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Powerful Helplessness

by Dr. Sidney Langston

People who assert themselves, express their opinions and get things done may seem powerful to most of us.  But we probably tend to underestimate another kind of strength that surfaces in relationships. That is the power to passively control others through dependency, weakness, silence and helplessness.  


These passive behaviors can actually be forms of aggression.  The need to act in such ways probably starts with genuine feelings of anxiety, incompetence and insecurity. The insecure person envies those who seem successful and self confident and begins using passivity as a weapon.


Amanda, shy and frightened, made it clear she needed a strong man to take care of her.  At first her husband was flattered, he loved waiting on, supporting and protecting Amanda.  But several years into the marriage, he began to feel trapped.  He complained that he not only had to provide for Amanda, but he also had to help her make all the homemaking decisions.  He lamented that she was often unable to accompany him on business trips or family outings because she was sick.  Because of Amanda’s helplessness, her husband doesn’t have a marital partner, and their relationship is in jeopardy.


It is very important to become aware of such relationships and to learn how to handle them for the sake of both participants.  Thought also needs to be given to how such relationships develop.


James is a family man who, for years, has been struggling with low self esteem. At an early age his parents shamed him by telling him over and over that he would never amount to anything. At first he attempted to prove his parents wrong, but at every turn in life he met with failure. James learned as a child that he could rebel against his parents’ control by silently retreating, and he continued that pattern in his adult relationships. In essence he was saying, “If I can’t do what I want to do, and if my opinions are constantly ignored, then I won’t do or say anything.”  Unfortunately, this leaves his significant others with the impression that their opinions and feelings are not worth his time and attention.


Both Amanda and James are handling their anger, lack of confidence, and insecurity through the tyranny of helplessness. They win, hands down, because their helplessness and dependence controls everyone else’s life.


Parents may control their children by saying such things as, “It gives me heart failure to think you’re going out for the football team. It’s such a rough game.”  Or, “If you go out of state to college, I just don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll be so lost without you here.”  In such instances the children are left feeling confused, insecure, guilty and anxious.  These people are hard to defeat because they can make you feel too guilty to even assert yourself.

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