What's Up With That? ~ Katy Byrne

Katy Byrne Katy Byrne, MFT is a Psychotherapist in Sonoma, editor and animal lover. Her private practice specializes in: life transitions, couples communication, eating issues, moving forward, conflict resolution and the kitchen sink.


Learned helplessness

Posted on February 1, 2023 by Katy Byrne

In recent conversations these days, we agree it’s hard hearing of relentless shootings and terrible news. Emotions and opposing opinions pull on us like an undertow. 

We can’t help but feel overwhelmed sometimes. But, the fact is, no one is born believing they have no choice in what happens to them. We learn it. Studies show, “when animals start to understand (or believe) that they have no control over what happens to them, they begin to think, feel, and act as if they are helpless.” (Martin Seligman). Apathy is not an innate trait. 

I get it. Approximately 57 dictatorships exist now and America could be on the brink of the next. It makes us want to curl up in a ball, stuttering, “History repeats itself, I give up…”

But, we, the people, do have power. Sure, sometimes we need to grieve, accept reality, or rest. But, that’s different than giving up. I know about defeat. I wanted to give up many times. In 2008 my house was in foreclosure. For two years the banks pummeled me, auctioning my home, the phone rang off the hook with threatening robo-calls, rain pummeled and pounded right through my roof, pouring into the house. 

A chaotic divorce topped that. People I paid and trusted to help me were vile and irreverent, took my money and ran. I felt like I was trying to put my thumb on mercury. Everything I tried went sideways. 

I know what it’s like to feel helpless. I quivered many cold mornings. I struggled with many internal voices and parts. We all have them. An unconscious psychological split exists: one voice might have the ability to create the life we want, the other saying, “why bother” or “it’s impossible.” This second part lulls us into giving up on our hopes.

These personal divides can reflect our political perspectives too. When I faced that crisis, powerlessness nipped at my heels, the inner terrorist echoed harrowing, hypnotic messages, like “this is too big for me, I’m too tired.” 

Anxiety, anger, withdrawal, and numbing happen to us. But, we can also direct our reactions, one step at a time. Persistence, prayer, community, and luck bolstered me. I got my house back. Some challenges resemble Godzilla. 

Sometimes the climb is steep. Just this year alone 56 percent of respondents in one CNN poll said they have “little or no confidence” that the elections represent the will of the people. Forty-two percent said their vote does not make a difference.” Among U.S adolescents, one in six experienced major depressive episodes in 2020.

Sure, sometimes we need to embrace acceptance or rest. But, Martin Seligman’s 30-year research on depression shows: “When people change how they are looking at a problem – as setbacks instead of catastrophes – or understand that they can at least control how they react, the neurotransmitter disturbance appears to be relieved.” 

We can challenge unfairness. It’s work, but we can do it. We can restore justice and fairness. We can re-imagine our wishes. We can speak up to a tyrant, whether outside or inside us. Internal self-criticism or outer disrespect can be disputed skillfully and without any form of violence. As Martin King said, “You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” 


Katy Byrne, MA, LMFT, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the Bay Area for over 35 years. Author, The Power of Being Heard. ConversationswithKaty.com. 707.548.8982


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