Helplessness: Can We Control What Happens to Us?

Whether we’re talking about individuals or groups, feelings of helplessness pose an obstacle to any undertaking. Those who lack confidence in their capabilities are more likely to give up and abandon their goals, and they don’t bounce back as resiliently when their efforts prove unproductive. That’s because believing we can’t control important outcomes in our lives leads to resignation, which wrecks our motivation to work toward crucial personal or collective objectives.

In short, if we think our actions won’t make any difference, we’re inclined to do nothing. As a result, social change is severely hampered when people feel that working together won’t improve their circumstances. This notion — that our actions are futile and adversity can’t be overcome — is ordinarily something we fight hard to resist. But if we reach that demoralizing conclusion anyway, its effects can be paralyzing and very difficult to reverse.

Knowing that feelings of helplessness have a significant impact on the choices we make and the effort we’re willing to expend, those with their own selfish agenda can take advantage of us by manipulating our perceptions of what’s possible. For example, perceived helplessness — especially when it’s widely shared — makes it relatively easy for a small minority to control a much larger group. Without much effort, they’re able to maintain an oppressive status quo because active resistance is absent and opposing voices are silent.