You can learn to be helpless

I received a number of responses to my article about how some aging parents can become manipulative; appearing to be more ‘helpless’ than they actually are. Everyone agreed with my point, but some of you questioned how to verbally approach the issue. Well, sometimes it’s all in how you say it. For example, ‘Why are you sitting there all day doing nothing? You can get around! At least take a walk and do something for yourself!’ As opposed to, ‘You say you want to be more social. Why not get away from the house and spend a little time at the Cheer Center and meet some new people? It might be fun.’ The first one sounds kind of insulting, doesn’t it? The second one—not quite so bad.

There’s a big difference between bluntly telling somebody what to do, as opposed to gently informing them of the facts. When you tell somebody what to do, you’re implying that they don’t have a mind of their own.

And this applies not only to adults, but also to kids—especially teenagers. If you really require something of a teenager and he won’t do it, ordering him around isn’t going to work. You have to stick to the facts and explain to him what the consequences will be if he doesn’t do what you ask. If those consequences are important enough to him, you will have his cooperation.

Occasionally, friends or loved ones will try to maneuver you into telling them what to do. Don’t fall for it! A vulnerable person in crisis does not need to be told, in effect, that she has no mind of her own. You might want to show that you care, and that’s fine, but the way to do that is to ask questions and help your friend look at the facts. By empowering her to draw her own conclusion, she—not you—will ‘own’ the decision. To care about another doesn’t mean living their life for them.

Interesting research from the Department of Psychology at the University of Memphis suggests that ‘Lecturing to students in large classroom settings is not the most effective method of instruction. Findings that come from studies about how people learn indicate that whenever students are actively engaged in their learning, they learn better and faster.’ This makes sense, because people don’t learn unless they are actively applying their minds to the facts.

Lecturing can have its place for a motivated audience, but it’s not the way to approach your personal or business relationships. Of course, there are exceptions: If you hire an expert to fix your car, build your house, or perform surgery, you want someone who’s in charge and knows what he/she is doing. But even in these cases, it’s valuable to have things explained to you. One of the biggest complaints that I hear about some doctors is that they don’t take the time to explain what they’re doing. Even an expert should have a method of reasoning that a non-expert can be expected to understand. Nobody, no matter how accomplished they may be, is above showing respect and consideration.

Mental health professionals often describe depression as ‘learned helplessness.’ People ‘learn’ to become helpless by having too much done for them. Parents who do absolutely everything for their kids—and fail to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing—can foster an attitude of, ‘I have to let someone else do it.’ No wonder some young people end up being irresponsible. They haven’t been sent the message that they CAN and SHOULD fend for themselves. As a result, the real world can look pretty frightening.

Some people have a need to tell others what to do. These ‘authoritarian personalities’ have an inflated sense of their own importance and the role they must play in the lives of others. More than a few of these types end up in positions of power, but many more show up in the personal lives of everyday individuals. The authoritarian is more than just a ‘control freak.’ Control freaks are driven by an anxiety to get things done ‘right,’ for better or worse. The authoritarian, however, believes that people are incompetent, and that he or she must take over for them. When a compulsive authoritarian and a depressed or ‘dependent’ type find one other, the resulting combination can be sicker than either of the two alone.

None of us knows everything, but we’re all able to think. Needing to be told what to do stems from a lack of confidence in your ability to think things out. When you’re confident in your ability to think, you recognize your capacity to investigate and form responsible conclusions on your own. You can then make your own decisions based on your best judgment. All the talk of ‘self-esteem’ really boils down to this: A belief in your ability to figure out what’s going on around you and to take responsibility for forming judgments about it.

When you’re confident in your power to think, you hope that people you care about will develop this confidence as well. Healthy people look around the world and form their conclusions carefully and objectively. As a result, they have no desire to tell others what to do. They know that it just won’t work.