Symmetry Counseling

Written by: Meghan Emerson, MSMFT

Feeling helpless is not something that feels good. It feels inhuman. To be helpless is seen as weak, to forego control. When the feeling grows too large, it can inspire depression or avoidant disorders like alcoholism or other types of addiction. Until you can accept feeling helpless or find a way to gain control, you feel lost.

Yet we put ourselves in situations where we are helpless all the time. We surround ourselves with loved ones who get sick, encounter hardship, or pass away. And we hate feeling like we cannot help them. Sure, we can show support, but sometimes that does not feel like enough. We want to make the pain/illness/fear/stress go away, and it makes us feel helpless/worthless/like we are not good enough if we cannot accomplish this goal.

The situation is less complicated in traditional conflict that is triggered between partners. When your partner is the culprit of you feeling down or upset, he or she has the opportunity to address it directly. Your partner has control over changing his or her behavior and talking through the problem with you.

This is not the case when an external stressor is causing you or your partner’s negative feelings. In these situations, there is most often not a straightforward answer to make the stress go away. You do not have the power to resolve what is directly upsetting your partner, and this indirectly upsets you.

Reactions to feeling helpless vary, and identifying your automatic response to feeling helpless can help you regain control. One of the most common reactions is a scramble to find some way to help. We may offer advice or say to try something differently. Although well-intended, the other person is usually smart enough to have already thought through ways to handle the problem, and the implication that he or she has not might be interpreted as condescending.

Another common reaction to helplessness is anger, and this usually occurs when our initial efforts to help are rebuffed or unappreciated. Anger is an addictive emotion. It feels good because it makes you feel in control. Your thinking becomes straightforward and simple: Defend. Attack. Repel.

Obviously, this is not the healthiest strategy for a relationship. Anger is a secondary emotion, meaning it covers a more meaningful primary emotion, such as hurt or fear. By displaying anger, you reduce the opportunity for your partner to acknowledge and attempt to address your underlying pain.

Start improving your communication to avoid conflicts stemming from helplessness.

  • Be upfront with your partner if you want emotional support or advice so your partner can gear up to offer you the best “help” that he or she can.
  • Do not act like you know how to better handle the situation. It is condescending and usually not an accurate reflection of the way you feel. Tell your partner that you are struggling with your inability to help, and ask your partner what he or she needs most from you right now.
  • Do not criticize your partner’s efforts to address the problem or his or her attempts to console or offer advice. Validate your partner’s experience, and express appreciation before asking for what you really need.
  • Differentiate your feelings from your partner’s. It sucks to feel helpless, and that is probably something your partner can relate to. The way to keep helplessness from controlling your behavior is to acknowledge that it is there and find other ways to promote empathy.
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