In the span of three months, Patti lost her father to cancer and her grandmother to heart disease. Shortly after the funerals, her brother launched a legal battle to take over their father’s estate. Patti began to binge and was completely out of control with food. She was helpless in the face of death, and powerless to stop her brother from trying to take over the estate. Her solution was to use anger and productivity to distract herself from the intolerable state of helplessness.
Corinne’s insurance company made it difficult for her to have access to her benefits. As a result, she could not see the therapist of her choice, unless she paid out of pocket. Her challenges to the insurance company were unsuccessful and she felt powerless. Corinne began to restrict food, which was a way of expressing her deprivation in terms of her therapist, and also a way of coping with the helplessness she felt.
Helplessness is a feeling that most people cannot bear to experience, either on its own or because it intensifies other painful or upsetting feelings. Helplessness is defined as: 1) unable to help oneself 2) weak or dependent
3) deprived of strength or power 4) incapacitated. The state of helplessness is connected to vulnerability and dependency, both of which can be extremely uncomfortable.
Anger, productivity, withdrawal and/or denial are ways of distracting from the intolerable state of helplessness.
Anger: Anger is an active emotion, whereas helplessness is a passive emotion. Like Patti, you may get angry at yourself for your weight, or be upset with yourself for what you’re eating, or the amount, as a way of avoiding your sense of helplessness.
Productivity: Being busy is another way of turning passive to active. Focusing on achievements, productivity, and being a slave-driver to yourself are all strategies to distract from helplessness. Thinking about food, weight, and calories are examples of focusing on “doing” rather than “feeling.”
Withdrawal: Withdrawal is a way of denying helplessness. Anorexia is a withdrawal from food, from wants, from needs, and usually from people.
Denial: If you tell yourself that what makes you feel helpless “isn’t a big deal” you may be denying your true feelings in order to minimize the reality of the situation. This is a way of dismissing your feelings.
How do you feel helpless in your life?
If you weren’t feeling helpless over food, what would you feel helpless about?
If you weren’t focused on being powerful over food and hunger, what would you be focused on?
If you weren’t trying to control food, what would you be trying to control?
*My appreciation & thanks go to Dr. Axel Hoffer and Dr. Dan Buie for their inspiring paper “Helplessness and Our War Against Feeling It”