Thursday, March 29, 2007

Learned Helplessness and Hopelessness... It Can be Unlearned

I many times have said to my clients and friends, “The only thing worse than a feeling of helplessness is a feeling of hopelessness.”

As I am writing about in one of my two companion, self-help books, My Adult Loving Relationships, this postulate became eminently clear to me a couple of years ago when I was talking with a woman I shall refer to as Jill, a 32 year old school teacher who had been living with her boyfriend for two years prior to coming to see me. After they agreed to end their relationship, she moved into her own apartment and soon began feeling very depressed.

As I was talking with Jill, I shared with her three statements that she made to me during our conversation: (1) “I don’t like what happened between Rick and me;” (2) “I am feeling very down and depressed about it;” and, (3) “There’s nothing that I can do about it.” As she looked at the three statements that I had written on a piece of paper for her, I said to her, “Jill, it looks to me like you went from feelings of disappointment, to feelings of depression, to feelings of despair. First you were disappointed because of what happened, then you began feeling very down and sad about what had happened, and then you began feeling that no matter what you did it would not make any difference.”

As Jill nodded in agreement, she began sobbing. By the time she composed herself, our session was just about over. I asked her if she would agree to a homework assignment. She nodded, “Yes.” I asked her to pretend that I, Bill Emener, had just ended a three year relationship with a girlfriend with whom I had been living. I also asked her to pretend that I had been feeling incredible disappointment, sadness, depression and despair. I also asked her to assume that she and I were good friends. I then said to her, “Jill, what would you suggest that I do? I would like you to write a letter to me and put it in the mail by the end of this week. Give me a list of suggestions and recommendations, things that I could do, to help myself.”
As she left my office, she said, “You will have my letter by next Monday.”

When Jill came to see me two weeks later, I handed her the letter that she had written to me. The only difference was that I had crossed off my name, “Bill”, and entered the name “Jill” wherever my name had appeared in the letter. I said to her, “Jill, I would like you to assume that you have just received this letter from a good friend. Please read it out loud.”

She read the letter aloud and by the time she got to the end she had a big smile on her face. She turned to me and said, “You know, Dr. Emener, for whatever it is worth, these ten suggestions that are listed here are really very good recommendations!” I said to her, “Yes they are, Jill, whoever wrote that letter really knows what she’s talking about!” She laughed.

I then looked at her and said, “There is only one question remaining, Jill. If these are such good recommendations, and if they come from such an intelligent person, then why can’t you listen to them and try to do what is being suggested?”

Jill answered me by saying, “The last time I was here in your office, I was so emotionally caught up in my feelings that I totally shut off my brain. I honestly felt that not only did I think that nothing would work, but I didn’t even think that I was capable of coming up with any halfway decent ideas or recommendations of what to do about my situation.” I believed her.

At our next session, Jill told me about all of the exciting and helpful things she had been doing to help herself. The fact that Jill was not only doing helpful things, but was doing things that were her own ideas, also contributed to her self-esteem and sense of self-worth. That was the last that I ever saw Jill.

A few months later, when the weather had turned colder, I received a post card from the island of Nassau. On the back was an inscription that included, “I am helplessly and hopelessly in love with this place! Having a wonderful time! Your good friend, Jill.”

Question: In trying and helpless situations, what do you do to avoid feeling hopeless?



Mostly Happy Thoughts said...

I have a really good support system of friends at work that I trust completely and we support each other through difficult times. We all struggle with anxiety and depression etc so we really try hard to help each other.

Cole Reising said...

Wow! That post really gets to one... all I'm going to say, is thanks for sharing!


Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello MHT,
Good for you -- having caring and helpful friends, i.e., a safety net/support group, is a wonderful thing to have -- it also takes pressure off of your significant other and enhances and indirectly supports your relationship

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Cole,
Thanks for stopping by and acknowledging the criticalness of attending to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. I also suspect that most people have experienced these two aspects of life more than once in their lifetimes (and hopefully learned from them).
Thanks again,

Jordana said...

If I can use an experience from a past time I used to enjoy - running. I remember when I was running long distance races, the first mile was always great, the adrenaline was running, the crowds lined the streets, fellow runners were encouraging, etc. However, once the pack thinned out, the magnitude of how far I had to run would hit me. I found that if I set short-term goals "run to the next street, run to the next mailbox, etc." that I could keep myself going. Before I knew it, I had a line of mailboxes behind me, and the finish line was that much closer.

Similarly, when life gets overwhelming, I have set myself "short term" goals. Not only are they easier to identify, it is a good boost for the self-esteem because in a very short time, I could accumulate quite a long list of "good jobs". And I found it didn't have to be "major" accomplishments. There were days it was "I read an extra book to my daughter" or "I did 10 situps" or other seemingly "no big deals". At the end of the day, I would remind myself what "good" thing I had done. It helped me keep a "here and now" perspective on things, rather than getting overwhelmed by the "marathon" of life.

I must have had a GREAT teacher. :-)

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hi Jordana,
While I am touched by your closing remark, I give you a deserved standing ovation -- your points clearly are on the money (and extremely well-written).
What you basically are saying is that with a well thought out and operationalized strategy, a person can take proactive steps to overcome adversity and maximize their mental health.
Thank you for stopping by and offering your sage advice,

Jordana said...

"What you basically are saying is that..." - I've never been good at "basically" saying anything. Way to wordy, if you ask me, but every word seems important at the moment. Thanks for breaking it down to the basics.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hi Jordana,
Thanks for your very complimentary reply. Please do not think that th issues are simple. However, I have found that if we can look at the issues simplistically, they're easier to attend to and deal with.
Ciao for now,