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Learned Helplessness

Overcoming the Inertia That Inhibits Personal Growth

Small steps toward meaningful change can help overcome inertia.

Key points

  • Inertia can hold someone back from discovering new sources of joy and meaning.
  • Inertia is often motivated by fear of change, failure, rejection, or regret.
  • Fear of emptiness can prevent someone from moving on from an unhappy or unfulfilling situation.
  • Small steps that restore a sense of control help overcome the inertia that is a barrier to personal growth.
Krystine I Batcho
Source: Krystine I Batcho

There are two principles in nature that help us understand how people can become trapped in counterproductive cycles. Inertia can keep someone in situations or activities that seem to be stalled, stagnant, and maladaptive. Someone can stay in a job that no longer makes them happy or satisfied. They can feel that they have outgrown work that doesn’t allow them to realize their full potential.

Similarly, a relationship or circle of friends might have become an obstacle to growing and discovering new avenues for fulfilling dreams and aspirations. Someone might stay in a place they hadn’t intended to be their “dream home,” even though it doesn’t provide all they want and need. Over time, inertia can hold someone back from discovering new sources of joy and meaning and living a fuller, richer life.

In his song, “I Didn’t See the Time Go By,” Charles Aznavour described a life that might seem full: “I’ve known delight, I’ve known disaster.” But he admitted "halfway-truths, the little lies" and not seeing that “lies could hurt and hearts can break.” In retrospect, Aznavour concluded: “Now, there is a price to pay for every day I threw away. It seems I wasted half a lifetime.”

Inertia’s force is sustained in part by fear—fear of change, failure, rejection, and trading something for nothing. In her song “Wasted Potential,” Lindsay Liebro portrays the dilemma of being caught in pursuing an unfulfilled dream: “She could be a doctor, she could be a lawyer. But what is she to do with a beat-up guitar? Oh, and what will she do when the dream doesn’t pan out?” Chasing an ambitious goal imposes the fear of one day realizing it had robbed one’s life of what might have been. As Leibro sang: “Reflect on a life I could’ve led... Built my whole life on being the one out of a million... Hung up on a daydream.”

Escaping the Trap of Inertia
The first step in escaping the trap of inertia is recognizing it for what it is. In her song “Wasted,” Carrie Underwood described the realization of how much is missing and the anticipation of regret that would emerge from not moving on: “Cause I don’t wanna’ spend my life jaded, waiting to wake up one day and find that I’ve let all these years go by wasted... I don’t wanna keep on wishing, missing the still of the morning, the color of the night. I ain’t spending no more time wasted.”

Conquering inertia involves coping with a second dynamic expressed in the idiom “nature abhors a vacuum.” Leaving a situation or ending a behavior or activity that is negatively affecting happiness, self-esteem, or self-fulfillment risks the possibility of emptiness, a behavioral or emotional vacuum. Emptiness is not energizing. A meaningful goal to aspire to and work toward can motivate someone to replace an unsatisfying present with a better one. A goal can be achieved by having it displace what isn’t fulfilling, piece by piece, if necessary. When fighting addiction, lasting recovery is less likely when intervention eliminates the use of a substance without replacing it with a healthy behavior. Once the addictive habit is gone, one can feel an emptiness and anxiety that result in missing the old familiar habit.

A similar dynamic can contribute to a reluctance to leave an unhappy relationship, as the thought of being alone feels worse than having even an imperfect partner. The effectiveness of a person’s efforts to control their weight is affected by the methods they use. Excessive fasting can be sabotaged by the drive to fill the periods of not eating. Without deliberate replacement of eating with healthier options, such as nutritious drinks or exercise, the empty time can be dominated by counterproductive thoughts of food and hunger, along with negative emotions, such as irritability and sadness.

The Fear of Emptiness
Overcoming a fear of emptiness to enjoy personal growth is achieved more effectively by pushing out the unwanted by introducing better options. Kelly Clarkson wrote the song “Piece by Piece” to describe the emotional pain she experienced as a result of her father leaving when she was 6 years old. The song recounts how her husband helped her heal: “piece by piece, he collected me up off the ground, where you abandoned things... he filled the holes that you burned in me.” After her marriage ended in divorce, Clarkson chose to continue performing the song but revised some of the lyrics to reflect the impact of her failed relationship. She expressed her ability to grow from heartbreak to self-empowerment by replacing “he” with “I”: “I collected me up... I filled the holes.”

In an interview, Clarkson explained that the song had reflected the hopefulness she had felt when she had written it. Despite the heartache that ensued, she recognized the reality of that phase of her life and concluded, “What I was feeling there is not lost.”

Moving on to a more fulfilling relationship, career, or lifestyle may take initiative, energy, and commitment. Harnessing the necessary resources is easier with the support of trusted friends, relatives, or professionals. Taking small steps transforms inertia into the adaptive force of movement sustained by its own momentum. Replacing unhealthy habits with helpful behaviors is more likely to succeed when tackled in small increments.

Don’t set unreasonable goals that will likely end in disappointment. Instead, begin succeeding with small, achievable goals. Even the first change initiates the process of reclaiming control and escaping feelings of helplessness. The feeling of control can fuel the drive to rediscover the aspirations and determination you once had.


Aznavour, C. (2014). I didn’t see the time go by. On Aznavour Sings in English [Digital]. Universal Music Group.

Clarkson, K. (2015). Piece by piece. On Piece by Piece [CD]. RCA Records.

Green, M., Verges, T., & Lindsey, H. (2007). Wasted. Recorded by Carrie Underwood. On Some Hearts[CD]. Legacy Recordings.

Liebro, L. (2021). Wasted potential [MP3].

Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123(4), 349-367.

Nuvvula, S. (2016). Learned helplessness. Contemporary Clinical Dentistry, 7, 426-427.

More from Krystine I. Batcho Ph.D.
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