Unlearning Helplessness

One of the greatest surprises of my post-PhD life was the discovery that I wasn’t powerless.

I felt helpless and powerless when I floundered on the academic job market, failing to even get a consolation prize in the form of an academic temp job, known as either a post-doc, a visiting assistant professorship, or the euphemistic “lecturer” (read: adjunct). I also felt helpless watching my PhD (2015) slowly expire. At this point, in 2017, I’m outdated and sure to be passed over by search committees who want newly minted PhDs with cutting edge research and published books. I also felt helpless and powerless as I realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to continue my research without institutional support. I felt like there was nothing I could do about any of these situations. Helpless. Powerless.

When met with repeated failures to change things, many people stop trying to change anything in their lives. People learn that they are helpless and powerless. They give up and resign themselves to total passivity, even when they could use their own agency to alter their circumstances. 

This is what's known as learned helplessness.

Feeling helpless and powerless often leads to chronic, low-level feels of rage. [In gendered lady language, “frustration.” And sometimes rage crying because that’s the only socially acceptable way for us to express anger.] When we feel angry, we feel a little more in control of what feels out of control. And then a lot of us take no action, swallowing anger and sinking into bitter, smoldering resentment and contempt towards other people, our circumstances, and most damaging of all, ourselves.

We usually start learning that we’re helpless in childhood. For many of us, our childhood needs went unmet. We had needs (physical or emotional) that didn’t get taken care of, so we learned that we shouldn’t even bother to have needs. (In the adult world, this sometimes manifests as a sense of extreme self-sufficiency. “I DON’T NEED ANY HELP FROM YOU I CAN DROWN PERFECTLY WELL ON MY OWN THANK YOU VERY MUCH.”) If we have needs, we learn not to bother trying to get those needs met because we’ve learned that we probably can’t. We sigh and wring hands. If only there was something we could do.

If your story is one of learned helplessness, your tolerance for emotional pain is probably off the charts. Low-level emotional pain is just kind of your norm. You might have lived with emotional pain for so long that it’s just part of your life. It’s just how we do. It’s going to take a lot of discomfort for you to finally take some action because passivity and tolerance for bad circumstances and situations feels normal. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably made a bunch of life choices that aren’t really in your best interest and feel kinda painful but it all feels incredibly normal. Life just kinda always hurts, right? Sigh. We’ll deal with it. More hand wringing. 

The hallmark of learned helplessness is loud sighing and the words, “I can’t.” I can’t get a job. I can’t have a better relationship. I can’t write my novel. I can’t start a business. I can’t leave my job. I can’t move to France. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. We stay in bad situations and shoulder our emotional pain because because we’ve learned that we can’t engineer an alternative. 

When there’s absolutely no choices and you feel trapped in your circumstances, rage is sometimes the only logical emotion.

 We’re so used to not getting what we want, that the idea that we might be able to use our choices and power to get what we want seems like crazy talk. [See also my blog post about fears of success] Feeling powerless is not unlike feeling like a victim. We’re powerless victims for only as long as we continue to believe that we have no power to make choices and change things. [See also my blog post about healing and telling your story in a new way.] We start healing when we start making new choices.

Learned helplessness was my academic story for a long time. Repeated failure on the job market led to me to believe that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t change things. 


You (I) have the power to make choices in life. Louder for those in the back: you (I) are not helpless.

Maybe you were helpless and powerless at one point in your life. But you're now a grown-ass adult who has skills and resources to make choices in your own best interest.

You can choose to take back your power. When you start making choices, life starts feeling a little scary and unfamiliar. Emotional pain and discomfort, because it’s been the norm for so long, feels familiar. Making choices in your own best interest, in contrast, feels very scary. Acting from your own power and making your own choices can feel even more uncomfortable than staying in a dissatisfying job or relationship. Suddenly, you’re the actual boss. And you’re using your power to make choices in your own best interest. The absence of emotional pain suddenly feels scary and unfamiliar. Making choices about what you want and taking steps to change things in your life also starts to lessen a little bit of the feelings of rage that come from our sense of powerlessness.

Here’s an example. 

My day job was going okay for the most part. But I didn’t feel very inspired or creative. I wanted to do more traveling, writing, and creative work. I wanted to be doing work I loved and felt passionate about.

I quit.

(This is not to say that I jumped out of an airplane without a parachute. Although that route has been successful for people too. I wouldn’t want to discourage people from jumping out of the plane without a plan, but a plan makes the landing a little easier. I’ve got a life plan that’s mapped out on a calendar for the next eighteen months and some five year goals too.)

I left my office on my last day at work and went home. I made myself a cuppa tea, put my feet up, congratulated myself, and promptly had a minor panic attack.

Because I had actually made choices and taken actions in my own best interest.

Using my power to make choices to do what I wanted to do felt kind of like stepping into a Ferrari without an owner’s manual. I’ve never driven this thing before. What if it takes me where I actually want to go? And even more terrifyingly, what if it takes me somewhere awesome? 

[Caveats: many things exist in the world that we can’t control or make decisions about. We are also constrained by all kinds of structures in our lives. I do, however, believe that we still have individual agency. To the extent that we are able within structures, we can still make choices.]

If you’re anything like me, you’re going to need small steps to start taking back your power. Really small steps. Remember, you’ve felt powerless for a long time, so taking huge steps forward is probably going to freak you out and overload your emotional circuitry. You have to trick your brain into thinking that you're still making those same old, emotionally painful choices from a place of powerlessness while teach it that it has the power to make new choices from a place of power.

You’re going to have to unlearn your helplessness in the reverse way that you learned it. In any situation (no, really any situation), your most important question is this: what do I want? And sometimes this might sound like the even more basic question, what do I need right now? If you’re a veritable expert on having your needs unmet, you might have to sit and think for several minutes or hours at a time before you can actually come up with things you need and want. I know it’s hard. Be patient with you.

Let go for a brief moment of your life responsibilities, other people’s expectations, and self-imposed ideas of what you should want. Even if what you want sounds crazy, it’s what you want. And it’s okay to want things. Let me repeat that: it’s okay to want what you really want and it’s okay to have it.  Give yourself permission to do both of those things.

What do you really want?

Get to the absolute pure essence of what you want. It might be buried under a buncha emotional crapola or other people’s expectations, but it’s in you. Promise. Deep, deep down, you know what you really want.

Remember, start slow.  If this is the first time in your life that you’re unlearning helplessness and taking back your power, make little decisions about what you really want at first. This is practice. Do you want the soup or the salad? It doesn’t matter how small your choice is, as long as it comes from a genuine place inside you and it’s what you really want. I often mentally precede my choices with the phrase, “I have decided…” just for additional emphasis.

When you’ve built up your confidence and discovered that you can actually make choices about what you want, you can start thinking about bigger choices you can make. What you want could be a new job, more creative work, an adventure, a shorter commute, more free time, new friends, to live in a new city, an entirely new life in which you have a dairy goat farm, traveling around the world, fame and celebrity, or colleagues who respect you. Whatever you want is as unique and wonderful as you are.

Your next job is figuring out how to make choices that are going to get you to what you want. And yes, those choices feel scary. You have to make plans, make decisions, and take action. And you have to do all of these things in a new emotional realm that feels uncomfortable to you because it’s NOT painful and you have to reckon with yourself as the powerful person you are.

But here’s what I want you to know today: You are not helpless. You are powerful.