Improvement Saga October 13, 2009 at 2:22 pm

You have such a wonderful point with this post. Helplessness and limitation exist only in our minds.
.-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog ..What It Really Takes to Achieve the Impossible =-.


Stephen Mills October 15, 2009 at 7:18 am

Hello Nea! Thank you so much for stopping in to comment. We are only helpless if we let ourselves be helpless.


Thomas October 13, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Well if you are going to face the traffic at least you did it calmly 🙂 I live in Auckland which is a city that straddles two harbours. The traffic is diabolical.


Stephen Mills October 15, 2009 at 7:19 am

Hi Thomas. I used to not face it calmly. That is one thing I’ve learned to change about the traffic circumstance. Getting stressed never makes the other cars move faster 🙂


BunnygotBlog October 13, 2009 at 5:42 pm

I work at home, no problemo. lol
.-= BunnygotBlog´s last blog ..Come To The Carnival =-.


Stephen Mills October 15, 2009 at 7:24 am

Hi Bunny, no problemo indeed 🙂


Greg October 13, 2009 at 10:27 pm

I love this idea! I have a 20-30 minute drive to work and could certainly make better use of the time. The idea of talking through a post while in transit would be a good use of that empty space…
.-= Greg´s last blog ..Confessions Of A Workout Slacker =-.


Stephen Mills October 15, 2009 at 7:26 am

Hey Greg, I’m glad the article gave you an idea for an option. Thanks for stopping in.


Tracy October 13, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Heh, the idea of trying to dictate a post in my car is giving me fits of giggles. It would be like:

One of the things I’ve found…STOP HITTING YOUR BROTHER…when trying to establish…oh my gawd, are you eating that? don’t eat trash!…a harmonious family life…Haven’t you hear of blinkers, dumkopf?!?…is to take time to…I SAID we’ll eat when we get HOME…relax.
.-= Tracy´s last blog ..Mondays are for Rambling =-.


Stephen Mills October 15, 2009 at 7:27 am

Tracy, that was hilarious! I love it. Thank you!


Vin - NaturalBias October 14, 2009 at 7:03 am

Great post, Stephen! I have a half hour to an hour commute to work, and instead of driving, I take the bus and use the time to read. It’s so satisfying to make good use of time that would otherwise be wasted. In fact, because I enjoy reading and learning so much, I look forward to my time on the bus.
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..Could Tanning Beds Be a Safe Source of Vitamin D? =-.


Stephen Mills October 15, 2009 at 7:28 am

Vin, that is fantastic! Thank you for sharing it with us.


Robin Easton October 14, 2009 at 3:19 pm

This is excellent Stephen!! This whole premise of being proactive as opposed to be a victim can be applied to so many areas of our lives.

Gosh, we just have to wake up. We are a whole country of people asleep at the wheel (pun intended), figuratively driving through rush hour traffic thinking we have no choice at all. I could go into a whole rant here as this is such an important topic you raise. However I won’t.

Suffice to say that my husband and I are both writing books while we drive “to and from” (when we are lone — together we laugh and talk). We digitally record our stories/thoughts for the books and then put the recording into a speech recognition program which types it out and then we just edit. Voila!!

This is a powerful post, one we ALL need to REALLY let sink in.
.-= Robin Easton´s last blog ..Five Perspectives on Death =-.


Stephen Mills October 15, 2009 at 7:37 am

Robin, thank you so much! Your comment is excellent and I love it. “We are a whole country of people asleep at the wheel (pun intended), figuratively driving through rush hour traffic thinking we have no choice at all.” Thank you again 🙂


Ricky Buchanan October 15, 2009 at 3:08 am

This is very good advice in a general sense – not just for driving I mean. Especially for people with disabilities as we are often underestimated and people assume we will be helpless. Fighting against this assumed helplessness is often interpreted as “being difficult” or “inappropriate behavior” when the PWD is just behaving in a way that would be accepted in an able-bodied person. So we have to keep fighting and keep fighting for our right to fight. It’s tempting to give in sometimes, but worth the fighting I think!

.-= Ricky Buchanan´s last blog ..Type Faster On Your iPhone/iPod Touch =-.


Stephen Mills October 15, 2009 at 7:38 am

Hello Ricky, thank you for your insightful comments and welcome to the Rat Race Trap 🙂


David | October 15, 2009 at 2:14 pm

Wow, interesting post!
I’ve been thinking about this topic few months ago. I think we have to make profitable those by-products of time because we are talking about an incredible amount of time (20 min here, another 30 min there, and the same every day, every month, every year, etc.) Robin is absolutely right: We have to wake up and change our bad habits to good ones.

Great artcile Stephen!



Lalitha Brahma October 30, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Excellent article. I like the idea of recording out thoughts while driving, but never tried it. I fully agree with the fact that listening to self improvement audios and even soothing music is a great way to release the stress.


therese August 31, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Traffic– I wish. I am at home with a Downes Daughter and a husband who has had hip replacement twice Daughter is becomming forgetful Husband is full of self pity I am going to bed with a bottle of wine. 1m miserable `but still looking for a better life Any sujestions? 68


Rusty September 7, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Hey, Stephen, I’ve often thought similar thoughts while creeping south on Hwy 6 from I-10 to Sugar Land.


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Terry July 15, 2012 at 7:24 am

Car pool is not so great because my wife ran off with some one in her carpool. Bahhhhaaaaa


lance August 3, 2012 at 7:00 pm

i teach at a high poverty school. i have observed that my students suffer from learned helplessness. any suggested readings or thoughts on the subject?


Keith Radcliffe July 27, 2014 at 10:31 am

Lance, people with disabilities are challenged to overcome helplessness; they are challenged to develop effective problem solving skills. Not all the disabled rise up to this challenge, but many do. In your school, visit with the parents and guardians of disabled students and the students themselves. You may find some exciting examples and novel problem solving skills. In this quest, seek out others in the disability community. I think this will help you effectively personalize the skills you desire to impart to your students. Reading about these skills may not be as effective.
Hope this helps!


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