Feeling Helpless? Here’s How To Break The Spell

“Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth”

– Marcus Aurelius

We try to avoid feeling uncomfortable and having uncertainty. It’s why many people are continually looking to the future; planning, wishing, hoping, and maybe avoiding certain circumstances. They stick to a mundane routine and an unhappy life, not making any significant changes because change will add a level of doubt and increased apprehension about the future.

But what if we’ve struggled to fight this mindset? Tried many things over the years but we perceive the results of our efforts as failures. Much more than a “dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t” type of understanding but rather a deep rooted conditioning of perceived helpless actions. Therefore to even try seems pointless and futile and we are left with real feelings of dread.

This type of feeling is a psychological condition called learned helplessness. It comes from being repeatedly exposed to ‘adverse stimuli’ that we perceive as unavoidable or inescapable. An unfortunate but strong example of this is that of an abused spouse. Over the years of abuse the victim ‘learns’ that there is nothing he or she can do to escape the abuse and so resigns him or herself to the torment. Another example is that of a student failing a Math exam. They might feel that they are hopeless at Math or worse still that they are hopeless at school. This helplessness, if not managed, can then carry through into adult life.

But how many of us feel that our situation is helpless right now? We hate our job, our colleagues, the boss won’t get off your back, we are overweight, we are depressed, we’re in debt and we’ve tried all we can think of to achieve a better life – but all to no avail. That really deep feeling of having no control and being helpless can lead to a feeling of ultimate hopelessness and a ‘trapped’ unwanted life. Another real difficulty with learned helplessness is that it closes our minds to opportunities and stops us from recognizing when they are presented.

I will use the example of an elephant (as animals too show learned helplessness) to best show how we don’t recognize opportunities. When the elephant trainer wants to acquire an elephant he picks a young calf, and to keep it from running away he ties one leg to a peg that has been beat into the ground. The calf is small with little power and after weeks of struggling to escape he finally sees his efforts as futile and gives up trying. When the calf grows into a fully adult elephant with tremendous power it will just stand tied to the peg. It has ‘learned’ that it can’t break free and is unable even to recognize that he could just easily break the rope and run off.

This perception of hopelessness is a crippling feeling. It stops the very thing we need to make our situation better – ACTION! Just like the adult elephant we stand idle, tied down by something that we don’t even realize we have the power to break free from. We think we are the only ones who feel this way and overestimate others while underestimating ourselves. We don’t make the phone call, write the email, or arrange the meeting to better our lives – we are certain we will fail, like the elephant is certain it can’t walk away.

Remembering that everything is a perspective gives us an opportunity to change that perspective. The perspective in learned helplessness is all-encompassing continual train of negative thoughts leading to eventual hopelessness, and as Marcus Aurelius said in his Meditations, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” We must try to guard our thoughts, recognize our emotional reaction to whatever the ‘stimuli’ is producing those thoughts. Changing this is can be difficult but never forget – “we have power over our minds.”

You can be the powerful elephant realizing it’s just a tiny rope.


Vincent Kennedy, Author ‘In the Centre Lies Virtue