PST #47: Learned Helplessness

Did you grow up feeling like nothing you did was ever good enough for your mother? That there was always that one piece that could have been better?

No matter what you’ve accomplished, it can seem like she is always focused on what’s next or how to make that accomplishment even better.

She would say it’s evidence of her faith in you. But it made us feel like nothing we accomplish will ever truly earn her admiration.

This is where the concept of learned helplessness comes in. Learned helplessness happens when we learn that we are helpless to change a situation, like making our mother’s proud.

In this episode, we’ll look at our childhood and how cultural expectations might be triggering old feelings of never measuring up. Then, we’ll discuss how to move forward from this to ensure that you aren’t accidentally teaching helplessness to your own children.

If you’d like help healing old wounds with your own mom or preventing them with your kids, we should talk.

Let’s hop on a free, 30 minute, no pressure call. We’ll talk about what’s happening, what you wish was happening, and how to bridge the gap. Click here to schedule.

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • How society’s expectations of mothers retriggers childhood feelings of not being good enough.
  • Why celebrating “the selfless mother” perpetuates the cycle of learned helplessness. [4:58]
  • Three behavior patterns that emerge in children who are raised by perfectionist mothers. [5:30]
  • Results of the “learned helplessness” experiments that give us hope we can change old patterns. [6:40]
  • How to break the pattern so that you don’t carry it over into parenting your own kids. [9:50]

Get a full episode transcript:

Read Full Transcript

I did interviews a while ago with mothers who had difficult relationships with their own mothers. The common thread that emerged in these interviews was the feeling that nothing they did was ever good enough for their moms. They talked about very, very specific memories from their childhood where they felt criticized. And they talked about feeling like nothing they did would be good enough to make their mom happy.

And what stood out for me was that there were 2 parts to that sentiment.

Nothing I do is good enough


To make my mom happy.

The mom’s I talked to had this idea as children that it was their job to make their mom’s happy by being a certain kind of way.

And that level of goodness was always elusively out of reach. I have a memory like this myself. I’ve always been a little bit nutty about my hair. I have 3 older brothers and my mom had no interest in taking care of a little girl’s hair and so consequently I always had short hair as a child. There is an oft repeated childhood story about how I used to wear a towel on my head and pretend it was long hair.

Everyone in my family thinks its hilarious that I was so ridiculous to love long hair. I hear it as a story about a little girl who was shamed for liking what she likes.

Even as an adult with my own small kids I remember being at a library story hour and my mom leaning over to point at a little girl with long hair and my mom saying “she’s never gonna turn out with hair like that.”

I learned early that society was gonna judge me and that liking what I liked wasn’t okay. And worse it could jeopardize my future. And if you think about what that means for kids - for kids like me. It made me very eager to please my parents.

Which makes sense because as children we are completely dependent on our parents. Not just to provide us with food and shelter but for love. Love is essential for thriving as a child.

We are all familiar with those Russian orphanage studies where babies left alone in their cribs all day failed to thrive.

Now lets flip to the parents side. Parents have needs too. My mom didn’t stop having needs just because I was born.

And our society puts tremendous amounts of pressure on moms to put their kids' needs first. And now also their work needs first which is technically impossible because you can’t put 2 sets of needs first. Which is making moms feel like a failure most of the time. But even if you figure out that balance you needs fall pretty far down the list whether you are working or staying home. We celebrate the self less mother and if she’s stressed we tell her that’s okay you can just numb out with a glass of wine at book club.

If you can’t be happy until everyone else is happy...

That is a recipe for dysfunction. It’s a recipe for needing other people to be happy and productive and successful so that we can finally relax and what we want.


You get young kids trying to make their moms happy that are growing up in households where moms are trying to raise perfect children so that they can feel like they did their mom job right and can tend to their own needs.

The kids either grow up stressed out trying to meet some level of perfection that will finally let them feel like they are good enough, rebel because they don’t want to be responsible for their parents happiness, or give up and just coast along on the bare minimum, knowing you’ll tell them what to do.

All of these scenarios are a form of emotional learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is the idea that we learn that we are helpless to change a bad situation.

The term was originally coined as part of an experience where they gave dogs a shock and some of the dogs could jump out of them and escape the shock and other dogs couldn’t. Both sets of dogs learned something. In subsequent experiments the first group grew more confident that their actions could make their situation better and the second group would just lay down and not even try. They had learned that they were helpless to escape the shocks.

And this happens to us too. There were times that I felt helpless to make the situation with my son better. It felt like every single thing I did was wrong. and my guess here is that he felt much the same.

And I want to be clear here. We are learning helplessness not just from parents that we can’t please but from a whole culture, a whole economy that is set up to profit off families. My son went to school that had a very narrow definition of success. One that didn’t match his at all.

Both of us got caught in this cycle of feeling like what we did or even really who they were was ever good enough.


So how did I shift that? by disentangling my needs from my son’s actions so that BOTH sides were free to like what we liked. and be who we are within a strong loving family relationship?

I began by taking back responsibility for my own happiness. I stopped letting it put me in a bad mood if he didn’t get up for school on time or turned in his math homework. I either found a solution that worked for both of us or I just let it be his problem.

I stopped feeling helpless as a mom because I stopped making it my job to ‘help” him with all of his problems. And I’m hoping you can hear the air quotes there because by help him, I used to mean fix or solve his problems.

Some kids learn helplessness because their moms are always there to fix everything. Or to dictate their kids should solve the problem. The kids don’t learn to help themselves. I’m not mom blaming here because we have been socialized to believe that if our kid has a problem it’s our job to fix it but it isn’t.

And part of disentangled myself from solving his problems was consciously practicing focusing on the parts of him that ALREADY made me feel loving and proud.
and the more I did that the more evidence I found that things were already okay. And that the struggles he was going through were his to solve.

Once I saw them as his problems to solve it was easier for him to see them as HIS problems to solve. And because I’d practiced feeling confident in his abilities, it was easier (not easy but easier) for me to believe that he could handle the challenge. And that helped build his confidence. It’s like I was saying “you’ve got this and I’m here.” rather than telling him exactly what to do because I both believed it was his responsibility and that he could handle it.

And it was a little messy but that’s what the teen years are for. They are for that natural gradual transfer of responsibilities from our plate to theirs.

Think about for a minute how much easier it will be to be happy
when you are not tied to the emotional states
of a group of humans who are themselves are on an emotional rollercoaster.

We don’t wait until our kid brings up their math grade or gets his wet towel off the bedroom floor to be happy. We get to be happy now.

We don’t require them to like our parenting to be happy. We don’t ask them to like unloading the dishwasher, we let them unload the dishwasher in whatever pouty fashion they want to. We don’t take offense when they roll their eyes at our requests or our music because our emotional state is not dependent on theirs.

Think of how much better that’s gonna be for THEM. You are such a better mother when your needs are met. You have so much more capacity to create a safe, loving, home environment when you feel safe and loved and enough.

And as an adult, WE have the capacity to choose loving thoughts no matter what is happening around us. WE have the power to direct our attention to loving thoughts, even as we are asking our kids to put their dishes in the sink or come to dinner at the table.

We can have loving thoughts even as they sigh and roll their eyes. I don’t need them to love my parenting. It’s not their job to make me feel good as a Mom. It’s my job.

it’s worth cultivating our own joy so that we don’t make our kids responsible for it.

Being responsible for your own emotions is the antidote to learned helplessness. It’s the antidote to “Nothing I ever did was good enough for my mom.”

Thinking back to my mom - her emotional state was tied to the length of a little girl’s hair! And I was feeling like everything I did mattered. Sometime as simple as wanting long hair was enough to earn me years of mockery. And we weren’t alone. I just finished the first episode of Little Fires Everywhere and there is a big scene of rebellion between the mom and daughter over her hair.

But if you are responsible for your own feelings You can recognize your own “good enoughness” without needing your mom to approve. And I’ve said things like that to my mom in the most loving way. I’ve said “don’t worry mom. I like this enough for the both of us.”

It’s the antidote to your kids saying that about you. In that way you are teaching your kids that they can make choices about their life. You are teaching them to believe in themselves by believing in yourself. Believing you can make choices about your life and make your life better is the antidote to learned helplessness.

And if you need help figuring out how to do that. How to put it into practice. You and I need to talk. We need to hop on the phone and figure out what’s going on and make a plan for you to start feeling more powerful and in control as a mom. You are the leader of your family and you are not helpless to feel better, no matter what chaos & uncertainty feels like is happening.

You can get started by grabbing a free, 45 minute session where we’ll talk about what’s going on for you and I will show you what is standing between you and feeling better right now. You can set up that session by texting TALK TO ALLIE to the number 44222. That’s TALKTO ALLIE all as one word to 44222 and then it prompts you for your email and sends you a scheduling link through email. And the important part is that You’ll leave the call with a simple, quick, strategy you can put into practice right away that will make you feel less helpless and more in control.

Especially in this uncertain time, feeling like you have control, that you aren’t helpless to make things better is such a relief.