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Helplessness…

and the power of empowerment.

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#TransparentTuesdays

Hi friend,


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the feeling of helplessness.


Photo of a fearful woman in a cardboard box
Photo by MART PRODUCTION

We humans hate feeling helpless, because our very survival depends on our ability to take action to protect or defend ourselves in the face of danger.


Helplessness, then—which is the feeling that we are incapable of taking action to keep ourselves safe—often makes us feel trapped and panicky, boots up our basic survival software, and sends us into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. So not only is the feeling of helplessness designed to be unpleasant, but it also tends to accompany our most traumatic experiences and memories.


Is it any wonder we don’t like to feel this way?


You might think that, given how unpleasant the feeling of helplessness is, feeling it would drive us into action, motivating us to protect or defend ourselves, and take control of our lives. But actually, the exact opposite tends to be true.


Studies have been done showing that when researchers place rats in an environment they can escape from, and then administer electric shocks, the rats all go into action-mode, seeking out the exits and escaping to safety. Makes sense right? But rats who first received electric shocks in an environment they couldn’t escape from behaved very differently.


When rats who had previously received shocks in an environment they couldn’t escape from were placed in an environment they could escape from, they didn’t bother looking for the exits. These poor rats just stayed put and let themselves be shocked, even though they didn’t have to, because their previous experience had taught them there was just… no point in trying.


This is called “learned helplessness,” and we humans do it too.


Previous experiences of helplessness teach us that nothing we do will make a difference and there is simply no point in trying to take action, find a solution, or make ourselves safe. The more helpless we’ve felt in the past, the more likely we are to just shrug and say “this sucks, but what can I do?” in the present.


What’s most striking to me about this phenomenon is how many people are affected by it. After all, every single one of us was born into the world as helpless babies, completely dependent on other people to keep us safe and alive. And while we naturally gain autonomy and agency as we grow up, the unlearning of learned helplessness is far from a given.


Most of us have also experienced traumatic helplessness through exposure to things like violence, abuse, tragedy, mental illness, addiction, or natural disasters. And because our society is structured around systems of power and oppression, we’ve all been exposed to people (and companies) actively invested in reinforcing our disempowerment, because it makes us easier to control (and profit off of).


Given all of this, I think it's fair to say that most people are walking around with some level of learned helplessness, feeling on some level that we don’t have much power to make things better, or that our actions won’t really make a difference.


We’re not usually conscious of this disempowerment, of course. We’re usually just aware that we feel stuck, depressed, defeated, unmotivated, or resigned to our suffering in some way. We may become preoccupied with controlling the things we feel are in our control (like food, weight, or other people’s perceptions of us), but fundamentally there is a sense that our lives don’t really belong to us.


People who feel this way (disempowered and impotent) are significantly easier to control, exploit, and manipulate. When we lack a sense of our own agency and power, we tend to become malleable, submissive, and obedient. We become willing to hand our power over to anyone and anything outside of ourselves, and eventually our own oppression comes to seem so normal (even natural), that we become complicit in it.


This is the situation many of my clients are in when we first start working together, and a lot of our work together focuses on restoring their sense of agency, autonomy, and power—because an essential prerequisite to changing your life is believing that you can.


I recently looked back at the direction of my work and business over the last decade, and I realized that this—the restoration of agency and empowerment—has been the underlying throughline of everything I’ve ever done or cared about, and for good reason.


Photo of a woman in a brown coat with her arms outstretched as autumn leaves fall on her
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

You simply cannot do the work necessary to solve your problems, heal your wounds, escape your suffering, or cast off your oppression without a sense that your actions matter, and your life belongs to you.


In my experience, the process of unlearning helplessness is some of the most important work you will ever do.


It’s incredibly difficult to tap back into a sense of your own power and agency, but it is possible—I promise you’re not as trapped as you think you are, and you’re not as powerless as you feel.


Big hug,

Jessi


PS: If you want help reclaiming your agency, power, and life, apply for coaching with me here!

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