Several times in the last few weeks I have encountered people who believe they are helpless when it comes to effecting change.
Is there anything easier than believing there is nothing you can do? Whether it’s politics, child-rearing or dealing with your difficult family members, throwing up your hands is an easy out. Like a weird Kubler-Ross cycle I believe I have identified five distinct stages of helplessness I encounter in my work:
- distressed hand-wringing,
- impotent outrage,
- the ever popular What Someone (else) Should Do to Fix This Situation,
- depressed resignation,
- and, only rarely, the “What can I do?” stage.
Helplessness requires a villain – a person, a system, a political affiliation – something that convinces a person that there are no alternatives, therefore nothing can be done. Somebody or something is keeping you down. Once upon a time we could have blamed “The Man”. The Yippies however, whether you liked their methods or not, used The Man as impetuous for political action. Stage Five behavior in the form of theatrics.
This helpless attitude is tough to take as my impulse is to persuade folks that not only can they take action, but it will have an effect. Helpless behavior brings out my inner steam roller. To soften my “Come on troops! Over the wall!” enthusiasm for problem solving, I try to pause and evaluate what the powerlessness is about. Sometimes people don’t want to be reminded about their abilities and options cuz they are just bitching & moaning, and sometimes the situation really is FUBAR. The trick is to know the difference.
I need to be reminded periodically that not every problem begs a solution. In fact lots of problems are really symptoms begging for a diagnosis. If the goal is treating root causes, a band-aid is insulting. If all you can manage is First-Aid, then a band-aid looks pretty good. I forget sometimes that I’m only triage. When confronted with helplessness, and if I can get ahead of my instincts, I repeat to myself –
‘I am not a hammer and the world is not a nail’.