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Unlearning Learned Helplessness

On Saturday, I did the quintessential single-mom thing – I learned to mow my own lawn. I had put this off for a while. Why? Learned helplessness. Of course, I didn’t call it that in my head. In my head, it was, “I don’t know how to run a lawn mower” and “What if I break something?” and “I’m allergic to grass” and “I’m too tired.” But in reality, it came down to learned helplessness.

My grungy lawn mowing shoes

What is Learned Helplessness?

This article from Psychology Today describes learned helplessness as occurring “when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they have the ability to do so.” Basically, if at some point in our lives, we felt trapped in a damaging situation that we truly had no power to change, we continue to believe we are powerless even when we DO possess the ability to change things in later circumstances.

The classic example listed in this article is that if a child has failed several times in school, they may come to believe that they are incapable of learning. They stop trying, and they thereby fulfill their failure.

I’ve heard it said that animal performance shows can train an elephant not to run away by tethering it to a stake when it is a baby. As an immature elephant, the animal is truly not strong enough to escape from the tether. However, even when the elephant becomes a massive adult that could easily pull up the stake, it believes that it can’t… and so it doesn’t.

Deceiving Myself

Post-divorce, I have been yanked off my feet by so many tethers – all the limits that I believed were strong enough to keep me caught. However, I’m finding now that it’s not actually the tether that’s limiting me – it’s my own beliefs! When I got down to it, I discovered that I could indeed figure out how to find new homeowner’s insurance, communicate with a lawyer, and attach new plates to my own car.

The falsehoods I believe are the jailers I subject myself to.

Spiraling Helplessly

Learned helplessness is excruciating to overcome on your own. In my experience, attempting to push beyond the lies I’ve believed can result in me feeling like I’m drowning inside my own head. More than once, I’ve stood in the middle of the kitchen feeling numb and frozen, thinking, “I’m hungry, but I cannot figure out what to eat.” A spiraling sense of lostness, panic-inducing fear, and paralyzing uncertainty sometimes bully me until I’m literally on the bathroom floor.

So here’s the crucial question:

How do you unlearn learned helplessness?

The Psychology Today article mentioned previously recommends “cultivating resilience, self-worth, self-compassion.” But where do I find these qualities within myself if my inner self feels empty and chaotic? Although I’m sure there are a host of techniques just waiting for me online, I’ve found one skill that does the trick for me pretty much every time. It takes as little as ten minutes, costs nothing, and is actually fun. What is the miracle drug?


I’ve learned to recognize the “point of no return” in my mental tornado. This is the point when I know I won’t be able to get out of the spiral on my own without painfully crashing to the ground first. So, instead of punching the air, struggling in vain against the nothingness, I phone a friend. Yes, just like the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire lifeline. That show was onto something.

I have several ladies on my “list” to call when I’m panicking. I tell them, “I don’t need you to fix this. Can I just tell you what’s going on in my head, and then can you pray for me?” It works better than antidepressants or chocolate cake (though I’m also not opposed to either of those options). After talking with a friend, I realize that I can do this. And even when I can’t do this, I’m not alone.

Sing and Play

There’s a song by Jars of Clay called In the Shelter of Each Other. It says, “In the shelter of each other, we will live.” When you were kids, did any of you play that game where you link arms with someone else to create a seat, and then you give a friend a giggly ride around the playground on your “arm net”? Our arms are each other’s safety net.

Linking arms to carry each other

Back to Mowing…

I experienced this community-based safety net firsthand on Saturday, when I decided to push past my learned helplessness and mow my lawn. Unexpectedly, I ended up learning more than yard work skills.

I pulled the lawnmower out of the garage, but I couldn’t get it to stay running. So I walked to my neighbor’s house, where the couple was out working in their front yard.

“I’m doing the single-mom thing and trying to mow my own lawn,” I told them. “Do you know how to work an electric mower?”

Turns out, she had experienced divorce from a damaging marriage, so she understood. They didn’t know how to run the mower, but they asked if I had an owner’s manual. Sure enough, I did! (Sometimes we just need each other to point out the “duh” solutions.) I was able to get the mower going, and I felt so proud of myself as I gave my grass a jagged shag haircut.

But that wasn’t the end of the story!

As I mowed, I had to keep stepping over the cord because this particular mower had to stay plugged in during use. A man and his dog walked by and then circled back. He looked like he wanted to say something, so I turned off the mower.

“Would you be interested in a mower that doesn’t have to be plugged in?” he asked tentatively. “I just bought a new one, but I have an old one that works just fine.”

Yes please!

The man and his wife came over the next day, gifting me with a full-sized, high-quality mower. He took the time to show me how it worked, and he even handed me an owner’s manual with his personal cell phone number handwritten on the top, saying, “If you have any trouble with it, just give me a call.”

My gifted lawnmower!

What is this love?

I set out to overcome learned helplessness. Alone, I was in danger of falling right back into perceived powerlessness when I initially failed to figure out the new task. Instead, my community set me right back up on my feet. What if unlearning learned helplessness is not about conjuring up my own personal power from within myself? Perhaps it’s more about learning that I’m loved and welcomed no matter what.

Help from others defeats my sense of helplessness.

When I discover that I am surrounded by people who cheer me on even when I’m low, I’m not afraid of failing. Embarrassing episodes are worth it when I get to laugh about it over wine with a group of friends. Maybe the antidote for powerlessness is not power, but rather love.

When I am secure, I cannot be stuck.

When my community is strong, I cannot be weak.

When I have help, I am not helpless.

Find more We Spot blogs on overcoming fear.

Read all of Bethany’s blogs here.

Bethany Jean

Bethany Jean has always had a flair for having a whole lot to say, landing herself the childhood nickname “Anne with an ‘e’” (any L.M. Montgomery fans?). As a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom, most of her time, energy, and devotion is voraciously devoured by her three spunky darlings. Besides writing, she also expresses heart-to heart communication musically through singing, songwriting, and playing piano and guitar. Bethany is an English and Spanish teacher by trade, and she launched her freelance editing business in 2018. Bethany dearly loves swinging under the big old tree in her front yard. In recent years, gut-wrenching books have unexpectedly found a home on her shelf, containing topics such as codependency, marriage to a sex addict, chronic illness, relational trauma, domestic abuse, and divorce. Still, she would not trade these heartrending experiences for the steadfastness that she’s learning to find in her God, in herself, and in her community. Her writing invites you to join the motley yet loyal family of brokenness and belonging.

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