Helping you become all that you are capable of becoming!




Chapter 12 Overcoming Helplessness

Tools for Handling Control Issues

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.

What is helplessness?
Helplessness is the:
  • Learned behavior by which you have been able to hook people into caring for and nurturing you.
  • Vehicle by which you were able to get your ignoring or neglecting caretakers in the past to pay attention to you.
  • Composite of physical illness, academic problems, failures, work problems, and relationship troubles which have drawn the attention, support, and caring for you from other people, places, and things.
  • Vehicle by which you have manipulated people, places, and things to allow you to remain overdependent on them.
  • Making others believe that you lack the competence, intellect, skills, and abilities to handle your own problems.
  • Mask behind which you hide your fear of success so that others are convinced that you can't succeed when in reality you are afraid of succeeding.
  • Inability to establish a sense of trust in yourself so that you can open yourself up to be vulnerable to hurt and failure by taking a risk to do for yourself rather than to rely on others to do it for you.
  • Being locked into your little boy or little girl mask which has gained you a lot of approval in your adult life but it is not a helpful coping mechanism to deal with the problematic realities of life.
  • Refusal to grow up and be an adult because then you would be held responsible for the outcome of your life which responsibility you desire to avoid for fear of failure.
  • Mask for the anger and rage you have inside of you for being expected to be mature, personally responsible, and self-approving in your adult life when in your child life you feel you were too neglected, ignored, and non-approved and now want others to do for you what you need to do for yourself.
  • Use of humor, entertaining, and mascot behaviors to divert attention from the need for you to take personal responsibility for your own life.
  • Acting out in a way which draws others' sympathy and compassion but in reality is a manipulative ploy to get them to do for you what you don't want to do for yourself.


What are the negative effects of helplessness?
If you continue to function in a helpless way, then you could:
  • Become disabled by other people's attitude towards you because they do not believe you are capable of doing anything on your own.
  • Become overdependent on caretakers to help you to overcome the negative impact of your problems.
  • Convince yourself that you are indeed as incapable as you project yourself to others.
  • Fear stepping out on your own, to pursue anything that you are convinced you are not capable of handling on your own.
  • Lose your potential to have a happy and content existence convinced that there are forces in the world always trying to handicap and keep you down.
  • Become convinced that no matter how hard you try to do things you are never good enough to succeed.
  • Become locked into a victim mold of existence always needing a rescuer to help you to overcome the negative impact of the negative perpetrators in your life.
  • Find that your inherent competencies, skills, and abilities wither and atrophy from non-use.
  • Become locked in the yes… but attitude whenever you are being presented with viable alternatives and solutions to your problems so much so that you drive people away from wanting to help you in the future because of your pessimistic or fatalistic outlook on your problems and the frustration they experience in having you reject all of their offers of help, advice, and support.
  • Be figured out by others as a person who doesn't want to become self-sufficient and independent and it could be recognized that your asking for help is simply a ploy to control them to keep them from choosing to leave you alone to solve your own problem.
  • Project an image of being frail, weak, and non-confident, thus making yourself unappealing to people who desire to have a mature adult relationship with you.
  • Hook caretakers and fixers to take care of you resulting in the possibility that you could run through a series of new ones in turn after you have been dropped by recovering persons who see you for what you are.
  • Become overly depressed and despondent because you run out of people to take care of you and despair because you are in reality no longer competent to take care of yourself.
  • Find that your low self-esteem becomes more exacerbated as you continue to believe and put out the myth of being helpless to care for yourself.

How is helplessness a control issue?

Acting helpless is a control issue because:

  • In so acting you look as if you are willing to transfer the locus of control from your hands into the hands of others when in reality you are in control of those people who think they have this control over you.
  • It is a learned behavior by which you have gained attention and the ability to control the efforts and energy of others on your behalf.
  • By wearing the mask of helplessness you are able to manipulate others to fix, rescue or care for you when in fact you have the resources to do so for yourself.
  • It is a form of controlling others even when they don't believe they are being controlled. (After all, how can a helpless person be a controller?)
  • It is a power position whenever you run across an addicted fixer or caretaker, or addicted rescuer or enabler because you meet their needs and can almost dictate the extent to which they can help you to avoid taking personal responsibility for your own life.
  • It appears out of control and powerless, when in reality it is a manipulative ploy to gain power and control over others' thinking, feeling and actions.
  • You are willing to let go of control over your physical well-being even if it means you become physically sick to the point of chronically ill in order to get people to attend and care for you.
  • You can resort to intimidation, coercion, or suicidal threats and gestures if people are not responsive to your claims of being helpless.
  • It often is a survival technique by which you were able to control the environment, situation, people, or things which were a threat to you and your existence.
  • You have learned this behavior pattern so well that you can call upon it whenever you feel you are losing control or power over someone who is threatening to detach from or let go of you.
  • You can get so lost in the mask and belief of your helplessness that you no longer take control over your own life and hand over this power to others in your life.
  • You have stopped exercising your right to care for yourself so much that you are locked into selling yourself short so that you can depend on others to take control of your life and needs.


What irrational thinking lies behind learned helplessness?

Some of the unhealthy, irrational, non-logical thinking exhibited by helpless people are:

  • If I am no longer in need of others help or support, then how will anybody ever find me appealing enough to be loved and cared for?
  • There is no way I will ever be able to get myself out of this mess.
  • How would I know since nobody ever told me?
  • I don't know how to do what I need to do for myself because I was never taught this.
  • I don't have the ability to be supportive of your feelings since I don't know how I feel nor can I identify my feelings.
  • How can I be supportive of your feelings when I am so overwhelmed in my own problems?
  • If people hadn't abandoned me, then I would have been able to solve these problems.
  • People are basically selfish and they don't care about you.
  • People will only show interest in you when you are sick, in grief, hurting, or perceived as a failure or loser.
  • The only time people give me attention is when I'm not capable of helping myself.
  • Since no one really cares about me when I'm healthy, then I must only be worth something when I'm sick or in trouble.
  • No matter what I do, I'll be abandoned anyway so why should I change?
  • I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't, so why should I try?
  • If they really loved and cared about me, they would do it for me.
  • I've never been able to do it before so what makes them think I can do it now?
  • I'm a weak, frail, human person and people can't expect me to get strong overnight.
  • I've only been in my recovery program for such a short time. How can you expect me to start doing for myself yet?
  • Don't pressure me to change. I become immobilized under pressure.

What are some things you can do to cease being helpless?

In order for you to reduce your sense of helplessness and to begin to become more self-sufficient, competent, and self-confident, you need to try to do the following self-help activities:

  1. Identify those problems, obstacles, fears, or issues over which you feel helpless and identify what beliefs keep you locked into being helpless for each one.
  2. Develop a new belief system that encourages you to recognize that being independent, competent, self-confident, and capable of helping, fixing, and changing yourself is healthy, desirable, and necessary for you.
  3. Learn what normal coping behaviors are from others who are in a healthier place than yourself.
  4. Practice healthy coping, problem-solving, fear-desensitizing, and conflict-resolving behaviors.
  5. Build on your successes at being an independent, free-standing self-helper, self-coper, and self-healer.
  6. Remember that success breeds success and be sure to reinforce yourself for all of your successes even if they be small ones.
  7. Accept that relapse is part of the recovery process and get back with your program of self-help if you should slip or fall back to your old mold of helplessness.
  8. Call upon your Higher Power to give you the courage, strength, and persistence necessary to gain self-sufficiency to cope with your life.
  9. Give permission to your network of support to call you on any lapses back into a helpless mode of being.
  10. When you get angry about always having to do it on your own, do anger workouts to ventilate these emotions which are traps waiting to draw you back into your old attention-seeking, helpless role in life.
  11. Parent your inner child by nurturing and self-loving self-scripts and allow your inner child to grow to be a healthy adult by giving it the freedom to make a mistake or fail in its attempts at self-help.
  12. Develop a sense of patience to accept that it takes time (an entire lifetime) to fully rid yourself of a sense of helplessness since it is often such an ingrained, automatic habit of acting, thinking and feeling for you.
  13. Let go of your perfectionistic need to be healed perfectly since it traps you to give up if at first you don't do it exactly right.
  14. Emotionally detach from all fixers, advice givers, rescuers, and enablers in your life so as not to fall into their need for you to be helpless in order for them to relate to you.
  15. Stop hiding behind all your old excuses, beliefs, and clichés about why you can't possibly help yourself.
  16. Have a farewell party or wake for the old you who was wrapped up in self-pity, self-doubt, and self-abasement.
  17. Let go of that old you and as in any death grieve all of the losses involved in no longer benefitting from the old role of helplessness
  18. Embrace the new you who is more self-competent, self-helping, self-healing, self-respecting, self-confident, and self-enhancing and recognize all of the healthy, normal, natural, beneficial consequences of living your life in this way.

What are the steps to overcoming helplessness?


Step 1:  You first need to identify in your journal the following:

  • With whom do you usually function as a helpless person?
  • What are the issues involved with you and these people over which you are helpless?
  • How would you define each of these people? Who are the fixers? The rescuers? The advice givers? The enablers? The caretakers? The gurus? The professional helpers upon whom you have become emotionally dependent?
  • What irrational, unhealthy beliefs keep you in your role of helplessness with each of these people and in each of the helpless to overcome issues in your life?
  • Identify why it is so difficult for you to accept personal responsibility for helping yourself to overcome each of the problems, fears, issues, and conflicts over which you currently feel helpless.
  • Identify the benefits to you of taking personal responsibility for helping yourself on your own and under your own power and control.
  • Identify the negative effects for you of remaining helpless as you face your current problems, fears, conflicts and issues.
  • Identify why your efforts in the past to overcome your sense of helplessness failed. What did you lose in your life when you became more capable of helping yourself?
  • What are the benefits for you in remaining helpless in your current problems, fears, issues, and conflicts?
  • Identify which of your current relationships are based on your feeling helpless in it. How would these relationships change once you ceased acting, thinking, and feeling helpless? How does the potential change in your current relationships keep you hooked into remaining helpless?
Step 2:  Once you have thoroughly assessed the state of your sense of helplessness, then you need to identify what you need in order to grow in the skills of self-coping, self-help and self-healing. To do this respond to the following:


Self-Help Skills and Behaviors Inventory

In order to help yourself grow into a more self-sufficient, self-nurturing, self-healing, and self-confident person, you need more of the following self-help skills. In your journal rate each of the following self-help skills on a four point scale:


0 = don't need more of since this skill you have plenty of and practice it most of the time.
1 = need a little more than you currently have since you are aware of the skill and at times practice it but you could benefit from more training and practice in it.
2 = need a great deal more than you currently have since you have a sketchy understanding of it and on a rare occasion have even tried it.
3 = an overwhelming need to learn about it to alter your feelings about it and to put it into practice since you have only heard of it and know nothing about it and have never practiced it in your life.


  1. To honestly identify my feelings
  2. To identify other people's feelings
  3. To communicate openly and honestly
  4. To effectively listen to others
  5. To respond to others reflecting that I understand how they feel
  6. To problem solve with others issues which arise in relationships
  7. To identify my thinking which is unhealthy or irrational and to develop alternative, more healthy thinking to overcome these beliefs which block my personal growth
  8. To affirm myself for all of my personal skills, abilities, talents, competencies and other positive attributes
  9. To eliminate guilt as a major motivator for my personal behavior
  10. To maintain trust in myself to be there for me when I need me to be
  11. To overcome my sense of insecurity
  12. To allow myself to become vulnerable to the hurt and pain of failure, mistakes, and loss in order to grow
  13. To take risks in life
  14. To nurture my inner child in healthy ways
  15. To desensitize and overcome my fears
  16. To overcome my fear of failure
  17. To overcome my fear of success
  18. To reduce or eliminate my perfectionism
  19. To overcome my human pride, by accepting that there is nothing I can't accomplish as long as I have my Higher Power with me as my partner in life
  20. To practice patience by accepting that recovery is a life-long process
  21. To grow in a deepening and maturing spirituality with an emerging personal relationship with my Higher Power
  22. To continuously accept personal responsibility for my own thoughts, feelings, and actions and not put the blame on others
  23. To handle the stress and anxiety in my life through relaxation and self-healing activities
  24. To take care of my own physical health through proper nutrition, sleep, exercise, etc.
  25. To not use procrastination but rather utilize healthy time-management techniques
  26. To take the steps to prevent burnout in my life
  27. To have a place, time, and people in my life with whom to have fun and enjoy myself
  28. To resolve conflicts, disagreements, and fights with others in a win-win resolution
  29. To overcome my fear of rejection
  30. To reduce my need for approval from others
  31. To practice healthy, assertive behaviors in all of my relationships
  32. To eliminate the need to play sick, victim, or martyr roles in my life
  33. To reduce competition in my interpersonal relationships
  34. To have healthy intimacy with others
  35. To set goals with the others with whom I have relationships
  36. To recognize when my relationships are based on reality rather than on fantasy or a dream of   the way it could be
  37. To use forgiveness and forgetting in overcoming hurts in relationships
  38. To establish a healing environment with others when needed
  39. To help others recognize when they need help
  40. To recognize and accept the reality of losses in my life
  41. To reduce denial mechanisms from blocking my need to change
  42. To cease bargaining in my need to change
  43. To let go of the past and get on with the present
  44. To face and accept death as a reality of life
  45. To work my anger out in a healthy way
  46. To overcome depression
  47. To rid myself of hostility, sarcasm, and cynicism
  48. To overcome pessimism and negativity
  49. To work out my resentment
  50. To stop jumping to negative assumptions
  51. To not stuff my anger in silent withdrawal
  52. To eliminate revenge as an unhealthy motivator
  53. To eliminate any rageful behaviors
  54. To reduce or stop self-destructive behaviors
  55. To overcome any irritations
  56. To eliminate passive aggressiveness
  57. To handle angry confrontations in a healthy way
  58. To emotionally detach from the toxic relationships in my life
  59. To not manipulate others to do for me what I can do for myself
  60. To give and accept healthy emotional support in my efforts at personal growth



0-60              Good self-helper. You have enough skills and behaviors to assist you to overcome the sense of helplessness in your life.

61-120          Fair self-helper. You have a need to learn more about normal self-help skills and behaviors if you are to successfully overcome the sense of helplessness in your recovery process.

121-higher  Poor self-helper. You are in great need of training in the tools for coping which will assist you to know, feel, and act in a more normal way and grow in self-esteem and gain self-confidence, self-respect and self-healing so as to overcome the sense of helplessness in your life.


For further work on each of these self-help skills and behaviors, review the Tools for Coping Series books by James J. Messina, Ph.D. The following items are found in the specific books of the series:
Item number
1-6      Tools for Communications
7-27    Tools for Personal Growth
28-39  Tools for Relationships
40-44  Tools for Handling Loss

45-57  Tools for Anger Work-Out

58-60  Tools for Handling Control Issues


Step 3: Once you have determined the degree to which you are a self-helper, then you need to work at acquiring or increasing the self-help skills in which you are currently deficient. This can be done by utilizing all the Tools for Coping Series books written by James J. Messina, Ph.D. and through participation in the Self-Esteem Seekers Anonymous Program (The SEA's Program) conducted by a counselor or therapist.


Step 4: As you grow in self-help skills, redefine yourself as a person in recovery from low self-esteem and a sense of helplessness. Utilize all of the tips to overcoming helplessness contained in this chapter.


Step 5: If, after an exhaustive effort at self-growth and self-healing, you still feel helpless, then return to this chapter, re-read it, and begin Step 1 over again.