Changing Learned Helplessness to Learned Optimism

In my work as a counsellor, I often take clients who are struggling with depression and/or anxiety to the research of Martin Seligman.

Learned Helplessness

Seligman and colleagues proposed that subjecting participants to situations in which they have no control, results in three deficits: motivational, cognitive, and emotional. Cognitive deficit – the idea that their circumstances are uncontrollable. Motivational deficit – lack of response to potential methods of escaping a negative situation. Emotional deficit – depression. Based on his research, Seligman made an important connection: the link between learned helplessness and depression (Positive Psychology Program, 2019).

Learned helplessness and catastrophising self-talk

When we catastrophise, we predict the worst possible outcome; and we assume that if this outcome transpires, we won’t be able to cope, and it will be an absolute disaster. Catastrophising can lead to high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, and it can also make physical pain worse (Headspace, 2017).

Learned Optimism

Martin Seligman developed three explanatory styles to combat learned helplessness and turn it into learned optimism.


Change negative permanent statements into realistic (and more positive) specific statements.

Negative key words:
never, always

Positive key words:
sometimes, this

For example:

“I will never get a good job. I always stuff up at interviews.”

“I didn’t get this job. I need to work on my interview skills.”


Change negative pervasive statements into realistic (and more positive) specific statements.

Negative key words:
everything, nothing

Positive key words:
some, this

For example:

“Everything is dreadful!”

“I failed this subject and the cat died. I feel disappointed and very sad.”


Taking personal responsibility for negative events.

Negative key words:

Positive key words:

For example:

“I failed this subject because I am useless and dumb.”

“I failed this subject because it was difficult, and I didn’t study enough.”


Being mindful of what you are thinking and feeling, is a vital step in changing your catastrophising helpless thoughts to specific, realistic, empowering thoughts.

Best Possible Selves

Researchers at Obero University found that students who thought, wrote and reflected about their best possible selves were more optimistic about their future than students who did the same about a typical day in their lives. The authors speculate that this is because picturing the best possible self is linked to goals (Learned Optimism – Cup Half Full, 2019).