"If you don’t like where you are, move. You’re not a tree."
I often thought of this quote to be a very liberating and an empowering one. It gives us a not-so-gentle reminder that we have a choice to move away from the negativity, to change, to remove ourselves from something that isn’t acceptable to us. It gives us the insight that the control is with us. That all we need is perhaps a little bit of courage to move away.
But what if, we choose to not move away. What if we take it as our duty to stay? Or what if the other alternative is not really better. While the above approach is a great way to look at things, it is not always pragmatic to apply it. After all, we can’t move away from every adverse circumstance that comes our way, can we?
I have personally faced a number of these situations myself, and have seen many of my clients go through the same. It can be, well, debilitating to say the least. It starts to feel like you have no control, almost like being in tunnel feeling an overwhelming sense of helplessness, and not being able to see the end of it, and sometimes even doubting that there is an end to it.
So what do we do in these situations? And how do we prevent it from being further debilitating? How do we find happiness during those moments? In my experience as a psychologist, and having dealt with a number of clients with this issue, I thought I’d list down a few pointers that can help you cope well in these situations.
As a first step, it would be important to understand and check for learned helplessness. Learned Helplessness was discovered in 1965 by psychologist Martin Seligman while he was studying the behaviour of dogs. This can lead a person to falsely believe that they are more powerless than they really are. This can lead to them making poor choices, resulting in a worse situation and a vicious cycle of depression sets in. We often become a victim of this phenomenon of Learned Helplessness without realising it. It is when a person begins to believe that they have no control over a situation, even when they do. It occurs when a person is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the person stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if he/she is utterly helpless to change the situations. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action. The mantra of the person who suffers from Learned Helplessness is: "What's the point in trying?” For instance, when a person does not vote and the thought process is it doesn’t matter as things never change, or because politicians are evil on both sides, or one vote in several million doesn’t count. Yeah, that’s learned helplessness.
There’s a possibility that even you could be a victim of learned form of helplessness when you believe that there is no way out of your present situation. Because sometimes, the light at the end of a tunnel is not an illusion. The tunnel is. It will be important to test the validity of your belief by looking at it with a fresh perspective. Ask yourself if there actually is no way out. Brainstorm with a person you trust. Or, consult a therapist to gain deeper insight into it.
“So, what if, instead of thinking about solving your whole life, you just think about adding additional good things. One at a time. Just let your pile of good things grow.” - Rainbow Rowell
Once you are certain that there’s actually no way out of the situation at the moment, you may not have control over removing the negativity, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t add in some positives, right? It works just like a mathematical equation. Keep adding the positives and you’ll see that the negatives will automatically reduce as the end result. You can start with something as simple as taking a walk in the park, or pursuing a hobby, gymming, learning a new language. Just any little thing that gives you joy. Choose what is possible to do on a regular basis. It should ideally be something that you will look forward to, and give you joy for that time being, or at least distract your mind from the negative situation. Who knows you might reach a point when you’re able to neutralise the final outcome too in no time.
Counting Happy Moments
Quite similar to counting your blessings. Except here you are actually recollecting the happy moments of the day over dinner or at bed before sleeping. Often in these helpless situations we end up being oblivious to the good things that are happening; we get so caught up with negativity that we end up overlooking the simple happy moments. Doing this exercise on a regular basis makes us more aware and appreciative of the good things that are happening. The exercise also gives us an insight on whether we are actually doing anything that can make us happy. Are we making any efforts? So on days when it becomes hard for you to find any happy moment, stop and reflect upon whether you are really doing things that make you happy. If not, then it's time to start actively doing little things that you enjoy. Having a long conversation with a good friend, listening to your favourite song, eating your favourite dish, smelling the flowers, dancing to songs without a care etc. You’d know better what makes you happy. And often it is not in the big things, but in these small little things only that we underestimate.
Keeping a Check on Your Thought Patterns
Dealing with a ‘helpless’ adverse circumstance over a long period of time can often lead to self doubts, and other negative beliefs which may not be accurate. In psychological terms, we call it “cognitive distortions”. Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. They are so habitual that the thinker often doesn’t realize he or she has the power to change them. Many grow to believe that’s just the way things are. Cognitive distortions can take a serious toll on one’s mental health, leading to increased stress, depression, and anxiety. If left unchecked, these automatic thought patterns can become entrenched and may negatively influence the rational, logical way you make decisions. For instance, a person might tell themselves, “I always fail when I try to do something new; I therefore fail at everything I try.” This is an example of “black or white” (or polarized) thinking. The person is only seeing things in absolutes — that if they fail at one thing, they must fail at all things. If they added, “I must be a complete loser and failure” to their thinking, that would also be an example of overgeneralization — taking a failure at one specific task and generalizing it their very self and identity. The good news is that this can be ‘corrected’ or restructured to having healthier thoughts with the help of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).
One Step at a Time
Like they all say, it will be helpful to take a step by step approach. Getting through this difficult time/ situation may seem like a big task at the moment. Looking at all the things that need to be completed can overwhelm you, and can intimidate you. It is helpful to just think about what the next thing that you can do at the moment. Make short term goals and focus on achieving them rather than breaking your head over all the things you need to do to achieve the final outcome.
Prioritising the Self
Make sure you are your number one priority. Your biggest worry may be your parents, your spouse, or your child, and you’re focusing all your energy on how to make them feel better and how to make things better for them. That’s something beautiful. But from time to time, it is good to remind yourself of the individual boundaries. Attachment is good, but enmeshment (excessive attachment) is very unhealthy for the individuals as well as the relationship you share with the other person. So remind yourself that you need to work on your own self first. Deal with your problems at the moment. This doesn’t make you selfish but sensible, because as cliched as it may sound, you can actually help others only when you yourself are in a balanced state. You can spread happiness only when you are happy. So, it will be important to ensure your happiness, your psychological wellbeing before worrying about helping others. Once you have sorted your problems, and are in that stable, balanced self, it won’t take much of an effort to help the rest.
“I chose this!”
Most importantly, when you see the situation as a choice that YOU have made, you’ll be surprised how your perception towards the entire situation changes from helplessness to feeling in control. Too often we blame other people or circumstances for our unhappiness and that is why we feel stuck and helpless. But the reality is we are where we are because we have chosen to be here. Jean Paul Sartre, renowned french philosopher who brought in the concept of existential freedom says “you are free” because you always have a choice, “therefore choose” (Sartre 2007). And the reality is YOU ARE always choosing, believe it or not! You make the choice to accept people or situations or not accept people or situations. You dislike the job you are doing but are sticking to it because YOU think it will look good on your CV. “I can’t leave the city because my family needs me”. Here again, YOU are choosing to live with your family because well YOU care about their needs. The reasons could be varied why you choose what you choose but sometimes we forget that it is the choice that we ourselves have made consciously/subconsciously. Just remind yourself from time to time about your reason; say it out loud “I chose this”. Helplessness is an illusion, because you are the one in control, always.
Can’t think of a better way of ending this post than with this profoundly empowering quote by Viktor Frankl, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
So choose well you all. :)