Woman standing partly in the sun, partly in shadowHelplessness, or a sense of being unable to act or react to a negative situation, may be experienced by anyone, especially during illness or when affected by a traumatic event. A persistent feeling of helplessness, however, can last long after a person's actual helplessness disappears. In this case, feelings of helplessness may interfere with daily life and have significant mental health consequences, at which point it may be helpful to speak to a therapist.

What Is Helplessness?

Feelings of helplessness can be fueled by trauma, grief, stress, mental health conditions, isolation, and numerous other factors. A person who was raped, for example, might feel unable to leave the house without someone trusted to accompany him or her. People experiencing mental health issues, particularly depression, may also feel helpless. Someone with major depression might find it nearly impossible to get out of bed in the morning, feeling powerless in the face of stress and unable to believe that anything can be done to alleviate those feelings. Helplessness can also sometimes represent issues with self-esteem.

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Helplessness can also be a tool of manipulation. Some people behave in helpless ways to gain attention from others and to avoid feeling abandoned. A child might deliberately fail classes or an adult might purposely attempt to be fired from work in order to elicit sympathy and attention. Feigned incompetence is another form of helplessness that can be used as a tool of manipulation.

What Is Victimhood?

Helplessness and victimhood are closely related. Victimhood can be described as a persistent state of feeling victimized, either through loss of a sense of self-worth and security, or feelings of negativity and vulnerability. It may be fueled by a fear of success or stem from a lack of self-trust and is also often characterized by a focus on what cannot be controlled. This focus can often lead to a further loss of control over life. A victim mentality, or belief that others are responsible for all negative events and circumstances, might include:

  • Learned behavior in which a person manipulates others, consciously or unconsciously, into caring for and nurturing him/her. This behavior can sometimes lead one to become overly dependent on caregivers, emotionally and/or financially.
  • The feeling that one is owed something from the world, and subsequent feelings of anger and frustration when it is not received.
  • The desire for sympathy regarding work issues, relationship problems, illnesses, academic issues, or other failures that may draw attention and support from others.
  • A false sense of incompetence, used to make others believe one is incapable of or lacking the competence, skills, or abilities to handle personal difficulties.
  • An inability to hold oneself responsible for life's outcomes.

Learned Helplessness

The concept of learned helplessness, developed in the 1960s by Martin Seligman, was first demonstrated in animals. Researchers discovered that an animal repeatedly exposed to a painful stimulus that could not be avoided would eventually stop trying to escape. When applying this to people, Seligman found that the motivation to react is subdued when control over a situation is lost, even when the situation changes so that control might be taken back.

Learned helplessness can lead to a development of negative beliefs about one's abilities and a tendency to take on blame when things go wrong. The condition often occurs from a lack of control, either real or perceived, over one's situation. A child who is repeatedly bullied at school by older children might begin to believe that there is no way out of the situation and stop fighting back or trying to run away. Children who experience a traumatic childhood may still feel powerless as adults, believing they cannot improve any situation in their lives. Learned helplessness can disrupt development and learning and can also lead to depression and other mental health conditions.

Therapy for Helplessness and Victimhood

Therapy can often help those who experience a lasting state of learned helplessness or victimhood by exposing the real causes of the issues, such as childhood trauma, lack of functional relationships with authority and parental figures during childhood, an abusive relationship, or a fear of success. Through psychotherapy, those who are affected by these conditions may learn how to begin to focus on what they can control and thus gain more influence over life.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is often a helpful form of therapy for trauma, as it allows a person to address trauma without discussing many disturbing details at length. EMDR also supports the development of positive beliefs about the self and attempts to reduce negative beliefs. Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques have been used successfully in treatment to instill what Seligman termed "learned optimism," which can replace learned helplessness. A person might also be able to reduce feelings of helplessness by facing fears through exposure therapy, which attempts to help those in therapy face their memories of a traumatic event in a safe environment where they can be certain the trauma will not reoccur. Working through fear in this way often causes the fear to diminish.

Feelings of victimhood may also be resolved when responsibility for past actions and choices can be accepted. Low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety are all issues that might occur in conjunction with helplessness or victimhood. These conditions can often be treated in therapy, and treating one area may lead to improvement in the other. Posttraumatic stress may also lead to feelings of helplessness, which may often resolve when the PTSD is treated.

Logotherapy, developed by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, is a therapeutic process that aims to help individuals find meaning in their lives, and the technique may be of some benefit to survivors of abuse or trauma who lack purpose or direction after a difficult and distressing experience. The technique might be particularly helpful to those who experience anxiety or a phobia as a result of trauma: One aspect of logotherapy is paradoxical intention, which helps people find relief from anxiety by focusing on what causes the anxiety in order to expunge it.

Regaining Control after Trauma

Survivors of rape, abuse, or other trauma may find it difficult to regain feelings of control, but many have found that exercise, such as martial arts, running, and yoga, can be a helpful self-care method that leads to a sense of regained control. Because the endorphins released during exercise can help minimize stress and anxiety, physical tension can be reduced through exercise, and people often find that physical exertion helps them reconnect with their body and their mind. This physical and mental reconnect might also relieve feelings of helplessness as a sense of control over the body is regained.

Survivors of assault or other violent crimes might find that confronting their attacker in a controlled circumstance, such as court, may help them regain feelings of control. Knowing an attacker has been imprisoned might often lead to closure for victims and thus reduce their feelings of helplessness.

Case Examples

  • Feelings of helplessness and victimization after job loss: Jaffa, 44, goes to see a therapist six months after losing her job of ten years. Since becoming unemployed, Jaffa has experienced increasingly strong feelings of despair and negativity. She feels angry and cheated by being let go, as she considered herself a valued employee and thought her future with the company was secure. She tells the therapist that she has applied for several other positions but still cannot seem to find employment and that she despairs of ever finding another position, that her previous company "ruined her life." The despair she feels has led to feelings of aimlessness, and she has stopped looking for work. Jaffa has also had two panic attacks that left her feeling helpless and afraid. In therapy, Jaffa begins to learn mindfulness techniques to reduce her anxiety symptoms. The therapist also helps Jaffa come to terms with her job loss and identify sources of support in her social network and community. After a few sessions, Jaffa starts to move forward, reaching out to others and beginning to look for a job once more.
  • Learned helplessness resulting from abuse: Leon, 26, enters therapy shortly after separating from his wife, but he seems reluctant to talk about why he is there. He states in a vague way that he experiences symptoms of anxiety and that he is very stressed, but he does not give a reason. The therapist tries to draw him out, and eventually he explains that he feels worthless and unhappy, and he fears that he is undeserving of anyone's love. The therapist discovers, through questioning, that Leon's wife was emotionally abusive and controlling. Leon, however, feels that his wife acted in such a manner for his "own good." He tells the therapist that he could never do anything right in his wife's eyes, that she constantly told he him he was lazy, worthless, and stupid. She often threatened to leave him, he said, but he left her first, with the encouragement and help of his siblings. He then tells the therapist that he regrets leaving her and that he does not want to get a divorce because he knows that no one will love him "like she does." Leon also reports that since he left, he has not felt like doing anything and that his life feels empty of purpose without his wife. The therapist finds that Leon has lost touch with his friends, as his wife did not like them, and that except for his siblings, he is fairly isolated. She encourages him to regain contact with his friends, if possible, and begins to work with him to reestablish his sense of self-worth. After a few sessions, Leon begins to see the ways that his wife was abusive, and through further work with the therapist, becomes more empowered. His anxiety, stress, and unhappiness begin to diminish, and he no longer expresses a wish to reconnect with his wife.


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