The Secret Power in Feeling Helpless

The Secret Power in Feeling Helpless

One of the most crushing and crippling side effects of low self-esteem is the sense of helplessness with which it saddles us.

Hopelessness too, of course. But before hopelessness comes helplessness: that paralytic mixture of fear and resignation driving our belief that, whatever good, bad or incalculable thing awaits us around any corner, we will be tragically but blameworthily unequipped to handle it. Whether it's a new relationship, a health issue, a job interview or a banana split, the one thing we think we know for sure is that we cannot endure it unscathed if at all, much less emerge educated, victorious, enjoying ourselves and/or improved.

For those of us who struggle with self-loathing, helplessness is not just a feeling but a conviction—in every sense of that word.

But while we equate helplessness with weakness and powerlessness, and while we equate all three of these "nesses" with worthlessness, latent within that frightful tangle of emotions and reactions is a certain strength, a secret fuel. How can we learn to identify it, access it, cherish it and use it for positive change?

Start with this thought: What is self-loathing but negative energy? Horrible, sure, but energy still. And it's fierce. What if we simply saw this energy as energy? From that perspective, all those times when we cancelled engagements, overthought job interviews, let others make choices for us and called ourselves pigs for craving then eating those banana splits, we weren’t just sitting there! We were doing something.

Collectively speaking, we've spent years talking ourselves out of nearly experience we've been offered, and years regretting most of those experiences which we let ourselves undertake. Translate those "years" into some other form of measurement: voltage, say, or gallons or miles. All those bouts of won't-can't'-don't might have seemingly amounted to nothing, but look how much effort we poured into them: effort expended to create nothingness, as it were, but effort nonetheless.

Balking. Halting. Holding back. Self-criticism. Self-denial. Self-restraint. Sorrow. Our old pal regret. These are all emotions but also activities, mustering action and force. In fact, worrying so much about a budding friendship, possible career, imminent event or past conversation that we pace the floor, write countless texts that we delete before sending, cry on the shoulders of loved ones whose sweet compliments we heatedly refute and whose helpful advice we pointedly ignore is far more complicated and effortful than just winging it and hoping for the best.

Working ourselves into a frozen state of perceived helplessness is ... work.

And sustaining a sense of perceived powerlessness requires ... power.

Which makes our paralysis mainly illusory.

Our minds are quite active as we strive to guard ourselves against the pain of defeat which perceived helplessness makes us dread. In these oh-so-familiar moments, our self-loathing minds perform simultaneously two tasks that are vastly disparate yet both entail exquisite expertise. First, our minds spin elaborate fantasies spotlighting every possible worst-case scenario. Meanwhile, they're racing to calculate the risks.

Which makes us auteurs of the imagination and master statisticians. What skill!

What if in witnessing all the raw power and creativity that we typically expend on self-loathing, we started to see ourselves as capable of raw power and creativity? What if with new awareness we could harness this strength, redirect it, channel it and transform its substance into something else, focused perhaps outside us—on adventure, say, or empathy, or boundless curiosity?

Feeling your worst is not all that different from feeling your strongest. So let's own our strength.

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