Useful or not useful?

Shortly after the war in Ukraine started, on a listserv of an association of therapists that I’m part of, I saw an email from a Ukrainian member with an urgent call for help and support in relation to the looming invasion from Russia.

Considering the whole situation and the fact it was clear that the person was, understandably, feeling anxious and desperate with the situation the responses from other members were unanimously sympathetic and expressed solidarity and a desire to offer support.

Among the responses that followed, one person said they were putting together a mental health, first aid kit with videos and exercises to help deal with high-level anxiety and reduce stress. This suggestion didn’t go down too well with the Ukrainian member, who then replied (in a strongly-worded email) asking for ‘real’ help and not for relaxation and meditation exercises, emphasising the emergency state they were dealing with and the danger to their future and lives.

I’m not quite sure what the Ukrainian member expected (or hoped) for by way of reply. We’re therapists; our resources rarely extend to governmental and political power; we have no armies to deploy or superpower abilities (despite popular opinion) to access and influence the minds of Russian military personnel. What we do is help people deal with difficult situations by providing them with resources or supporting them to create their own.

The interaction certainly started a thread going on the listserv. Mixed reactions and views were discussed and contested on what can qualify as ‘appropriate’ and ‘relevant’ help. The conversation gradually intensified around whether or not all offers of help are useful, and should be welcomed, or at least acknowledged. There didn’t really seem to be a middle ground and it sort of ended unresolved, with the feeling that each side held on strongly to their views.

So I was left curious. Why was there such a big debate about it? An offer of support was made and rejected. Fair enough, the style of the refusal could have come across as abrupt; but as it was clear that the member who rejected the offer was struggling and in distress, surely it was possible to just let it go, and not take any of it personally. And yet it didn’t seem too easy for anyone who joined the thread to just leave it. Why was it such a thing, to offer help and have it accepted and validated?

Feeling helpless

Generally speaking, feeling helplessness is usually triggered when we’re experiencing a distressing situation that seemingly can’t be resolved. This can easily be an everyday situation and there are plenty of circumstances that might seem manageable from the outside but where we find ourselves feeling helpless – either for ourselves or by witnessing others struggle with difficulties.

Ending relationships/getting divorced/losing jobs/illness/loss, for example, all involve changes to our lives that can be perceived as negative and that *might* trigger a sense of helplessness. Global events like war, (the) pandemic, and natural disasters can trigger similar or even stronger feelings, either for ourselves or for others we care for.

So what happens when we feel this way?

Unwanted change can bring up resistance and avoidance – which are natural and even normal initial reactions. This is similar to the survival mechanism of fight/flight/freeze that we use to deal with a real or perceived threat in an attempt to resolve the situation and leave unharmed. For example, we’ll try to influence the power balance to our advantage and repel the threat (fight), or we’ll try to remove ourselves altogether from the situation (flight) or we’ll do nothing in the hope the threat will resolve itself (freeze). If successful, we’ll be able to overcome the danger with a positive resolution where we remained unharmed and with no negative impact on our wellbeing.

The problem starts when these strategies fail and people find that the unwanted situation is happening anyway. This might sound a bit dramatic but it can easily happen in an everyday context, for example when a relationship ends. For some people, this can literally mean the end of the world and trigger high levels of stress and feelings of helplessness, especially (but not only) if they didn’t wish for it to end. This can then lead to a wide range of behaviours that might not be helpful, logical, or healthy but will reflect the level of helplessness the person is feeling.

For example, sometimes we can see one person (A) placing the blame, or full responsibility for the situation, on the other person (B) (whether or not it’s justified). Here, blaming can be an attempt from A to transform their feeling of helplessness into resentment and anger – which are ‘easier’ to bear. Maybe it’s too much for A to reflect on the reasons the relationship ended; maybe they wish to have gone back in time and change things, but can’t; maybe there wasn’t much to be done to prevent the break-up and save the relationship. Either way, directing anger, blame etc. at B can be unconsciously utilised by A to not feel helpless or be overwhelmed by it.

This can also take a different direction – a person might exaggerate their own part in the situation and take full responsibility for the break-up (again, justified or not), in which case they might replace helplessness with guilt and self-blame. Often we see children behave in this way; for example, when the parents get divorced children might imagine it’s has been their fault and blame themselves for the divorce. Self-blame becomes a way to deal with a distressing situation they wish wouldn’t happen and which they were unable to prevent or resolve. They ‘can’ then be angry or upset with themselves, instead of feeling helpless and overwhelmed.

These coping mechanisms are efficient in replacing the immediate feelings of helplessness but could have a detrimental effect if experienced in an extreme way or over long periods of time. Also, such strategies might be effective but are not so healthy, and are more difficult to support for as long as the underlying experience of helplessness remains hidden and unacknowledged.

Witnessing helplessness

Feeling helplessness by witnessing others’ difficulties can happen often and is a type of mirroring, or echoing of their experience inside of us. That’s connected with the idea of empathy and the kind of sensitivity that enables us to tap into the emotional experience of others. However, it can also originate from an embodied memory or experience, triggered by witnessing others in a difficult state which somehow reminds us of what we felt at a given point in the past.

Witnessing someone else’s helplessness and reacting to it shouldn’t really be a problem. We are reciprocal beings and it’s perfectly normal, and common, to have emotional reactions to each other, uncomfortable as it can sometimes be. Sadly, it’s not exactly encouraged or socially acceptable to acknowledge and work with those reactions, fears, and vulnerabilities, in our (Western) society. People tend to suppress, reject, ignore or bury their uncomfortable feelings to the point that they might not be consciously accessible to them.

Because of that, experiencing helplessness can create an inner conflict between:

  1. What we really feel
  2. What we allow ourselves to feel
  3. What we allow ourselves to express.

Many people will have a real struggle admitting, even to themselves, the extent to which they feel helpless and/or afraid, especially when there’s no ‘concrete’ reason – and sometimes even when there is. But the feelings and reactions are still there just beneath the surface and not owning them often leads to frustration and behaviours such as anger, guilt, blame, etc.

When we offer support

So bearing all this in mind, what’s useful to remember when offering help to others?

While each person and situation is different, there are still a couple of things that can help to offer support in a safer and more effective way, and these are 1. Self-awareness and 2. Our Presence. By practising and implementing Self-awareness we are in a better position to offer our Companionship or Presence, which is sometimes the most useful thing we can offer.

When we see someone struggling and have an impulse to help them, it’s good to pause and question where it actually comes from. (Not including life-risking situations or emergencies, obviously). In everyday life, we usually have time to reflect before acting and when people open up about their difficulties there’s no need to jump into action. Because maybe we reacted to their story with distress, which triggered helplessness, and there’s not much we can actually do to help them.  So taking that little pause can be used to check in with ourselves and ensure our offer isn’t, unconsciously, reflexive and aims at replacing helplessness with something else, for example telling (“advising”) them what to do or what we would have done in their place.

The problem is that we tend to judge the world by our own personal criteria of good and bad, and people often forget that what they themselves find helpful or desired might not be the same for others. There’s a fine line between being guided by good intentions, and being overbearing. Finding that silver lining can become easier when using self-awareness to separate what I really feel, from what I want to feel, and what I say. If I own to myself what I feel and what I want I contain those and keep myself held, and then be much more present and engage with the other person without my own needs getting in the way, unconsciously.

And once we get into the habit of examining ourselves and our reactions, we gradually learn to see and acknowledge them, and in turn, they then become easier to notice. Because this is what happens when developing our self-awareness: it can help us understand and know ourselves better, learn how to take responsibility for our actions and reactions, and make more informed choices about what and how to support others (or not!). And once we started exploring ourselves in this way we’re in a much better position to really be present with the people around us, and connect from a more authentic place.