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Blog Short #156: 8 Ways to Challenge Helplessness

Photo by simpson33, Courtesy of iStock Photo

One of the most challenging emotions to deal with is helplessness. By definition, it removes your sense of control. You feel like you’re floating in limbo and trapped in repetitive ruminations. It’s exhausting and emotionally debilitating.

There’s usually not a quick solution to relieving helplessness, but there are things you can do to upend it, or at least put a chink in it and get yourself moving again. Here are eight things to try.

1. Do a thorough assessment.

As best you can, identify what’s causing you to feel helpless.

Sometimes, this is easy because the cause is specific and concrete, like working on a document on your computer, and your screen freezes before you can save it. You feel helpless because you don’t know what to do. In a situation like this, you can Google the problem, get some direction, and take steps to relieve your helplessness.

Less specifically, you might feel stuck in a never-ending pattern of having too much on your plate, and you’re worn out, emotionally spent, can’t sleep even though you’re exhausted, and you see no way out.

A situation like this isn’t so easily tackled or fixed because you don’t see steps you can take to change it.

An even more challenging situation is being stuck in a horrible job or an abusive relationship and feeling helpless to get out because you’re afraid of the consequences. Maybe you need the income and don’t think you have the skills for a better job. Or you’re afraid of leaving your abusive partner because you’ll have to share custody of the kids, and you don’t want that.

These are complex situations with multiple factors to consider that leave you in a perpetual state of spiraling.

Start with a thorough assessment of what’s feeding your helpless feelings. Write it down. All of it, and get clear on the problem (or problems). List everything you can think of that pertains to the situation.

2. Focus on what you can do.

Ask yourself what actions you can take to begin unraveling the situation. Often, helplessness looms because you see the solution as a single option. More likely, there are many small directions you can start with that won’t solve the whole problem but will give you a sense of control and momentum.

For example, you could consider learning a new skill if you don’t like your current job. It could be small in scale but achievable in a short amount of time. That wouldn’t change your job situation, but it would open a door in your mind to begin moving outward. After learning that skill, learn another. Then, you could look at jobs and see how your new skills might apply.

Start with any small action that changes the current state of things, even if it doesn’t solve your immediate problem. When you do that, you’re moving again, and doors eventually open. Possibilities come to light.

3. Get help.

There are three ways to approach this:

  1. Talk over your situation with someone you trust who can help you sort through and brainstorm options.
  2. Seek professional help that pertains to your problem.
  3. Actively gather information on your own that can help you resolve the issue.

Any of these will stimulate action and help you break up your paralysis.

4. Challenge your thoughts and patterns.

You can exacerbate helplessness with repetitive thoughts of powerlessness. Sometimes, you tell yourself you have no power when, in fact, you do. Either the hill seems too hard to climb, or you’ve become accustomed to living in a state of unhappiness and feeling stuck, or you’ve caved to someone else’s definition of how things should be.

In all these cases, you’ve decided where you are is the only place you can be.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “learned helplessness.”

Learned helplessness happens when you repeatedly struggle with the same situation and fail to resolve it so that when an opportunity to overcome it presents itself, you don’t take it.

It’s like being locked in a room, and every day, you work at breaking the lock until you eventually don’t try anymore, even when someone unlocks the door for you from the outside.

Whether that fits you or not, it’s always good to look at the assumptions around your feelings of helplessness and challenge them to see how you might contribute to them or distort the facts.

It’s not that you aren’t experiencing genuine feelings of helplessness, but you may have closed the door to possibilities and opportunities to make real change.

5. Accept there are things you can’t change.

Things happen daily that we have no power to change, like fluctuating world situations. Focusing on them relentlessly can lead to depressive helplessness that’s paralyzing.

That’s not to say you can’t contribute to solving a problem or contribute to a cause you care about. You can, and doing what you can individually is helpful and adds up the more people who do so.

What isn’t good is to become so preoccupied with the daily onslaught of negativity that you can’t function. Choose what you can do and do it, and don’t be sideswiped by what you can’t.

Remain present while keeping an eye toward the future, but without living in it.

6. Take an inventory of your strengths and assets.

When you feel helpless, you can quickly spread that feeling into unworthiness.

If that’s happening, review what you have to offer.

  • What are you good at?
  • What can you handle or have handled in the past?
  • Where have you succeeded or contributed?
  • How did you do that?

When you’re feeling low, it’s easy to forget all your successes and brush them aside, but by reviewing them, you might recall strategies you’ve used in the past to overcome situations that you can use again now. You can reshape them to fit the current situation and raise your confidence at the same time.

Doing so will help lift your mood and restore your sense of worth, which is part of the battle.

7. Take care of yourself.

Helplessness is draining, both emotionally and physically. It’s a circular trap. It’s much easier to feel helpless when you’re exhausted, and when you feel chronically powerless, you get exhausted.

Even when you can’t come up with solutions, take care of yourself. And especially when that’s the case. Most of us regress when we feel helpless and eat worse, become couch potatoes, mindlessly scroll through social media, binge-watch TV, stop exercising, and sometimes indulge in more damaging activities like drinking, overspending, and (you fill in the blank.)

Keeping yourself as healthy as possible when you’re under stress is crucial. You know that, so do what you can that fits into your schedule without overtaxing you.

8. Set up accountability.

If you feel paralyzed, it’s a good idea to set up an outside structure you can’t get out of. This could be a life coach, accountability partner, a job if you don’t have one, joining a support group, an exercise buddy, or anything where you have to answer to someone else. Don’t feel bad about needing that. Just set it up, and you’ll find it easier to break up the paralysis and overwhelm.

Final Thoughts

No matter the situation, helplessness is temporary, whether it extends over time or just a few days. You won’t remain there unless you take it on as part of your existence. There’s a choice involved, always. See where you can take action. That’s the primary key, and once you do, you’re on the way to changing where you are, no matter how small a change the first steps are.

That’s all for today.

Hope you have a great week!

All my best,


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