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If there is one phrase I hear almost every day I do coaching around overcoming anxiety it’s this: “Yes, Erik, I know some things I should do – but I feel so helpless.” It is a feeling I remember too well. It was like the world was just out of reach, visible, but blocked by some invisible barrier. I didn’t believe I could change anything in my life, and I felt very, very helpless.

I was wrong. I took my feeling helpless as a fact, but it wasn’t. I was confused and ignorant of some important truths about helplessness, and I want to get those truths clarified today with this blog post. We don’t have to continue to be the prisoner of that sense of helplessness. We are not helpless. We are stronger than we know.

Truth: Helplessness is a CONCEPT – a Thought

We toss around the term “feeling” a lot, we who fight or have fought anxiety. We look to our feelings a great deal. We see them as signposts to our terrible condition, and proof that something is wrong with us, physically and mentally. And we say, way too often, that we feel helpless…

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But helpless isn’t a feeling – not really. Helpless is a belief, a conclusion that we reach based on old thinking, training and experience. We THINK we are helpless. We FEEL sad, trapped, despairing, scared, anxious – but we think we are helpless.

In other words we BELIEVE that we are helpless – and all too often, as a result, we then act helpless, and viola, we’re not doing anything. Action all too often follows belief (although it definitely works both ways), and so, believing we’re unable to help ourselves, or that our situation is too big for us, we do nothing.

We get set up early in our lives, most of us, trained to believe that because for some point in our lives we were unable to change things that scared us or made us feel trapped, we can NEVER change those things.

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We were, for a time, in a cage – a cage of family, or circumstance, or belief, and we learned to think that we had no recourse, no way to get away from situations that made us think we were helpless, unable to change anything about those situations.

But we’re wrong. We are not helpless, and we can do an enormous amount to be self-helping, self-caring in our lives. We can unlearn the belief that we are helpless.

An Example or Two

Where do we feel helpless? Heck, where to start?

Some of us feel helpless when it comes to finances. We learned early, in various ways, to see money as scary, or not having X amount of money as scary, or that earning money is hard, or undependable. We don’t learn to trust our own abilities to earn money, or earn it reliably. We come to see tracking money as punishing, or limiting spending to stay within our means (of the moment!) as punishing. In other words we feel helpless around money and money issues.

Some of us feel helpless about relationships. We learn to put other people’s needs and wants before ours because we feel that we can’t manage life on our own – that if we’re alone we’ll be unable to take care of ourselves, emotionally or physically or mentally or all of the above. We think that we can’t navigate the world by ourselves, even for some short period of time. We come to believe that we’re weak, or insufficient – i.e., that we’re helpless.

And because we think we’re helpless in relationships we live in terror of losing those relationships – spouses, or kids, or family members, or friends, or all of the above. So we become enablers, constantly allowing behavior towards us that we’d be horrified to see other people suffering – but all because we think we’re helpless and can’t do without that person, or SOMEONE, to help us take care of our lives.

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Some of us feel helpless in the face of big circumstances. We’re terrified of change in almost any form. We refuse to think of death, or illness, or taking chances to get a better life, because we think we’re unable to navigate the storm, the difficult times, until times get better again, until we learn to cope with the changed situation. We don’t trust ourselves. We think we are helpless.

(Notice btw that I keep using the word “think”. It is thinking that is the problem here.)

Flight or Fight Just Makes Helpless FEEL True

To add insult to injury when we think we’re helpless we scare ourselves – and Flight or Fight rises up to help us “get away from this danger.” I don’t know that any creature is completely comfortable with the sense that they can’t help themselves, but I DO know that we human beings are very squirrely when we think we can’t manage our worlds and our lives.

The problem with this Flight or Fight response is that too often it doesn’t do anything but enforce the belief that we’re helpless! Instead of propelling us to take action it simply magnifies our sense of helplessness – convincing us further that we can’t go it alone, or can’t do the things that we need to do to regain a sense of agency in our lives.

You know the drill, don’t you? You are wandering along, minding your own business, when suddenly you get a bill in the mail, and you’re forced to consider money. Money scares you, and you think you feel trapped (well, heck, you DO feel trapped – but that’s a result of your thinking, not of your feelings.)

In other words you’re treating money as a crisis – classic anxiety thinking – so Flight or Fight is simply responding to you thinking there IS a crisis – when there isn’t. Yes, I know, you don’t have enough money, you’re living on the margin, you’re poor, etc. – been there and did that. But we have to see clearly what we’re dealing with – and unless you’re about to die of starvation or exposure to the elements it isn’t a crisis – it’s a problem, or set of problems – and it needs to be treated as a problem.

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We have to learn to see through Flight or Fight, see around the feelings to the thinking that lies behind them, and then tackle that thinking. Because, unless you’re tied to your chair or are locked in a dungeon someplace, you are not helpless, however you feel. None of us are helpless. We just don’t get it – yet.

Time to Rediscover (or Maybe Discover for the First Time) our Real Power

We are stronger than we know. We are much, much more able than we believe we are. The minds that have us believing that we are helpless are the same minds that can help us discover our own strength and ability. A great deal of that learning has to do with taking action, even if we don’t think we can, even if we don’t FEEL like it. Let’s make that step #1:

1) Get up and take action – even when we don’t feel like it. One of the most powerful weapons in the fight against thinking we’re helpless is proving we’re NOT.

Afraid of your money? Then it’s time to a) identify the what if thinking that is scaring you in the first place, b) work to get that crisis thinking clear and back to problem thinking, and c) start treating it AS a problem – by taking action. Balance that checkbook, even if you’re crying the whole time. (I sure did!) Call the credit card company and get a payment deferred to next month while you sort out finances. Ask your Mom for the loan, or someone – and promise yourself no more loans. Do something – and keep at it.

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Which means not crumpling into a ball the first moment you feel helpless. Sounds simple – and it is. Scary. Helpless-feeling. But simple. It does however mean defying those feelings that say we can’t or are unable to…

2) Keep getting up – however “pointless” it FEELS. We have to keep at it. Helpless often takes us to “well, I tried, but nothing changed, so I decided there was no point in continuing.” That’s the very DEFINITION of helpless. This is practicing a new way of thinking and moving. We won’t get it sorted out overnight! And we will be tempted again and again to just sit down and give up.

Don’t. And when you do (and you will) get up again. Fail. Try again. Begin to teach yourself that you’re more able than helpless thinking would have you believe. See through those old learned reactions to what you are capable of…

3) Get out of the future in our thinking. Crisis thinking takes us into the future. Imagine the horrible thing that will happen when X occurs. This horrible thing will lead to this horrible thing. I’ll never be able to manage my money, so I’ll wind up on the street pushing a shopping cart and wearing garbage bags. Blah Blah Blah…

But the truth is that each of us is much more capable than we currently believe. If we’re going to reclaim our power one important step is to break the hold of obsessive, future worrying. It’s never helped us. Yes, it’s tempting. For many of us it is a strong and siren-like habit, calling us back again and again.

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But we don’t have to keep going there. It will take practice. It will mean focusing on the present even when we reflexively go into the “terrible” future. It will mean getting up and doing even when we don’t FEEL like it. It will mean treating crises as problems. But all of that work will begin to demonstrate what we can really do when we decide that we’re not helpless any longer.

The Time to Act is NOW

Even if we are called back to the couch, or to the TV show, or to the warm embrace of another brownie. (Yes, I’m a recovering brownie addict.) Helpless isn’t really a feeling. Helpless is a mindset, born of early training and long practice. We can break that habit. We are stronger than we know.

So – what “crisis” are you going to start treating like a problem, today, now?

OK, so I’ve talked now about two essential skills to be a Fear Master (kind of like a Jedi Master, only real.) One skill is the capacity to sort out when we’ve turned a problem into a crisis – when we’ve taken an issue that can’t immediately hurt or injure us and transformed it into a life-or-death monster that scares the crap out of us.

The other skill is the conscious “discounting” of Flight or Fight Response physical reactions and feelings, i.e., understanding that there is nothing wrong with us when have those sensations and feelings. We are simply experiencing Flight or Fight, it is completely normal, and however we feel physically or emotionally we are not having a heart attack, losing our mind or sliding into eternal darkness.

The only word I can think of to accurately describe these abilities is (for those of us who are or have wrestled with chronic or acute anxiety, panic attacks and/or depression) is the word vital. If we want to get free of anxiety and get our lives back we need these skills.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes (or, Better, Don’t!)

Some of us, however (actually entirely too many of us) have been fighting this whole fear/anxiety/worry thing for a LONG time – years, even decades. We have had a kind of vampire at our throats, sucking the literal life out of us.

We acquired that vampire because we have lived with our fear for so long, lived with the constant pulse of anxiety and worry and stress, that we are conditioned to flinch away from both our Comfort Zone (which is only trying to keep us safe!) and the feelings and physical sensations that scare us. We hate it, we hate how our lives have been shut down and limited, but we don’t know what else to do.

That leaves us, if we’ve been at this long enough, feeling hopeless.

Dog In A Cage

I have mentioned before in this blog a series of experiments conducted at the University of Pittsburgh back in the 1960’s. Martin Seligman, a research psychologist and the author of books like “Authentic Happiness”, describes the following experiment( which is VERY relevant to this work at overcoming anxiety and fear):

A dog is put into a wire cage. The bottom of the cage is electrified – i.e., the person running the experiment can run an electric shock through the cage bottom. The dog is secured in the cage, then is shocked again and again.

(I know this sounds like the worst sort of sadistic torture, and I’m not crazy about the whole thing in the first place, but believe me, not only did it teach us something hugely important, but the dogs were not hurt long-term.)

Then the cage door was opened and the dog was shocked again. In addition there was food or a treat outside the cage, and the assumption was made that the dog, both seeing his/her freedom and smelling the food/treat, would take the first opportunity to leave the cage.

To the researcher’s surprise (and our great gain in understanding) the dog DIDN’T leave the cage!

Why? The door was open, it really could leave, so what was the problem? The problem, as it turned out, was that the dog had TRIED to escape, a lot, earlier in the experiment. Of course it did – it was getting shocked! But after trying a number of times and failing it gave up – just laid down and suffered through more shocks.

We’re Not Dogs, But…

There is a happy ending to this story. The dogs were taught they could leave the cage, and leave they did. Another good piece of news is that we learned something about living creatures in general, including human beings. We learned that we could literally learn to give up – what is now called learned helplessness.

We can take enough injury/setbacks/anxiety to teach us that there is no point in trying. So we stop trying. As bad as things are we assume they can’t get better. We’ve tried before, tried and tried, but nothing worked. So we learn to expect that nothing WILL work – that there isn’t any point – that we should just give up.

But we don’t have to stay there. I can try to break a padlock all I want – but unless I have a big steel hammer I’m unlikely to succeed. Or there is one other option – I could find the key.

Anxiety is a great deal like that padlock. We can want to open the lock – we can shout and batter and bruise ourselves trying to open it – but in the end it really is about finding a useful key.

Or, in this case, a small handful of skills, two of which you already know.

Hope – It Is a Really Good Thing

So this blog post is really about feelings, again – in this case, questioning that feeling of hopelessness that comes to those of us who fight anxiety, depression, panic attacks and fear. Just because we feel that way doesn’t mean we’re right. Just because we haven’t succeeded so far doesn’t mean we can’t succeed in the future – and more so if we have effective tools to help us succeed.

Bottom-line: question what your feelings tell you. Question your reactions to your body. Fear and anxiety can make you crazy, worried, even feeling helpless – but question it. See what thinking lies behind it. And know that it is possible to shake free of fear and worry – possible to unplug the thinking that generates those feelings in the first place.

Next up – skill #3 in our short series on the essentials of Fear Mastery.

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