One of the most frustrating parts of trying to build an amazing life — especially when you’re working on your dating and social skills — is the feeling of helplessness. There’s this very real and very palpable sense of feeling like you’re stuck, unable to make any progress. You’ve been working as hard as you can and you have nothing to show for it. You’re powerless to make even the slightest improvement in your own life. Or, worse, you feel that you’re at the mercy of forces outside your control. The universe itself has colluded against you, specifically, and you have been singularly fucked by the fickle finger of fate. Your existence can feel reduced to a cruel prank played on you by life.
It’s all too easy to believe that you have no options, that everything is pointless and there is no hope. It’s even easier to fall into despair and just give up. After all, when you’ve been trying to make things better and nothing works… what do you do next?
The key is to recognize that feeling powerless and being powerless are two very different things. You have more potential than you realize… if you only understand how to unlock it. This is the key to taking charge of your life, to shape and direct your progress and actually regain control of your destiny.
Here’s how to pull yourself out of despair and stop feeling helpless.
The Cure For Helplessness Is Action
The most seductively deceptive thing about feeling helpless and powerless is that it’s paralyzing. It comes from feeling as though you have no control and no hope of control; the only option you have is to just lay there and endure it. After all, what’s the point? There’s nothing you can do. Nothing you do matters; it’s all outside of your control. You have no power to make a difference.
Part of what’s so insidious about this feeling is how easy it is to say that you’re just being “realistic”; you just see the world as it really is. Everything that says otherwise is just an illusion, a lie designed to give the false belief that you could do better. All you can do is find some way to ease the existential despair and find some way to get by. As the incels put it: it’s hope vs. cope vs. rope. No matter what you do, you’re fucked.
And what makes matters worse is how all-encompassing this feeling becomes. When Dr. Martin Seligman tested negative conditioning on dogs through electric shocks, the dogs who had no way of controlling or avoiding the shocks would just… lie down. That was it. Even when the door to their cages would be left open — allowing them to escape the experiment — they would lie down and whimper. They believed that there was no escape from the pain, and so they wouldn’t even try. They had, in the parlance of the incel community, decided to “lay down and rot.”
Humans do this too; they assume that they have no control and quit trying. They come to believe that there’s just no point. But this is just despair talking. Despair lies to you, telling you that there’s nothing to be done.
But there is. There is almost always something you can do, no matter how small.
Politics is a great example of this. It’s very easy to be a cynic and assume that “the fix is in”. As the sage says, “everybody knows the fight is fixed/ the poor stay poor, the rich get rich.” It feels as though the very system is designed to render you powerless, so what’s the point of even bothering?
But there’s a lot you can do. One option would be to volunteer at the municipal, state or national level. Another would be to walk the blocks and knock on doors for your candidate. You can phonebank for them or help organize Get Out The Vote efforts. You can fundraise, organize people on the local level, protest… there are always options. History is rich with examples of how perseverance in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles has lead to victory. Legal gay marriage was considered to be a pipe dream as recently as the 90s and early 00s… until it wasn’t. Organizing in Georgia in 2020 flipped the state from red to blue, handing Joe Biden the presidency and control of the Senate — something many, many people thought was an impossibility.
It took time and effort, yes. It required people being willing to be in it for the long haul and a seemingly impossible slog. But they still succeeded.
It just required choosing action over despair.
The same principle applies to your life. You want to look for the things that you can affect, no matter how seemingly minor or insignificant. This can often be intimidating. OK, sure, take action… where the hell do you start? What do you do first? What do you prioritize? More often than not, the key is to look at the big picture and work backwards.
If, for example, you are looking to get your own place — or move to a place that’s more suited to you — start with the end goal. Where are you moving to, how much will it cost, how much do you need for rent and utilities per month? Look to your resources; how much do you have saved up, how much do you have access to and what options do you currently have? If you don’t have the resources yet, then you get more granular: how will you get what you need? Can you find roommates to help you split the cost? Are you able to put money aside each week in a “Get The Fuck Outta Dodge” fund? Where can you cut expenses, pull from other sources or make changes that will get you even a little closer to your goal?
Each step forward — each penny saved, each phone call made, each time you make a point of talking to a stranger — is progress, and that progress is proof that you’re not helpless. The same goes for dating and social skills; each person you talk to, each time you work on making a connection, you’re making progress. It may not feel like progress — you’re still single, after all — but you’re one more step closer to your goals.
It doesn’t matter how small it is; small changes are still changes. Slow progress is still progress. The key is to focus on the step in front of you. The sheer magnitude of your end goal can be overwhelming; the amount of effort may be paralyzing. But by focusing on the immediate steps, you’re able to keep focus. You want to judge your progress by the milestones you’ve crossed, not how far you have left to go.
Make Real Changes
The next step is seemingly the most obvious: if you want different results, you have to do different things. Everyone can quote the old saw about the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But more often than not, a lot of people who struggle with feeling helpless tend to be stuck in a rut. Many times, part of the problem is that whatever it is that they’re doing either has stopped working or never worked in the first place. Sometimes this is just an issue with the passage of time; as you get older, your body and brain change and things that may have worked when you were young are no longer as effective. Other times, it’s that their needs have changed and they haven’t changed in response.
And still other times… well, other times, the problem is that “this is how I’ve always done things and I see no reason to stop now, even when it’s not actually helping me.”
The thing is, “just do the thing that didn’t work but do it HARDER” never really helps. When you’re struggling, or not getting the results you want, many times the answer is that it’s time to change things up. Think of heist movies; one of the tropes of the genre is discovering some aspect of the plan doesn’t work. Rather than trying to force the plan into success through sheer grit and determination, the protagonists change the plan. Yeah, it may be an elegant, clever scheme… but all that cleverness and nifty planning doesn’t stack enough bonuses to change reality. It’s better to shift gears and take a different approach instead of trying to find a new way to shove a square peg into a round hole.
However, this is a truth that gets a lot of pushback from folks. When you tell people to change up their approach or do something different, they’ll often insist that they already have. They changed things up, they tried a different approach and nothing worked, so clearly changing things wasn’t the answer.
But did you really do something different though?
A lot of times, “doing things differently” was a one-off attempt, one that they only tried for a very short time or was applied inconsistently. More often than not, “different” was barely distinguishable from what they were doing before.
This stubborn adherence to what they’ve done before shows up in many different areas. This often happens in people’s careers, in their social lives, or in improvements to their health. Many times, those changes were token efforts. They want to be able to say that “they tried doing something different”, so that they can justify their inaction to themselves. It’s easy enough to say “Well I tried and nothing changed, so clearly it’s hopeless”.
Dating apps are a great example of this approach. A lot of men will complain, with reason, how hard it can be to get matches on the apps. However, when you ask about what they’ve done to try to fix things, the answer is often “not much”. Usually this comes down to “expanding their search radius” or swiping on people they might not be into otherwise. What they haven’t done is made significant changes — different photos, changing up how they’ve written their profiles, tried different apps or try to work with the matching algorithms.
Hell, some folks will refuse to do anything differently, even when it’s pointed out how they’re hurting their own chances. Sure, keep swiping on everyone in hopes of maximizing your matches; the developers at Tinder have said this downgrades people in the algorithm but you’re free to keep hoping that the 10,000th time will be the magic number.
Often, this resistance falls into one of three categories.
In the first, there’re emotional issues behind a hesitancy to making significant, lasting changes. Somebody may have painful or negative experiences associated with, say, going to the doctor or talking to a therapist, and so will resist doing so, even when it’s the obvious answer.
In the second, they’ve given up. They may not have fully admitted this to themselves, but their hesitation or refusal is because they don’t want to bother. They just want permission to quit trying, even as they complain about how much the status quo hurts them.
In the third, they feel they shouldn’t have to do things differently. It may be that they feel like changing would be a betrayal of their sense of self. It could be that they feel that changing would be unfair, or that the fault lies with other people.
And in fairness, all of these are understandable. I think it’s safe to say that all of us have fallen into these categories on one issue or another. But even so, the fact of the matter is that not making those changes, whatever the reason, means that nothing is going to change. If you can accept this, then more power to you. But, as I’m always fond of asking… how’s that working out for you?
Another frequent roadblock to progress isn’t that people don’t do things differently, but that they don’t give themselves enough time. It takes time to put those changes into effect, and before you start seeing the results of those changes. There are few cases where making a change will give you instantaneous results. More often than not, it’s akin to wondering why you’re not swole after only lifting for a week, or able to run a marathon after only training for a month.
The lag effect between making a change and seeing the results means that many people quit before they have an opportunity to reap the benefits.
Still other times, people will make one change or try doing one thing differently before going back to their old habits. This, in their minds, proves that they tried and making changes doesn’t work.
Except, all this proves is that this one change didn’t work, not that all changes are pointless. Launching your bike off the roof with cardboard wings strapped on doesn’t prove that flight’s impossible, just that this particular technique failed. And probably put you in the hospital. And really, why are you going with Looney Tunes logic in the first place?
Now to be clear: none of this is to say that overcoming helplessness or feeling trapped or stuck requires a radical transformation. Nor does it mean changing literally everything about yourself. What it does mean is that you need to be willing to get out of your comfort zone — and to confront reasons why you’re unwilling to do so. It also means that you need to give those changes time to actually take effect — something that may take weeks or even months.
However, it’s also important not to overwhelm yourself. It’s harder to make and maintain positive changes when you’re trying to do a dozen things at once. This is a great way to drain your endurance and your willpower, making it hard to maintain those changes even after you’ve made them. Focusing on one change at a time helps you zero in on what works and what doesn’t, and what else you might need to try.
But speaking of changes…
Document Your Progress
When you’re trying to overcome feeling stuck or helpless, there’s one important question that you need to ask: how stuck are you, really?
This isn’t an idle question. A lot of the time, you’re actually doing much better than you realize. The problem is that you may be too close to see what’s actually going on. This is especially true when the change may be gradual and progressive. Some changes can’t be seen because they’re not a dramatic difference from one day to the next. If, for example, you’re working on losing weight or building muscle, you aren’t going to see a lot of differences if you check every single day. You’re so familiar with how you look that your gains (or losses) won’t be immediately visible; the differences just get folded into your mental image of “this is just how I look.”
The same goes for other changes — particularly gradual changes to your status quo. You may not realize just how well you’re doing at talking to women, how many miles you’re running, how much time you’re saving and so on.
The truth is that we’re not objective observers of reality. Our perception of the world is influenced by our expectations, by our attitudes, by our prejudices and even our brains’ attempts to be more efficient. If something doesn’t seem to have changed much, our brain will literally quit processing visual information and just rely on memory instead. As the sage once said: your eyes will deceive you; don’t trust them.
What you can trust, however, is data. And many times data is what you don’t have.
When you’re feeling stuck or helpless, having actual data on hand can show you where and how… or if you’re even stuck at all. Having the actual information on hand allows you to track changes, spot patterns and even identify sticking points. Documenting your strength training, for example, helps keep you on track. Keeping an exercise journal where you track what exercises you do on which days, what weights you use and how many reps you do per set helps you follow your progress and see how much stronger you’ve become. And if you have other data on hand — hours slept per night, diet and hydration, and so on — you can cross-reference the information and see that, say, your plateaus correspond with how much sleep you get.
The same thing applies to other forms of athletic training. Documenting your average pace, recovery periods, and distances traveled helps keep you on track and shows just how much you’ve improved. Just as with strength training, you may also notice that days when you struggle correspond with other factors like diet, weather or even your work schedule.
Having actual numbers means that you can track changes over time, rather than guessing or putting too much emphasis on the days when you have a harder time. It’s easy to focus like a laser on the days when you’re sucking wind after the first 15 minutes or you just can’t lift as heavily as you did last week. Documenting everything makes it that much easier to recognize those bad days as aberrations, while showing that you’re doing better than you realized.
What about data that can’t be quantified as easily? How does one document getting better at dating, for example? Or overall social fluency?
You track that too. There’re a number of different ways that you can translate your experiences to data. One option would be to create a spreadsheet, with entries for relevant information— what days and times, what venue, what you said, how you felt, how long you stayed in the conversation and so on. Even if you don’t go full statistician-nerd on the results and apply numerical values to results or whatnot, this can still show progress. If you’re finding that you’re able to make more approaches in general, stay in the conversations longer and feel more confident, then you’re demonstrating significant progress, even when it may not feel like progress.
Alternately, you could keep a journal and write out your experiences. Write up each evening, what you did, how you felt when you did it and so on. If you use software like Evernote, you can even apply keywords or tags to entries to help sort through them. And while you may not be able to create nifty visualizations or charts and graphs, you can still track changes.
If you’re documenting your progress in journal entries, make a point of re-reading them at the end of each month. By doing a monthly review, you give yourself distance and perspective; you’re better able to process things without the immediate emotions filtering your perceptions. Plus, by reading over them at the end of the month, you make it easier to spot patterns that you wouldn’t see otherwise. What tags show up the most, how many times did you do X and feel Y? How often did you feel frustrated and at what point in the day or evening?
You’ll also see progress where you might otherwise miss it. You’ll see how many times you feel confident and secure and the times you stayed out instead of giving up early and calling it a night. Reading over old entries will help you realize how many more people you’re talking to, how many more events you’re going to.
Some of this may seem minor or insignificant but, again: progress is progress, no matter how small. A pebble can seem insignificant, but one pebble can trigger an avalanche. A single snowflake may be tiny, but put enough of them together and you have a blizzard. And one inch forward is still one inch closer to your goals than before.
Tracking your progress can help you realize that you’re doing far better than you ever knew. It can also help you find the areas that are tripping you up, so you can make those necessary changes… changes you couldn’t have known to make if you didn’t have the data. Many times, the problems that leave you stuck and frustrated may be completely different from the problem you think you have.
Don’t Demotivate Yourself
Of course, all of the effort in the world isn’t going to help if you’re just going to cut your own potential off at the knees. Helplessness and powerlessness is often in the mind. You think it, therefore you are. It’s very easy to confuse despair for reality. But, as folks are so often fond of saying: feels aren’t reals.
As I’ve said: we’re not objective observers of reality, and our expectations color what we see. This is known as “confirmation bias” — we pay more attention and give more importance to things that confirm what we already believe and give less attention to the things that go against them. This is a psychological blind spot that we all suffer from, and it’s one that makes it incredibly easy to fall into defeatism.
A classic example of this involves folks who go looking for information about their problem. Someone who feels like they’re too short to be attractive, for example, may go looking for women’s opinions about height. After some cursory Google searches, they come away more depressed than before, convinced that at 5’6″, they’re just too short to find love.
It’s very easy to come away from reading a bunch of tweets, Reddit posts and random blogs and forums convinced that you’re fucked beyond all hope of saving. And when you find articles and studies that seem to confirm that yes, you will never ever have sex, even with yourself, then it can feel like the last leg of the stool has been kicked out from under you. At that point, what other options do you have besides just “lie down and rot?”
But what things say and what you take away from them can be very different things indeed. Most people rarely actually read the studies (or case law or…) they point to, or if they do, they only read the abstracts. They don’t get into the actual data, the conclusions or caveats that say things like “more studies are needed”. As often as not, they miss key information like non-representative sample sizes or that the people studied were of a specific demographic. Just as frequently, they miss when those studies were contradicted or even rescinded because of how bad the data collection and presentation was.
Similarly, they confuse volume for numbers, opinion for fact, or even an outlier being held up as a representative of the mainstream. Twitter and Reddit aren’t mainstream opinion; 10% of Twitter users make up 80% of all tweets. Reddit is, likewise, a limited and non-representative audience that has self-selected for that particular subreddit. You may get 500 people saying “short people got no reason to live”, but that doesn’t mean much when those 500 people are all users of /r/tallkingswin. You aren’t exactly going to get the most enlightened opinions on sex from /r/seductionrules or normalized views on politics from /r/YangGangFights. Even the largest subreddits are still a slice of a slice of a slice of Internet users; those credits don’t transfer to reality.
And of course, it has long been the practice of folks to pull a random person with no significant platform or following and present their outrageous or absurd position as a trending opinion or representative of a growing trend.
It’s also easy to forget to consider the source when you’re looking up “proof” of how fucked you are. The idea of “objective” reporting of facts is a lovely idea but impossible in practice. Everyone has their biases and views, and these affect even seemingly minor things like word choice, which can completely change the meaning of a sentence.
Confirmation bias means that you’re more likely to believe the person who tells you that only Chads get laid, even though their ‘source’ is “come on, it’s obvious”. Once you get the answer you’re expecting, you tend to stop looking, rather than stopping to ask whether you might be wrong. It also means that you focus like a laser on the one person who says that she only dates men who are 6’5″ and miss — or disbelieve — the 50 who say they don’t care about height.
It’s also very easy to mistake theoretical scenarios for actual behavior. Sure, when given the option between Michael B. Jordan and Johnny Random With The Cat Piss Stink, women would choose to go home with Killmonger. That’s a vast difference between “in this fictional scenario” and “women won’t fuck you unless you’re exactly like this…”
And of course, the negativity bias kicks in and further colors your findings. This cognitive bias means that we give more credence to the things that promise the most painful outcomes. Negative feelings, emotions and experiences hit us five times harder than positive ones, which is part of why we believe in masochistic epistemology. If it’s true, it should hurt, and if it hurts, it’s probably true.
It’s also worth paying attention to what — and who — you pay attention to. The things you feed your brain affect how you feel. The people you surround yourself with, in real life and online, influence what you think. And there are folks who will actively and gleefully shit on whatever last vestiges of hope you have because fuck you, that’s why.
It’s easy to forget how many people have vested interests in your not succeeding. Whether they have a political agenda, financial incentives or even old-fashioned bitterness, there are people who want you to fail and to feel like you’re hopeless and helpless. Even people in the same boat as you, people who you would think would want proof that change is possible, will convince you that you’re fucked. It’s crabs-in-a-bucket syndrome; they’d rather pull people back down into misery than admit that there’s a chance of getting out.
All of this is why it’s important to be mindful of what you’re reinforcing in yourself. Because your attitude and your outlook filters your reality, you want to make sure that you’re giving yourself positive reinforcement. You want to focus on the things that encourage you and motivate you to try harder, or try different things. You want people in your life who support you and cheer you on and who inspire you.
However, you also want to make sure that this is the right positivity and support. People who pride themselves on their “brutal honesty” almost always focus on the “brutal” part, not the honesty. Their “honesty” is frequently an excuse to be cruel, rather than supportive. You can’t get mad at them; they’re “just being honest.” Similarly, toxic positivity — the “no bummers, ever” type — can be as harmful and demotivating as relentless negativity. Negativity and pessimism isn’t automatically “being realistic”, but neither is “you can do ANYTHING if you just keep at it/ want it badly enough” helpful or encouraging. Better to have folks who say “Hey, it’s ok to take a break, it’s ok to feel down, let’s try a different approach” than folks who insist that you just need to “stay positive” and tell you that your feeling bad is the problem.
Feeling frustrated, angry, helpless or discouraged isn’t bad in and of itself; it’s letting those feelings control you or define you that is the problem.
The last — and possibly most important — way to overcome helplessness is to lower your standards.
Not for others. For yourself.
No, seriously. Part of why so many people end up feeling helpless is because they have unrealistic ideas about what’s necessary to be successful. It’s less that they’re helpless or powerless and more that they expect the unreasonable of themselves. They’re holding themselves to a standard that’s all but impossible to live up to.
A lot of people honestly believe that in order to get what they want — no matter what that may be — they have to be the equivalent of an Olympic athlete. They believe that they have to look like a Marvel superhero or be richer than Elon Musk. They have to be at least 6′ tall or taller, they have to have an insanely exclusive or desirable job, live in a palatial estate or some other goal that’s out of reach to… well, almost everyone.
In their mind, the only measure of success is to be exceptional… never remembering that this means being an exception, not the norm. And while being ambitious is fine — a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what is Heaven for? — believing that you have to achieve the unreasonable puts immense pressure on yourself.
The hell of it is that this belief is often self-imposed. It’s easy, for example, to look at Instagram and think that those models, influencers and celebrities are the standard and not edge cases. You see folks like Dan Bilzerian or Jake Paul or whomever and feel that these are the yardstick by which you’re measured. Or you may look at fitness models, movie stars and athletes and assume that, since women gush over them, this must be what you need to look like.
But this is another case of your feelings tricking your brain, your confirmation and negativity biases fucking with you. It’s all too easy to see women gushing over Chris Evans and think that women only want men who look like him. It’s easy to see posts about tall men and forget that some of the most desirable men out there are 5’8″ or shorter. And, of course, it’s easy to miss how unrealistic those standards are… literally.
The various Marvel stars may have Adonis-like bodies… but only for the run-up and duration of filming, when their job is literally to spend all day working out and eating in incredibly restrictive ways to get and maintain that build. Stephen Amell doesn’t look like Oliver Queen after the seasons wraps; he goes back to a much more normal physique. Jason Momoa may be in better than average shape, but he doesn’t have that Aquaman body when he’s not filming.
And of course, there’s the fact that so much of what you see is smoke and mirrors; it’s literally a trick, an image comprised of favorable lighting, makeup, cropping and editing and — often — outright bullshit.
All of this serves to create a level of expectation that you cannot reach, because it doesn’t exist. You’re often making yourself miserable because you are unable to achieve literally superhuman results and you feel that this is a flaw.
But consider the other areas of your life where you don’t apply this logic. Do you, for example, believe that you’re a failure because you can’t drive like Dom Toretto or because you don’t live like James Bond? Do you feel that you’re a failure because you’re not as accomplished a chef as Anthony Bourdain or as great a writer as Langston Hughes?
Part of overcoming helplessness is to realize that “good enough” is enough. It’s recognizing that success is possible when you aren’t the top 1% and that treating this as the only option is harming you. The possibilities are far broader and more inclusive than you believe. Yeah, folks thought Star Lord was hot, but just as many women loved Andy Dwyer as much, if not more so.
Accepting that you can strive for perfection but still reach your goals with “good enough” helps keep you motivated. It makes it much easier to actually make progress. Self-compassion and self-acceptance is the key. You need to learn to love yourself for your perfections and mistakes. You want to appreciate your ambition but also what you’ve actually achieved. Perfection is a dream that spurs you on, not reality.
You need to learn to love the process as much as the outcome, to not let the end goal blind you or steal your happiness and self-worth. And if you struggle, then often the answer is to find other ways to succeed. There are many paths to get to where you want to go and if the plan doesn’t work, then change the plan.
Even the smallest amount of agency is proof that you aren’t helpless. It may not seem like a lot… but even a single match will light up the darkest night.
You have control. You have agency. You have more potential than you realize and you’re doing far better than you realize. It’s just about letting yourself see it… or creating those opportunities to see them.