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Helplessness is the Worst Feeling

Until You Learn to Fix it

For many of us, the pandemic meant spending weeks at home in lockdown mode followed by years of limited contact with some of the beloved people who energize us the most—our families and friends. We could never have imagined the U.S. could be so shutdown— schools, churches, and workplaces closed for years. We knew there was little we could do to stop the pandemic, the resulting deaths, or the terrible toll it was taking on thousands of people. We felt helpless—one of the worst feelings around.


Overwhelmed elder sitting frustrated in front of his laptop.
Image designed by © artem on AdobeStock

I’ve noticed helplessness has crept into many seniors' lives. To understand more about helplessness, I turned to the research of my fellow psychologist, Martin Seligman. In the 1960s, Seligman conducted experiments with dogs and how they learn. He found that dogs who were exposed to a series of electric shocks tried hard at first to avoid them. But when they discovered there was nothing at all they could do to stop the shocks, they gave up and lay down. Later those same dogs were put into a new learning situation, only this time there were no shocks involved. There was an easy way to get out of the box where they were placed. But in this second situation, the dogs who had been shocked previously didn’t even try to get out. They just lay down. And what is truly remarkable, they could have just walked out of the box. Other dogs who had not been shocked did just that, they walked right out.


Seligman realized that he had identified an important finding: dogs who have been exposed to conditions they couldn’t change, learned to be helpless. He also learned the dogs that had been shocked could unlearn their helplessness, but it took time for them to believe that the second situation was different. And Seligman began to see many examples of learned helplessness among humans, too.


WHAT HELPLESSNESS FEELS LIKE

What does helplessness feel like to us humans? It is an unpleasant feeling. People I asked about it, told me they feel powerless, unhappy, worried, weak, and frozen. And how do they behave? When we accept that we can do nothing to change our situation, we, like those shocked dogs, stop trying to change it. We are passive; we don’t move. 


Isolated elder woman sitting alone on park bench
Image designed by © Andrey Bandurenko on AdobeStock

Consider Donna, a willowy woman who recently became an empty nester in Chicago. She had reason to feel down in the dumps. She was getting divorced, her financial situation was uncertain, and her soon-to-be ex was not helpful. She had limited hopes for finding a job at 71. She told me she spent her days reading romance novels while her house was getting messier and messier. Even though she was normally somewhat of a neat freak, there were piles of dishes in the sink. “My efforts don’t seem to do any good,” she reported. The failure of her marriage made her think she was a failure in life. Donna felt helpless.


Here is what I suggested to get her going. Say to yourself, "Today I will take the first step to clean up the house. For eight minutes, I will wash whatever dishes I can do in this time.” I told her the most important part of the suggestion was to stop at the agreed-upon eight minutes. This is a critical part of getting going because people who have trouble getting started often have trouble stopping so they can overdo it. She can see the success in breaking down a task into small, manageable steps. She could continue for 14 minutes the next day if she was so inclined, completing the task in increments.


This strategy worked for Donna. She had been overwhelmed and paralyzed by how big the clean-up was. So taking a limited number of small steps helped her get going. 


To combat helplessness, I also suggest calling a friend whose problems are worse than yours. This, too, can jump-start a stalled-out person.


A third way to begin is to find a buddy and you each set small goals for yourselves. Then you check in by phone or in person once a week. Sometimes daily works even better. The support of another person or group can be the boost you need to keep going. Eventually, Donna joined a support group for divorcees and found a part-time job that helped her gain confidence.


Two elder women enjoying their time together encouraging each other while walking on the beach
Image designed by © moodboard on AdobeStock

We all wonder about the long-term impact of the pandemic on kids, on adults, on us older people. Even before COVID-19, about one-quarter of Americans over age 65 were socially isolated, and more than 40 percent of people over age 60 reported feeling lonely, according to the National Academies for Science Engineering and Medicine. The antidote to loneliness, which can lead to helplessness, is living your life as best you can. A successful way to deal with both helplessness and loneliness is to take action, one small step at a time.


After Covid had mostly subsided, I found myself more cautious and less adventuresome than before. I wanted to get my old self back. But, sometimes I felt like those dogs who lay down. I worried whether it was safe to venture beyond my small world. One day I felt courageous enough to drive to an art museum some miles outside of my usual orbit, but it was scary. And when I was there, I made sure to avoid the other people in the museum. Gradually, over months, I regained and relearned the ability to move more freely. Tomorrow, I leave for an overseas trip to Geneva, Switzerland.


AGING MAKES SOME PEOPLE FEEL HELPLESS

Aging is another situation, like the pandemic, over which some of us feel we have little control. There’s a group of older people who still believe outdated assumptions about older people that have proved to be false. They assume you ought to retire at 65 and that older people can’t learn. They assume that aging means decline. Those who assume they have little control over their life say things like, “You will die when your number is up, so why bother?” Their helpless attitude prevents them from taking action. You can recognize their mindset when they say things like, “Why bother to learn anything?" and “Why bother to make a change to adapt to the current situation?”


On the other hand, people who retain their belief in their ability to control their life’s course as they age, say things like “I can steer my life in the directions I choose” or “Much of what happened to me is up to me,” and “What I do makes a difference.” And research has shown that this second group will feel happier and live longer than those who feel unable to exert any control over their life. 


Active elder couple biking home with groceries
Image designed by © bernardbodo on AdobeStock

It takes courage and determined efforts, however, to take charge of our lives and change what we are doing. And since change is a constant in our lives, we will need to keep reevaluating our current situation and adapt. But we are a lucky generation living in a time where the possibilities for elders are growing exponentially. 


In my case, I left my diversity consulting firm when it was not much fun anymore. I was burnt out. I was 73. I returned to a psychotherapy practice part-time and for many years it was a great fit for me. It took courage to make that switch because a lot had changed in the field and I found myself a beginner again in many respects.  


I have watched hundreds of people over 70 reshape their lives – closing some doors and opening new ones. My partner Peter started taking art classes two years ago and art is now his favorite activity. Others have resumed all sorts of former pursuits or started new ones: writing poetry, volunteering at hospitals, becoming active in local politics, getting involved in organizations working for causes, exploring their genealogy, learning to quilt, and starting gardens.


Active elder woman volunteering with friends to clean up local park
Image designed by © N Felix/peopleimages.com on AdobeStock

I encourage you to keep learning and changing to deal with your unique needs of the moment. We need to say to ourselves, “It is never too late to take charge of my life.” As Eleanor Roosevelt summed it up beautifully. “In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die.” 

 
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4 Comments


Samantha Morin
Samantha Morin
Jul 23, 2023

I learned a valuable lesson when I was only 20 which has served me well for 65 years. I was at Homecoming Weekend at a university where I knew no one, and my date informed me that he had to tend bar at the Saturday night party and could not spend the time with me. I was shy and alone and stood back against a wall as couples started to pour in to the biggest party of the weekend. At that moment I was faced with a terrifying (to me at the time) choice: I said to myself, “I can either take the bull by the horns and meet people, or spend the whole night standing with my back against…


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Katharine Esty
Katharine Esty
Aug 02, 2023
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Your story is a wonderful example of learning to choose a positive attitude. The fact that this moment is so clear in your head shows us how much of a landmark event this was for you & should encourage us all to create more moments like this for ourselves. Thanks so much for sharing.

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Love love love your posts Katharine ! Huge kudos. I generally pass them along to Dan as well.

Have a wonderful time in Geneva Switzerland. Dan spent five years there with his family when he was working and he and I went back to visit several years ago. What amazing beauty! And yes, it takes courage to travel and especially overseas, so again, kudos to you!


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Katharine Esty
Katharine Esty
Aug 02, 2023
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I had a wonderful time. It is an amazing city & showed me how much we can learn from how they do things there. Thank you for your interview last week & we'll talk soon.

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