NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the examples used (“Laura” and “Reggie”) are fictional. The post presents possible actions one may take based on information from the discipline of psychology.
Laura is 30 years old and is frequently physically abused by her husband. 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 feel so helpless.”
Psychologist Martin Seligman developed the concept of Learned Helpless to explain how an event that produces unpredictable and inescapable pain can lead victims to conclude there is nothing they can do, so why bother to fight it? Laura talks about divorce, but she may never be able to pursue that course because of her feelings of helplessness. She feels she has lost control, which makes her give up.
The important coping lesson here is that you must be on the alert for feeling helpless about things in your life. Being vigilant will help you avoid a major danger: becoming overly dependent on someone whose domination makes you feel helpless.
Laura, for instance, fears taking independent action against her husband, but she is also becoming vulnerable – because of helplessness – to becoming totally dependent on anyone who may happen along and tell her, “I can help you out of your desperation.” This process is precisely how young people who feel adrift in life, and misunderstood and stifled by their parents, fall under the spell of a charismatic cult leader.
Autonomous action 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.
As for Laura, of course she has no control over her husband’s behavior. But she cannot see that being nice, subservient, and always trying to placate him so he won’t attack her simply won’t work. She can, however, take independent action, such as contacting 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.
It is important to remember that just because you feel you have no direct control over the source of your troubles – and you may not, whether it be a spouse, criminal, supervisor, or acquaintance – there are always multiple options available to you that allow you to exercise control in indirect ways. Rather than reaching out to false messengers who do not have your best interests in mind, you must organize your coping efforts around a proactive plan of action that is under your control. Obviously, you can reach out to others for assistance, but not to the point that you totally depend on them.
Reggie is sixty-eight 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.” What could someone like Reggie do? A first step might be is 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.
The one thing victims must not do is move into apathy/surrender mode and make those actions their habitual response to their troubles. If you are in a situation of unpredictable and seemingly inescapable pain, you must determine your “circle of control” and, operating within that circle, design a coping plan and fight like hell! If you don’t, you are well on the way to depression.