Helpless in weight loss?

Learned helplessness occurs when someone feels she has little or no control over an outcome (Seligman, 1975). The helpless individual will give up easily when faced with a challenge. According to Cemalcilar, Canbeyli, and Sunar (2003), learned helplessness is

“when experience with uncontrollable events leads to the expectation
that future events will also be uncontrollable,
disruption in motivation, emotion, and learning may occur.”

Have you tried to make changes and failed? How does that affect your motivation, emotions to change, and desire to learn more about change? Do you feel overwhelmed? Helpless?

What is learned helplessness?

Helpless individuals believe the causes of bad events that happen to them are permanent.  They believe bad events will persist and will always affect their lives. Learned helplessness is a maladaptive coping mechanism that far too often leads to depression, low self-esteem, and low self-efficacy. This helplessness coincides with self blame and negative self-talk. We often attribute failures to internal, stable, general, persistent, recurrent, and important causes and this thought pattern restricts future learning and trying (Prapavessis & Carron, 1988).

Learned helplessness is the belief that failure is inevitable. We have an intrinsic need to be competent and to explore behaviors. When we fail, our confidence diminishes and we lose desire to explore. This is when we become helpless. If you failed in a task in the past, which led you to believe that you are incapable of doing anything in order to improve your performance, you will avoid the task in the future (Stipek, 1988).

Helplessness IS NOT depression

Learned helplessness is not synonymous with and should not be mistaken for depression – and as such does not require medications. Fisher (1999) summarized the three common thought errors associated with learned helplessness:

  • Personal: An individual sees herself as the cause and internalizes the cause of events.
  • Permanent: An individual sees the situation as unchangeable.
  • Pervasive: An individual sees situations as affecting all aspects of life.

Depression is a clinically diagnosable mental disorder; learned helplessness is a characteristic of depression. Learned helplessness does affect various psychological processes (Buckworth & Dishman, 2002; Fisher, 1999):

  • Motivation: Reduced or no incentive to try new, adaptive coping mechanisms.
  • Cognition: Inability to learn new responses to overcome prior learning that an event or situation is uncontrollable.
  • Emotion: The helpless state resembles depression.

Societal role

Unfortunately, our society encourages learned helplessness. For example, some parents can induce to the development of learned helplessness. Parents can put a significant amount of pressure on children to do things perfectly, telling their children, “well, if you cannot do it right, then I need to do it myself,” or “You’ll never be as good as ____.” In addition, Western society has bred a population of ‘quitters.’ You see this often, we who fail once – never try again.

Children are also often taught that they are not able to do things based on traditional gender roles. The thought, “I will never be good at football because I’m a girl.” Even though she might have a desire (and the ability) to do it, she already feels like she cannot.

Exercise as an intervention

Learned helplessness can be helped by physical activity in many ways. It is well known that the release and uptake of certain chemicals (e.g., dopamine, serotonin) and an increase in adrenaline can positively influence mood.  Further, the psychological benefits include increased self-efficacy, maintenance of identity, increased self-worth, and reductions in anxiety and worry (Buckworth & Dishman, 2002; Weisenberg, Gerby, & Mikulincer, 1993).

Your overall sense of self (i.e., identity) can certainly change. In fact, I have watched self identities change and improve daily. Most of my clients have hired me with a desire to improve their health or fitness. Many of these individuals have extremely low self-efficacy, “I can’t do pushups. I can’t jump.” However, by using appropriate progressions, I am able to show these individuals that they in fact can do these activities. Empowering!


And most exciting – I watch this feeling of empowerment as it is translated to other areas of life. Once you realize you can do things that you once felt you could not do, you will begin to take more risks and attempt activities you usually felt were impossible (Danish, Petitpas, & Hale, 1992; Weisenberg, Gerby, & Mikulincer, 1993). With increased confidence, it is likely you will take more risks and set more challenging goals in all areas of life. You will give yourself permission to DREAM BIG!

(Re)Building confidence

It is important to introduce strategies that are simple, yet challenging. Take for example introducing physical activity to the overweight woman trying to lose weight. She is unable to do pushups, adamant that she cannot. Many overweight women will not want to get onto the ground for a pushup—for fear of not being able to get back up. She may or may not have been stuck on the floor before. What do you do? You could start with a wall pushup or similar incline pushup and build confidence in your ability and build upper body strength.

Lastly, avoid the myths of weight loss. They will only increase risk of learned helplessness and decrease confidence.


Cemalcilar, Z., Canbeyli, R., & Sunar, D. (2003). Learned helplessness, therapy, and personality traits: An experimental study. Journal of Social Psychology, 143(1), 65-81.

Buckworth, J., & Dishman, R. K. (2002). Exercise psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Danish, S. J., Petitpas, A. J., & Hale, B. D. (1992). A developmental-educational interventional model of sport psychology. The Sport Psychologist 6, 400-415.

Dweck, C. S., Davidson, W., Nelson, S., & Enna, B. (1978). Sex differences in learned helplessness: II. The contingencies of evaluative feedback in the classroom and III. An experimental analysis. Development Psychology, 14, 268-275.

Fisher, A. C. (1999). Counseling for improved rehabilitation adherence. In R.  Ray &  D. M. Wiese-Bjornstal (Eds.), Counseling in Sports Medicine (pp. 275-292). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Prapavessis, H., & Carron, A. V. (1988). Learned helplessness in sport. Sport Psychologist, 2(3), 189-201.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Learned helplessness: Depression, development and death. W. H. Freeman: New York.

Stipek, D. E. P. (1988). Motivation to learning. Allyn & Bacon: Boston.

Weisenberg, M., Gerby, Y., & Mikulincer, M. (1993). Aerobic exercise and chocolate as means for reducing learned helplessness. Cognitive Therapy & Research, 17(6), 579-592.