Imagine being in a situation where you are subjected to regular, but unpredictable pain, and you can’t do a thing about it. You’re obviously pretty shook up because not only do you not know when the pain is coming, but also there is no escape.

Reggie is 68 and lives in low-income housing in an inner city. Drugs and gang activity are rampant in his apartment complex. His apartment has been burglarized a couple of times, and he has also been robbed once while walking on the street. Reggie lives in perpetual fear of being attacked or robbed, and feels totally helpless. In fact, after one of the burglaries, the police captured the perpetrator. When asked if he was willing to testify against him, he said, “No. What’s the use? He’ll just get off and come after me. I got nothin’ to fight him.”

Jane is 30 years old and is physically abused by her husband now and then. She never knows when she will be hit, slapped, pushed to the floor, or thrown against a wall. She would like to end her marriage but says, “I have no job and nowhere go, but even if I did he’d find me and beat me. And I’ll never go to the cops because he said he’d kill me. I’m just totally helpless.”

Psychologist Martin Seligman developed the concept of Learned Helpless to explain cases like Reggie’s and Jane’s, and their complete inability to take control of their situations. The unpredictability and inescapable circumstances of their treatment has taught them that there is nothing they can do, so why bother to fight it? Why should Reggie bother to testify? The crook will come back madder than ever. Jane talks about divorce, but she may never be able to do so because of her helplessness. Both she and Reggie basically feel that they have lost control and have given up.

Not surprisingly, learned helplessness is a precursor to depression. Victims feel their lives are spinning out of control and they have learned that it is all but futile to try and do something about it. The consequences are frustration, anxiety, and despair, followed by apathy, withdrawal, and finally depression. No matter how bad their lives become, no matter how bad the pain, they figure, “Why bother to fight it? There’s nothing I can do about it.”

The entries in this blog, of course, yell out, “You can do something about it; you can learn to take control of your lives, to empower yourselves.” Unfortunately, once learned helplessness takes control, it is difficult to hear the optimistic empowering message, and easier to give up.

The important coping lesson here is that you must be on the alert for tendencies to learn to be helpless about things in your life. Being vigilant about feelings of helplessness and apathy will help you avoid a major danger: becoming overly dependent on someone. Helplessness makes you vulnerable to buying into those who preach the message, “Only I can help you out of your desperation.” If you fall for this message you are in trouble because your excessive dependency will make independent action on your part all but impossible. Autonomous action on your part is essential to effective coping; excessive and inappropriate dependency on another will cause you to let the other do everything for you, making you weaker than before.

Rather than reaching out to false messengers who do not have your best interests in mind, when confronted with helplessness you must organize your coping efforts around a proactive plan of action. Obviously you can reach out to others for assistance, but not to the point that you totally depend on them. For instance, both Reggie and Jane already seem to realize that they have no control over the individuals who are causing them distress. Their focus, therefore, must be on what aspects of their respective situations are under their control.

What can Reggie do? A first step might be in trying to organize his neighbors into fighting the perpetrators who commit crimes against them. There is great strength in numbers. If they seek police advice on ways to form a neighbor protection group, and if they tap into legal resources available to low-income victims, they just might discover that following these strategies, over which they have some control, might bring them significant positive results.

As for Jane, of course she has no control over her husband’s behavior. Being nice, subservient, and always trying to placate him so he won’t attack her simply won’t work. She can, however, contact women’s resource centers and legal aid organizations for experienced advice on how to proceed. If children are involved she can contact child protective services. Like Reggie, she can discover the strength in numbers and resources available to her, if only she will reach out.

It is important to remember that just because you feel you have no direct control over the source of your troubles – and you don’t, whether it be a spouse, criminal, supervisor, or acquaintance – there are multiple other options available to you that allow you to exercise control in alternative ways.

The one thing you must not do is move into apathy/surrender mode and make those actions your habitual response to your troubles. You must determine your “circle of control” and, operating within that circle, fight like hell!


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