Helplessness is having insufficient ability to influence change. It does not necessarily describe a bad situation although it’s usually used in this sense. It describes an experience where people are vulnerable to something or someone and cannot change the situation themselves. Helplessness can completely strip people of self-confidence and mood can be seriously affected.
Serious helplessness and episodes of despair go hand-in-hand. There are many things that can make people depressed. The added complication of being helpless to resolve a situation drains confidence away, and as a result, deepens depressive episodes. This is especially true when the lack of self-confidence leads to a loss of hope. Despair can have the most devastating consequences on morale. Helplessness and despair experienced together can be a suicidal cocktail. Helplessness is seen as a passive inability to act that hinders people’s progress. The truth is that it can be a devastating experience which can lead to many other negative emotions.
Even when they have no control, if people perceive they have an element of control over a situation, they remain calmer and panic less. The reverse is also true. When people perceive that they are helpless to effect change, their heart rate and blood pressure increase – especially concerning threatening situations. This leads to anxiety related stresses. If people perceive they are helpless to stop the loss of something, they will first experience anxiety related stresses, and then sad related stresses.1 If people have a low tolerance of uncertainty, the perception of helplessness alone makes people highly susceptible to anxiety related depression.2
When people cannot stop abuse to themselves or a loved one, they feel helpless along with all the other traumatic emotions of the situation. Abuse can be a physical, mental, or an emotional experience. When people cannot act against the abuse they receive, they may feel shame too.
The reasons for being helpless are many and varied. If people try numerous times to change their circumstances and fail to effect change, in time they will feel helpless as their motivated behaviours are exhausted. This is helplessness due to lacking an ability to overcome a situation. Sometimes, however, it’s motivation itself that is robbed. Without motivation people are helpless. Fear strips people of motivation. In these situations people need courage or an intervention from someone else who is willing to help. Interventions of others that aid the helpless can be truly life changing, for they relieve a person of serious stress.
Beliefs, theories and principles also have the ability to deprive people of motivation. The power of the human imagination is striking. The influence the mind can exert over behaviour is astonishing. Helplessness that is brought about by false reasoning can be the most difficult to resolve as it’s not a simple matter of intervening to stop people taking advantage. The beliefs, theories and ideologies that deprive people of motivation can have their own defence-mechanisms that protect the thoughts from being changed. Another complication is that beliefs and principles can be inherited, or passed on through memes, without the recipient being aware. This can lead people to assume that actions based on false reasoning, which deprive them of motivation and create their helplessness, are just a normal part of their life. Until they are forced to reflect seriously on the issue, no issue is perceived. This creates a scenario where people can be helpless owing to having no motivation, but having no idea why. Perceptions create emotions, and emotions are people’s motivations. Inaccurate or misguided perceptions can cause a lack of motivation to help one’s self. These kind of self-sabotaging perceptions paralyse people into apathy – a deep lack of interest that could be considered a form of helplessness.
It may sound obvious to state that “people should avoid getting into a situation where they are helpless around those who would take advantage of them”, yet, for whatever reason, people do get themselves into such situations. This can be due to underestimating the potential dangers of being helpless to defend one’s self mentally, emotionally, and physically around untrustworthy selfish characters. For people to take a chance that would place them in a situation where they are helpless around such characters is too dangerous; the risk of unpredictable consequences on mood is too great. If trust is broken in those moments, a psychological crisis will be created, and the consequences could last for decades.
Knowing in what situations people are helpless is useful for aiding them to cope, and stopping potential despair. Concern can be focused at those points, aiding people through their potential helpless situations by being ready to support them, and preventing anyone from taking advantage of their position. Standing back allows people to develop ways of coping around their helpless issues while someone is near who is prepared to intervene. Helplessness is always an individual thing that relates to the specific environments and weaknesses where people are powerless to act.
1. Destitute of help; having no assistance from others; needy. (Of persons, their condition, etc.)
2. Having no resources in oneself; unable to help oneself. (The ordinary current sense.)
3. The inability to help oneself.