“inability to defend oneself or to act effectively”
Learned helplessness is the behavior someone exhibits after enduring repeated unpleasant experiences beyond their control.
It’s the feeling that no matter what you do, bad things keep happening to you. If you’ve had enough bad luck in your life you’ll know what I’m talking about.
The suspicion of being cursed. The impression that nothing ever changes in your life no matter how much you strive for improvement. The fear that there is, in fact, nothing you can do to protect yourself from the bad things happening to you and that there is no way you can change the situation you’re in.
It’s not like being taken aback by a big and unexpected problem you don’t know how to tackle.
It’s the “I’ve tried everything and nothing changed” feeling. It only appears after repeated hurtful experiences you’ve tried and failed to manage.
How does helplessness actually feel like? If we call it a feeling – and not an idea or state of mind – that means it must have an effect on our physical body, a physical sensation we experience. What is it?
For what I’m concerned, helplessness is a strong, cramping, deep pain in my heart. The kind of pain that makes you worried you might be having a heart attack. An ache that makes the expression “heartbreak” make a lot of sense.
I haven’t experienced that in many years but it’s so traumatising it will forever be a trigger and you know how I know? Because my daughter’s helplessness cries are so difficult for me to deal with.
Children feel helpless so often, because they have no tools to manage most situations. They literally can’t help themselves. So many things will send them in a state of fear and heartbreak, for knowing there is nothing that they can do to make it better. They feel out of options and unable to make anything better.
So they cry, for help. Just like us adults do when we feel helpless but we do it while isolating ourselves so our plead for help doesn’t really reach anyone’s ears. Perhaps if it did we would get the help we so desperately need. If only we would talk about it with people, instead of the universe or god.
Children cry directly at us though, because they reach the very sensible conclusion that if they need help they’ll have to actually ask someone.
They can’t get the words out in that moment though so they cry to get their need met, as they’ve done their entire life when they had no words to use.
If you’ve ever experienced helplessness in your life you’ll immediately recognise it in your child’s cry and chances are it will trigger you, because it will speak directly to your heartbreak that still lives with you in your memory.
And you’ll just want to make it stop. Immediately. Make it go away.
What to do then? How to solve this impasse?
Try to sit with the pain. It will make you uncomfortable, but it won’t kill you. Try to resist the urge to just make it stop.
Try to understand what your child’s need is, what made them feel helpless, what’s the help they need. It might look like they’re crying because you said no to a chocolate treat just before bedtime, but perhaps they’re crying because they don’t understand why you said no and they think you’re upset at them or making an unfair decision they don’t deserve. Nothing makes a person, children and adults alike, feel helpless as thoroughly as thinking that you are being treated unfairly and knowing there’s nothing you can do about it.
Understand what makes you feel helpless, or what made you feel helpless when it happened. What where the unpleasant experiences you went through? What were the unfair things happening to you? What did you do to make things better that didn’t work? What did you try, how did you fail and why? Who could have helped you and how? Who should have helped you and why didn’t they?
How did you finally managed to get away from that situation and improve things in your life?
Give yourself everything you needed and didn’t get at the time. Appreciate the progress you made. And if you’re still in that situation don’t despair: even when it feels like nothing ever changes, things are changing ever so slightly and in a year from today you might not recognise your life.
You rarely perceive change in your daily life because things usually change very slowly and smoothly rather than through big cathartic moments. Things are in motion, you’re always one small decision away from a different life, kind people are going to enter your life and some of the best days of your life haven’t happened yet.