‘Helplessness’ is an odd word. I suppose it literally means ‘without help,’ but the main connotation seems to be ‘without autonomy,’ and with that there is a tacit judgement about those who, supposedly, ought not to lack autonomy. In many phases of life, it seems that the time at which one is not autonomous is the precise time at which one is least likely to receive help, due to some ridiculous delusion of individualism in which needing something is the reason why one doesn’t deserve to have it. And then one really is helpless. Not being permitted to be helpless is what makes one helpless.
Brené Brown studies shame and vulnerability. She has a TED talk on the subject which irritates me immensely, because her delivery matches the double bind of what she says in a way that is poetic precisely because it denies its poetry.
She describes, in the talk, how when interviewing people about social inclusion, she would be told stories of exclusion; when interviewing people about love, she would be told stories of heartbreak. She concluded, through her research, that shame is the most powerful barrier to human connection. It’s a thing we almost never talk about, possibly because the idea that one might feel shame is itself shameful. Not feeling as though you’re good enough – not feeling as though you’re worthy, just as you are, of connection – has become a ‘self-esteem issue’. It’s ‘your problem’, which means ‘you’re not good enough’ – and the cycle begins all over again.
Brown found that the people who were happiest with their relationships (with others and themselves) were those who most believed they were worthy of connection just as they were. These people were most willing to be vulnerable, or helpless – which is not to say they enjoyed the feeling, only that they knew, in permitting themselves to be helpless, that they created the conditions in which it is possible to not be helpless.
Your quote about humans seeing helplessness as a lack seems to be part of the structure of our language. In the last two paragraphs, I’ve spoken about ‘not feeling (worthy/good enough).’ Even if I were to get rid of the ‘not,’ I’d still, most likely, find myself using words that connote a lack – ‘imperfect,’ ‘undesirable,’ ‘worthless.’ Even words connoting need are somehow negative – ‘needy,’ and ‘lack’ itself, which is again where the cycle folds in on itself, because I started writing this paragraph about the undesirability of conceptualising helplessness as a lack, but now I’m at the point where the undesirability of the word ‘lack’ is included in the undesirability of conceptualising helplessness as a lack. Which simultaneously makes perfect sense and absolutely no sense at all.
As I mentioned, this TED talk irritates me a great deal. Brown is talking about this cycle of shame, and she’s doing it in the context of her own psychological grappling – she talks about her love of measuring and her impatience with anything that can’t be measured, assessed, and tidied away into a box. She talks about the breakdown that ensued when she realised how central vulnerability is to human connection, and how unmeasurable this centre is; she talks about the transformation in her worldview that followed. Here is the infuriating thing: she performs this talk in a way that embodies the resistance and irritation she felt at feeling vulnerable whilst grappling with vulnerability. She talks about how much she hates the immeasurability, how much she hates the insecurity of the immeasurability, and how much it sucked to have talk to a therapist for a year about feelings and other wishy washy things. The circularity of both content and delivery are so maddeningly synchronised that I want to bang my head against a wall.
This, I think, is the problem: the performance of the double bind can only occur for the benefit of the performer. The performance – of hating and resisting, and of knowing the circularity and futility of hating and resisting, and of hating this futility, and of hating the accursed knowledge of it – works for the performer when she has become comfortable with the discomfort of performing it. The performer has got to the point where she doesn’t need to step outside the cycle anymore, because she knows that the double- (triple-? quadruple-?) bind already includes any attempt to escape within itself.
I think this facet of performing is only evident for and within the one who performs. Performance is often construed as a single-faceted exchange, in which the performer gives something to the audience, who reward the performer with a performance of their own appreciation. But there is an internal aspect to performing, and there is an internal aspect to watching a performance, and those things are not necessarily (or perhaps necessarily not) evident on the external face of the performative act.
I think the problem with having to perform is not the expectation that one performs. The problem is the expectation that the external performance is the reason for performing, rather than its accidental residue.
I stopped writing for several days, because I was worried that I was expressing these thoughts in a way that seemed to reinforce the whole ‘it’s your problem and this makes you bad which means you have more problems’ thing, when my intention is to say that I think it’s possible to use these helpless things from within the bind, to make something that is workable and good, but only just as workable and good as it needs to be. You know, like your last letter, where you quoted what I wrote in a previous letter, in which I quoted some other people who were basically saying that there is no ‘away,’ no ‘outside vantage point’ – one eventually finds oneself, irritatingly, using all the useless waste, because waste is kind of impossible and inevitable at the same time.
I still worry that I’m not expressing this correctly, but also I am tired of trying to express things correctly. I think I may have mentioned this sentiment before. Anyway, the previous paragraph will serve as a disclaimer that I am aware of the limitations of my expression, but the extent to which I’m going to try to improve upon these is also limited.
Here are some photographs of peat bogs:
Here is a largely plotless story:
I worry a lot about being bad, or wrong, or mean, or rude, or sick. The internalised narrative I’ve had since my earliest memories is:
“You’re bad. It’s bad to be bad. If you don’t try to be better (stop crying, do as you’re told, listen properly, show initiative, make eye-contact, don’t stare, don’t yell, speak up, don’t be a bully, don’t be a pushover, answer the question, don’t be a smart-arse, offer to help, don’t get in the way…), that’s bad. If you do try to be better, you’re trying too hard (or not hard enough), and that’s bad. In any case, you’re bad, so you trying to not be bad is by definition bad. If you say you feel like a bad person, that’s bad – you should have more self-esteem. If you think we think you’re bad, that’s bad – how could you say something so hurtful?”
This isn’t a verbal narrative – there’s no inner voice that says these things – rather it is a pervasive and embodied role in which I could not, as a child, avoid being cast. It’s a role that I necessarily played without knowing I was playing it – the knowledge that I was playing it has emerged only very recently.
The problem with this role is the problem of impermissible helplessness. The only way to escape the role is to be happy within it. The only way to remain standing under the weight of an infinite loop of badness is to enjoy the pressure.
I think this sounds either incorrect, or perverse, or both – but as the aim is to embrace badness, incorrectness, and perversity, this problem presents no problem.
When I first became visibly insane (performatively insane, maybe?), I felt that half of my brain had split off, several years before, from the part to which I had access, and was intruding upon my consciousness, trying to hurt me or take control of the body we both shared. This other brain embodied much of the badness double-bind. At the time this was diagnosed as psychosis and I was prescribed antipsychotics, but since then that diagnosis has been questioned on several occasions, and I have become no more ‘psychotic’ since ceasing the medications than I was whilst still using them.
I realised, recently, that this other-brain person has an advantage over me, in that they are comfortable with inhabiting the role of vulnerability and inadequacy without trying to escape it, whereas I still find myself struggling against those multi-layered binds. So I’m trying to work together with Other-Brain these days, and let them take the reigns as necessary.
This letter has probably already eaten itself by this point, so I should stop writing.