A Lesson in Unlearned Helplessness

In a sociology class I took in college, we discussed the theory of learned helplessness. Basically, it’s the notion that we mimic what we see portrayed or illustrated to us. In the context of the course, the lecture was specifically directed toward learned helplessness in women. We see damsels in distress on television, we see knight-and-shining-armor-like male characters rescue them from their sadness, and then we believe by being needy we’ll attract the guy we want.

I see this time and time again, and I’ve probably been guilty of the same “help me!” tactic in past relationships. There’s something about being upset and then being comforted by anyone – man or friend – that seems normal. Sometimes it even feels good. But the older I’ve become and the more men I’ve dated that were far more helpless than I’ll ever be at any given point in my life, the more independence I have claimed.

Well, until today when Mr. Possibility experienced his first unexpected summer storm. And unluckily for him, with my hands on the wheel.

Returning from The Biltmore, wind, rain, hail, and lighting encompassed the Carolina sky and we watched the cars on the highway slow and some pull off to wait it out. I’m not a fan of driving due to a scary accident I had in high school and torrential weather only intensifies my fear because it reminds me of how it feels to be out of control of your vehicle. Stuck in traffic on the expressway where everyone else was going at the same speed, I didn’t freak out. He kept quiet, I stayed focused and I felt comfortable enough to get us off at the right exit.

But then my nerves got the best of me. On the older, uneven country roads plagued with flood plains, the water rose to the top of my tires and with the inclination I could hydroplane, I almost burst into tears.

“Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!” I repeated continuously while gripping the steering wheel,  keeping my eyes peeled for wrecks ahead, and prepping myself for a disaster myself. Instead of consoling me or getting me out of the situation, Mr. Possibility calmly encouraged me to breathe, to keep moving, to not brake and assured me I could get through it. When we hit the next overgrown puddle, I returned to my “Oh my god” chorus and again, he let me know that this was in my hands, that I could do it and that this was all me. He even threw in a “Can’t Tigar do anything?” pep talk for good humor.

You could guess I was highly unamused.

Once we pulled over into a parking lot after a firetruck kept us from going any further because part of the road was underwater, I snapped at him: “Why didn’t you just comfort me? Why didn’t you just say ‘Baby, you’re fine. I’ll handle this, just pull over and get out’?” He reached across the car, placed his hand on my knee and asked, “Well didn’t you handle it?”

I nodded.

“And aren’t we safe because of you?”

I again nodded.

“You didn’t need me to comfort you. You didn’t need me to make you get out and let me drive. You could do it just fine on your own and you did.”

It took me a while to cool down, still convinced he should have just rescued me from the awful storm so I could crawl into the passengers side, curl up and hide my face from the ugliness outside. But once we pulled into the driveway and I finally exhaled an hour later, I realized he was right. I didn’t actually need him. If he had not been in the car, I would have been fine – I would have just said the same things to myself that he said to me.

So why did I suddenly feel helpless? Is it because we’re conditioned to give up and surrender when a man is in our presence? If a guy is by our side, do we throw away any gumption we had without them? Or is it just easier to tell someone else to do something, to get through the nitty-gritty instead of doing it ourselves? Instead of correcting what’s wrong with us or embracing our fears with courage?

A few hours later when I needed something out of our rental car (that luckily wasn’t damaged from the hail), I started to ask him to run outside and get it because it was still raining. As the words slipped out of my mouth and he asked where the keys were, I quickly excused him from the duty. Will I melt in water? No.

And I don’t really need Mr. Possibility – or any man that’s a possibility. I just kinda of want him – maybe that’s partly because he reminds me that helplessness isn’t part of who I am. And that if you can learn it, you can unlearn it, too.

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5 thoughts on “A Lesson in Unlearned Helplessness

  1. Don’t forget its nice to be needed. If the guy does not mind getting it for you, let him/us/me. If you expect to marry someone, you better expect hius assistance, or will you let him never do anything until you can’t stand it ?

    You find out what kind of fathe or husband a guy will be by seeing how he is in many situations, Deny those, and you’re not going to find out what you need to allow him to grow on you.

    That said, I’ve never met a woman who I REALLY feel comfortable driving me anywhere unless I’m too sleepy to drive. Nothing against them, but nothing flusters me. Except a woman who does not answer/

  2. This one I had to reply. Allow me to share a lesson from 9 years of marriage. I was the independent strong black woman. I did it all but in my heart I often wished he would OFFER to hold my hands, and take over. One day we discussed it and he said to me “you never asked”. I sense but unsure if I am that in part this one is that feminine part inside of you who dis wish your man to take over and now after his talk/your talk, you are sort of talking yourself out of that feeling.

    I often wonder will we totally redefine who the roles, males, females. But I digress, I think one of the roles of a man, a future lifemate is to protect. Thus, in a situation where his woman seems rattled, he could have taken over, you would have felt cared for. It is one thing to be the strong independent woman when you are alone and you have to and just another where your partner, to me the one who ought to protect you is right next to you and he is giving a “giddy up girl” speech “you can do it”. I would not have felt protected, despite having done it, feeling proud. I would have resented him, because obviously he did not have the same fears that I had. I may have forgiven him at least if when we reached there he held me in his arms, addressed my fears and made me feel protected. In my view, the way he behaved would have so disappointed my little heart a lot. :(

    That is one of those lessons that I had to learn, when to share my fear, when to ask and how to look for when a man is fulfilling his role in certain situations “protector”.

    I also learned to see how other women had their men opening doors, carrying luggages but o no, I had to be strong and independent for years, helping him, sharing al of these tasks and in the meantime I was not feeling cared for, protected, Yes I can and did do them but by God, be a man, take over will yah!

    Just my 2 cents and I read everyday. Hope the vaca is going well :)

  3. This one I had to reply. Allow me to share a lesson from 9 years of marriage. I was the independent strong black woman. I did it all, but in my heart I often wished he would OFFER to hold my hands, or take over. One day we discussed it and he said to me “you never asked”. I sense, but unsure if I am right that in part, this one is that feminine part inside of you who did wish for your man to take over and now after his talk/your talk, you are sort of talking yourself out of that feeling.

    I often wonder, will we totally redefine the roles in our relationships, males, females. But I digress. I think one of the roles of a man, a future lifemate is to protect. Thus, in a situation where his woman seems rattled, he should have taken over and you would have felt cared for. It is one thing to be the strong independent woman when you are alone and you have to and just another where your partner, to me the one who ought to protect you is right next to you and he is giving a “giddy up girl” speech “you can do it”. I would not have felt protected, despite having done it and feeling proud of myself. I would have resented him, because obviously he did not have the same fears that I had. I may have forgiven him at least if when we reached there he held me in his arms, addressed my fears and made me feel protected. In my view, the way he behaved would have so disappointed my little heart a lot. :(

    That is one of those lessons that I had to learn, when to share my fear, when to ask and how to look when a man is fulfilling his role in certain situations “protector” etc…

    I also learned to see how other women had their men opening doors, carrying luggages but o no, I had to be strong and independent for years, helping him, sharing all of these tasks and in the meantime I was not feeling cared for, protected, Yes I can and did do them but by God, be a man, take over will yah!

    Just my 2 cents and I read everyday. Hope the vaca is going well :)

  4. Pingback: Cranky Young Men | Confessions of a Love Addict

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