With all the violent crime going on in our country and city, I was recently left with a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness about this issue.
I was not sure if I could or should be doing something toward helping to change the situation.
I realised that with regards to the crime rate, there is not much I can do in my personal capacity, except to keep me and my family as safe as possible.
Added to this, I will continue to set an example and encourage pro-social behaviour in my child. I did not want to feel hopeless or helpless and needed to accept that, although there are things that I am deeply concerned about, I would not be able to change them because they lie outside my circle of influence. I can only change those things which are within my circle of influence. Realising and remembering this was liberating for me.
Researchers have proven that it is remarkably easy to produce “learned helplessness” in dogs, whose neural circuitry for motivation and emotion is quite similar to ours. Then it takes significantly more training to unlearn this helpless passivity.
Human beings are similar. We, too, can be easily “trained” in learned helplessness, which then can be tough to undo. Think about some of the ways you’ve felt pushed around by external forces, and how that’s affected you. According to research, learned helplessness fosters low self-motivation, depression, anxiety, pessimism, low self-worth, and less effort toward goals.
As a human being like any other, your biological vulnerability to learned helplessness makes it very important that you recognise where you do in fact have some power, and that you take the actions that are available to you – even if they must be only inside your own head.
How can we do this?
Rick Hanson, a psychologist specialising in neuroplasticity of the brain, in his newsletter called “Just One Thing” suggests to begin by considering a useful idea from Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Imagine a circle containing the things you have influence over, and another circle containing the things you’re concerned about. Where those circles overlap is the “sweet spot” where you can actually make a difference in the things that matter to you.
Sometimes there are things we care deeply about but can’t change personally, like people going hungry or homeless. It does not mean that we should ignore those things or be indifferent to them.
We should focus on what we can do, such as bearing witness to the suffering of others and letting it touch our hearts, staying informed, and looking for opportunities to make a material difference, such as volunteering at a children’s home, or helping at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen.
But trying to control things that are out of your hands will plant seeds of helplessness, make you suffer, and undermine your capacity to exercise the influence you do have.
You can begin by asking yourself: How could I pull my time, money, energy, attention, or worry away from stones that will never give blood or houses built on sand-and instead, shift these resources to where they will actually make a difference?
Then take an inventory of the key strengths and other resources you do have. Your circle of influence is probably a lot bigger than you think it is.
Consider how you could draw on some of those resources to take beneficial actions in ways you haven’t ever done, or have never sustained.
Challenge assumptions, such as: “Oh, I just couldn’t do that”, or “because of my background/ race/ gender or past that’s impossible for me to accomplish”… Are you sure?
Bring to mind someone you know who is very self-confident, and then ask yourself: “If I were that confident, what new things would I do?”
Of course, there may be stumbling blocks, but these can be powerful learning curves that help you grow and also develop greater inner strength.
Rick Hanson suggests that you think about actions you could take inside your own mind. Compared to trying to change the world or your body, usually your mind is where you have the most influence, where the results are most enduring and consequential, and where you have the greatest opportunity for a sense of efficacy and a chance to undo feelings of helplessness.
For example, how could you nudge your emotional reactions in a better direction over time, or develop more mindfulness or warm-heartedness? These are all within your reach and not only impacts on you and how you feel but also on those around you, including your community members.
When I don’t know what to do about some difficulty, sometimes I think of a saying from little Nkosi Johnson, our fellow South African.
Nkosi was born with HIV, and he died when he was 12 years old.
Before that happened, he became a nationally known advocate for people with Aids. His “mantra”, as he called it, always touches my heart: “Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.”
That’s all anyone can ever do.