You Are Not Helpless

A lot of people who were disappointed in the presidential election results have been suffering from a sense of depression and helplessness.  A certain amount of this suffering may be thought of as healthy—that is, there may be real concern for the planet, the economy, the safety of themselves and others, and the stability of future generations. Being concerned, worried, frightened, etc., is not always a sign of mental illness.  It can be a sign of awareness.  For instance, if you are walking down a dark alley in a sketchy part of New York and experiencing anxiety, that might be a healthy, self-preserving voice saying, “Fool, get out of the alley!”    

Learned helplessness is a deeper, more problematic version of suffering.  Learned helplessness is a term used in psychology to identify a perception in a person’s mind that leads them to believe that they are helpless to effect significant change in their life when faced with challenges.  The person suffering from learned helplessness tends to blame the outside world for their problems.  They often feel like a victim, become paralyzed in the face of decision-making, have little ability to problem solve big issues, etc.  This can lead to a myriad of issues. They can be long suffering under the “safe” umbrella of a corporate job. If they are ready to marry they may neglect the right mate to seek out a rich man or woman to, “take care of me”. They can retreat into depression, isolation, withdrawal, substances, or passivity when faced with challenges. 

Learned helplessness is learned—usually from a repeated pattern of abuse or neglect early on. When a child is not given the ability to make any of their own choices, if they are severely criticized when making mistakes, if they are abused or abandoned - they learn that they have an“external locus of control” in their life.  That is, their ability to exercise control when faced with challenges is outside of themselves (i.e. first located in the parent and later in the outside world).  They come to believe that they are helpless—that life is happening to them from the outside world, not through their own decision-making and efforts.   

These people often complain about how others are “taking their job,” or “getting all the breaks.”  They exert little effort for change, take few risks, fee stuck in depression and stagnation, compulsively play the lottery or gamble to “strike it rich”, hope to be saved, etc.   

The classic image of learned helplessness is the image of the caged bird.  Having grown up in the cage the bird believes there is no hope of flying.  One day the cage is opened.  The bird, trained to be helpless, stays in the cage believing it has no choice to leave. Many of us are in a cage with the door open wondering how we can escape.      

The positive side of having an “external locus of control” is that these same people will often share their successes with the efforts of others on their “team”, they are able to see others abilities and bless their efforts, they can be humble when they achieve goals.   

A person with an “internal locus of control” believes that their life is essentially an effect of their own efforts and talents.  These people tend to be supported in their decision making in childhood. They are often encouraged to make age appropriate decisions, they are supported to try again in the face of mistakes, they are allowed to explore beyond the family in a safe way.  People with an “internal locus of control” believe their life is created through them, not to them. They tend to be self-starters, don’t complain about others, and take a hundred percent responsibility for their lives.  As a result, their lives tend to be more productive and satisfying.  When they are faced with a challenge their thinking is more along the lines of, “What did I do wrong, and what do I need to do to change this?” Their anxieties tend to be put into action.  

The music producer and co-founder of DreamWorks, David Geffen, says that as a child is mother told him he had hands of gold and that he could do anything. She called him, “King David.”  The film director Orson Wells reports that his parents said everything he did was wonderful, better than they had seen anyone do before him.  Both men entered the world with an internal locus of power believing they could create what they wanted through their own efforts.  

The shadow side of this kind of a person is that they can be narcissistic or self-negating.  They may believe their team won solely because of them.  They can downplay the efforts of others. The are often overly critical of themselves even when events are outside of their control.    

While we need personality traits that come from both the internal and external locus of controls, people with learned helplessness (having an external locus of control) tend to suffer more in life. They are often in need of getting the help, support, and nurturing they missed in childhood to reclaim their power. 

In the recent election, people who were disappointed in the outcome and suffer from learned helplessness could be prone to long bouts of depression and stagnation.  Their work of internalizing their locus of control and moving out of learned helplessness might be to get involved in organizations, marches, or actions that help them further the causes they are concerned about.  Even small actions, donations, or efforts can start giving them the psychological feeling that they have a power to influence their own thinking and their world.  

Those with a natural internal locus of control were at political action committees and marches the weekend after the election.   

If you suffer from learned helplessness it is nothing to be ashamed of.  It is a wound, not an irreparable damage (which you may believe from a  helpless mind set!).  You can find the help you need in therapy, support groups, reframing your thinking, taking small risks, and being encouraged to reclaim your power. 

In her book, Feel The Fear and Do it Anyway, Susan Jeffers writes that at the bottom of every great fear is the belief that “I can’t handle this.”  She advocates that, no matter what the challenge, begin with telling yourself, “I can handle it.” 

While we all have both internal and external beliefs about where our locus of control is in life, we tend to default to one or the other in the face of challenges. Below is an explanation of how this may affect your work life.

Take a look: