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Overcoming Learned Helplessness During Recovery

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

November 16, 2023

Table of Contents

Overcoming helplessness during recovery requires one to look holistically not only at oneself but to those around him or her who might be playing a role in these feelings. Look for the source of your learned helplessness. Your learned helplessness may have taken root due to the circumstances of your development. Think back on events in your early life that may have contributed to the way you think today.

Overall, helplessness can be a sign of some mental health disorder such as depression that can be causing a major impediment on you or your loved one’s ability to get sober. That said, there are dual diagnosis treatment centers in place that can help you conquer both problems simultaneously.

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Dealing with Learned Helplessness

Spotting negative beliefs that keep you stuck can help you overcome helplessness, it is vital to conquer these problems if you are wanting to conquer drug or alcohol addiction. Usually done in cognitive-behavioral therapy, this brings awareness to how learned helplessness affects your daily life. You can do this by recognizing the beliefs that influence your behavior. You should also observe your use of self-defeating, helpless language. By identifying this pessimistic language, you can work to change it.

Try the following techniques to think back:

  • Reflect on your early experiences to identify the starting point of your beliefs. You may even ask friends or loved ones about your behavior to see if they can spot a common denominator that influenced who you are today
  • Grab a notebook and write out some of your general beliefs about life. These might sound like “if you’re not born wealthy, you’ll never have wealth” or “good people always finish last.”
  • Take note of your self-talk by writing down thoughts you have along the lines of “I’m a loser,” “I’ll never get that promotion,” or “if I was beautiful, maybe guys would notice me.”

To overcome helplessness, beware of self-fulfilling prophecies. Your thoughts and beliefs have the ability to shape who you are as a person. How you think can influence what goals you set, what career you pursue, and even the kind of people you date. Even though you might want more for your life, your thoughts may have handicapped you into settling. For instance, from the earlier example, you believed “If you’re not born wealthy, you’ll never have wealth.” If you allow this belief to take root, it may unfold just that way in your own life. You might mess up opportunities to make more money or stay in a constant cycle of debt.

Reframe negative events to focus on effort, not fixed traits. If you suffer from learned helplessness, you may not give yourself credit for your successes. Yet, you probably blame yourself for all your failures. Learn to reframe negative events by changing your attributions to effort-based contributions instead of fixed personality traits.

Instead of saying “I’m stupid because I screwed up the report” say “I could have tried harder. Next time, I will.” This allows you to base your successes on effort—which can always be enhanced—versus stable traits like stupidity.

What Irrational Thinking Leads to Helplessness?

To begin overcoming helplessness during recovery, we need to identify irrational thinking. Have you ever thought the following?

  • If I am no longer in need of others’ help or support, then how will anybody ever find me appealing enough to be loved and cared for?
  • There is no way I will ever be able to get myself out of this mess.
  • How would I know since nobody ever told me?
  • I don’t have the ability to be supportive of your feelings since I don’t know how I feel nor can I identify my feelings.
  • If people hadn’t abandoned me, then I would have been able to solve these problems.
  • People are basically selfish and they don’t care about me.
  • People will only show interest in me when I am sick, in grief, hurting, or perceived as a failure or loser. Since no one really cares about me when I’m healthy, then I must only be worth something when I’m sick or in trouble.
  • No matter what I do, I’ll be abandoned anyway so why should I change?
  • If they really loved and cared about me, they would do it for me.
  • I’m a weak, frail, human person and people can’t expect me to get strong overnight.
  • I’ve only been going through the recovery process for such a short time. How can you expect me to start doing for myself already?
  • Don’t pressure me to change. I become immobilized under pressure.

Discussing irrational thoughts during addiction therapy services can put them into perspective. Clearing away these obstacles strengthens recovery.

How to Overcome Learned Helplessness

In order to reduce your sense of helplessness and become more self-sufficient, competent, and self-confident, you need to do the following self-help activities.

  • Identify those problems, obstacles, fears, or issues over which you feel helpless and identify what beliefs keep you locked into being helpless for each one.
  • Develop a new belief system that encourages you to recognize that being independent, competent, self-confident, and capable of helping, fixing, and changing yourself is healthy, desirable, and necessary.
  • Learn “normal” coping behaviors from others who are in a healthier place than yourself.
  • Practice healthy coping, problem-solving, fear-desensitizing, and conflict-resolving behaviors. The recovery process includes this as a primary form of self-care. It is a skill you must master.
  • Build on your successes at being an independent, free-standing self-helper and self-healer.

Identify Those Who Contribute to Your Feelings of Helplessness

You first need to identify in your journal the following:

  • With whom do you usually function as a “helpless” person?
  • What are the issues involved with you and these people over which you are helpless?
  • How would you define each of these people? Who are the fixers? The rescuers? The advice-givers? The enablers? The caretakers? The gurus? The professional helpers upon whom you have become emotionally dependent?
  • What irrational, unhealthy beliefs keep you in your role of helplessness with each of these people and in each of the “helpless to overcome” issues in your life?
  • Identify why it is so difficult for you to accept personal responsibility for helping yourself to overcome each of the problems, fears, issues, and conflicts over which you currently feel helpless.
  • Identify the benefits of taking personal responsibility for helping yourself on your own and under your own power and control.

Looking at the big picture, one that includes an honest review of how people look at you and how you perceive their opinions of you as you try to judge yourself, is the best way to compartmentalize any feelings of inadequacy. Remember that during the recovery process, you’re building a new, better you. What will emerge on the other side will be a person far more capable of recognizing that you have the power to manage your feelings and you’ll rely far less on the opinions of others.

Final Thoughts on Overcoming Helplessness During Recovery

Overcoming helplessness during recovery means facing some painful self-doubts and experiences. To benefit the most from addiction recovery, contact Renaissance Recovery about the following programs:

Call [Direct] to discuss therapy options to overcome helplessness during addiction treatment programs in California.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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