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.