Escaping the Clutches of Helplessness

Feelings of helplessness can be entangled in our sense of identity.

Feelings of helplessness can be entangled in our sense of identity.

We can all feel fragile at times, fading feebly in and out like a tiny sparkle in the vast firmament. It’s easy then to feel helpless, overlooked, insignificant, and unappreciated.

An entanglement in helpless feelings can certainly dampen our light, leaving us afraid to be venturesome. We can feel befuddled, overwhelmed, or exhausted, buffeted about by the winds of misfortune. Disappointment, dissatisfaction, and the sorrow of not living up to our potential are likely to haunt us.

A chronic sense of helplessness keeps us from believing in ourselves, trusting ourselves, and pursuing our destiny. Our self-regulation weakens, and we fall prey to impulses to overeat, overspend, and overindulge. We also lose our ability to regulate our emotional life or maintain physical health, causing us to sink into apathy or become increasingly bitter, depressed, or ill.

We are indeed helpless when it comes to influencing many events and situations. We accept this fact with equanimity when we’re emotionally strong. But we can’t accept it so easily when plagued by chronic helplessness. Instead, like a turtle on its back, we experience the personal challenges of daily life through a painful sense of being unable to rise to the occasion.

Laid low like this, we also perceive global problems such as war, poverty, and weather changes through the conviction of our inability to influence them positively in a meaningful way. Instinctively, we back away from challenges to reform situations, close our mind to heroic possibilities, and succumb to temptations that adversely affect our health and general wellbeing.

Some of us sense acutely our painful predicament, and we desperately want liberation from it. But we can’t see the nature of our problem clearly enough to get any footing. As we struggle to break free of helplessness, we can feel, in a Catch-22 kind of way, helpless to extricate ourselves from overriding impressions of impotence, powerlessness, futility, passivity, and subservience.

If ever there was a quandary—or, more accurately perhaps, an emotional quagmire—it’s the helplessness we can feel when we try to figure out how we can possibly unravel our entanglement in passivity. As we thrash about, an inner entrapment seems to close more tightly around us. We need real insight into the nature of this quandary. The best psychological knowledge can help to liberate us.

One person told me he felt helpless in detaching himself from his feelings of helplessness. “I have a tendency to ‘overthink’ and get myself stuck,” he said. He was feeling desperately stuck because his efforts in thinking so hard to figure things out were, in themselves, exercises in helplessness. He ended up spinning his wheels. He fooled himself into believing his thinking had power, when he was simply going after the familiar feeling of more helplessness.

Thinking is important, of course, but it isn’t enough in itself to deal with chronic helplessness. We also need the self-knowledge that reveals how our emotions operate. Our emotions have, in a sense, a mind of their own. Self-knowledge exposes the inner dynamics in our psyche that produce negative emotions such as chronic helplessness.

Our intelligence works for us behind the scenes as we keep tracking inner truth. One such truth reveals our emotional attachment to our helplessness. The fact that we’re emotionally attached to our helplessness is an important concept we need to understand.

How is helplessness an emotional attachment? The negative feeling is integral to our self-concept and entangled in our identity. We don’t know who we are without this (conscious or unconscious) sense of chronic weakness. The afflicted individual holds on to the attachment, even when it’s painful, because it’s the framework, a kind of primitive lean-to, for his or her psychological home in the world.  

Feelings of helplessness are as old as the day we’re born, and they can linger in our psyche, despite our best efforts to be independent, self-reliant, and successful in the world. As we’re growing up, we oscillate emotionally between feeling aggressive and feeling passive. Many of the fears and doubts of childhood and teenage years are associated with the feeling that we won’t have the ability, strength, or resolve to meet the challenges of becoming a functional, successful adult.

A temptation to interpret daily challenges through the sense of helplessness is one of the main symptoms of inner passivity. This passive side of our psyche is a limitation or deficit in our consciousness, and it impedes the development of our humanity. Inner passivity, a major player in our psyche and a drag on our humanity, is an enabler of our aggressive inner critic. In our psyche, we can feel helpless and defensive in the face of our authoritarian inner critic that treats us as if we’re supposed to be subservient to it. (Read, “The Futile Dialogue in Our Head.”) The conflict between our inner aggression and inner passivity, when reverberating in our psyche, can reduce us to the status of a helpless observer of our own life or, even worse, a clueless bystander. Deeper insight into this conflict enables us to develop a stronger, more stable sense of self.

Another person told me, “I haven’t been able to believe that I’m not helpless. Even though I know on an intellectual basis that this whole thing [being tangled up in the helpless experience] is irrational, some part of me still believes that I’m helpless. The effects of believing this weigh me down.”

I told him, “Believing that you’re helpless, or getting hung up on the idea that you’re truly helpless, is a defense which goes like this: I’m not attached to feeling helpless—Look, the problem is that I really am helpless. By accentuating your impression of being truly helpless, you create a clever (though self-defeating) defense that enables you to continue to hold on to your attachment to feeling helpless. You have to see through the deceptiveness of your defense.”

Freedom from helplessness follows our assimilation of this ultimate insight, that we’re emotionally attached to the feeling of helplessness. We have lived so long with the passive feeling—through childhood up to the present—that it’s now part of our identity. We must begin to recognize those moments or times when we’re choosing unconsciously to experience ourselves in a passive way. As we recognize our willingness to continue to experience the world through this old default position, and as we keep exposing the choice we’ve been making to go on feeling helpless or passive, we’re able to find and cleave the concealed chains of this inner bondage.