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The Difference Between Feeling Helpless and Choosing to Do Nothing


We’ve all experienced the feeling of helplessness. Getting a flat tire in the middle of a snowstorm on the way to catch a plane. Arriving drenched for a job interview. Losing a loved one. Being jilted. Having your wallet or phone stolen. I could go on and on with examples. Life is full of these “oh no” instances with which we’re all too familiar.

The main difference between feeling helpless and choosing to do nothing about a situation is that emotion is a purely internal affective process. Thinking or cognition is also internal but is also a cognitive process which is likely to translate into behavior that is external. Feeling and choosing how to act occur in different parts of the brain.

Here’s what happened to my client, Sami. Her sister, Tess, whom she loves is very difficult to have a relationship with due to her mood swings, temper, self-centeredness, and emotional needs which are more like those of a child than an adult. When Sami entered therapy, much of our conversation about Tess involved Sami wanting to make her life better. Sometimes Sami tried to get close to Tess to help her, but mostly she became so frustrated that she gave up and wouldn’t talk to Tess for weeks.

Now, back to feeling helpless and choosing to do nothing in a situation. Sami described feeling totally helpless about changing Tess, especially when our discussions led to her recognizing that her ongoing efforts always went awry. She realized she was caught in an endless cycle of experiencing intense helplessness which pushed her into making unsolicited actions toward Tess which always failed and led to more helplessness. 

We came up with the plan for Sami to experience her helplessness until she could say, “I can’t help my sister right now” without feeling overwhelming distress. Then she shifted out of feeling emotions to what she could do about her relationship with Tess. This decision had to come from thinking about what was best for herself, not from how she would feel about it. She decided not to initiate contact with Tess nor try to change her if she reached out. With clarity and certainty, Sami chose to do what happened to be best for them both: to do nothing to force the relationship to improve. 

Sometimes when people choose to follow through with doing nothing, a relationship improves because the other person feels less pressure to be a certain way and less controlled. Alternately, the person may also withdraw as happened with Sami: Tess more or less dropped out of Sami’s life leaving her feeling concerned and sad, but not helpless, appropriate emotions after such a loss.