Directing both innate and adaptive immune responses against foreign pathogens with correct timing, location and specificity is a fundamental objective for the immune system. Full activation of CD4+ T cells requires the binding of peptide-MHC complexes coupled with accessory signals provided by the antigen-presenting cell. However, aberrant activation of the T-cell receptor alone in mature T cells can produce a long-lived state of functional unresponsiveness, known as anergy. Recent studies probing both immune signalling pathways and the ubiquitin-proteasome system have helped to refine and elaborate current models for the molecular mechanisms underlying T-cell anergy. Controlling anergy induction and maintenance will be a key component in the future to mitigate unwanted T-cell activation that leads to autoimmune disease.