Helplessness: The Cayenne Pepper of Fear

Emotion Series #12

July 21, 2023
All of us came into this world completely helpless. In many ways, we remain so throughout our entire lives. How does the emotion of helplessness serve us, and what happens when we embrace it?

Episode Intro: Welcome back to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler and I am here again with Joe Hudson.

Joe: Hey, Brett. Good to see you again.

Brett: Today I wanted to start with a story. About 10 to 15 years ago, in the height of my base jumping career, I taught my romantic partner at the time, my life partner, to jump off cliffs with a parachute.

Joe: That's a non loaded situation right there.

Brett: Very non loaded, we could say, and also she was the first person I ever taught to base jump. I had done some coaching in skydiving, and I had informally mentored people but I had never been with somebody from step one, how to start, how to pack, the body position, and everything. I did that within the context of a relationship and all of the stuff that happens within a romantic relationship.

Joe: Don't tell me what to do. It is your parachute. Don't tell me what to do.

Brett: Let me do everything for you. No, no. It was honestly a really wonderful experience for both of us to have had, and also there was a lot of stuff that we moved through in it. The thing that characterized the experience most, which is what we are going to talk about in this episode, was helplessness. That feeling the first time watching her make that first jump. BASE jumping is an acronym, building, antenna, span like bridges, and earth cliffs. She did her first four jumps from each of those different jumps, which is not something people normally do. Normally people train from a bridge for a long time before moving to something more dangerous like a cliff. For each of these first four jumps in four different countries, we were both very puckered. For me, there was this deep feeling and experience of moving with helplessness.

One of the things I learned was the more that I leaned into allowing myself to feel the helplessness, the less I got in her way, and the more she was able to take ownership of the experience and ultimately the less helpless I ended up feeling as she started to develop her skills and abilities.

Joe: I want to say if you are a mother listening to this, that's a huge key. If you are a father listening to this, that's a huge key, that feeling of allowing helplessness in raising your kids.

Brett: That became a two way thing in our relationship. I had a much higher risk tolerance than she had in jumping, and she moved through a lot of how to love this person across the risk continuum. I can't control what's going to happen in the next 15 seconds. There is nothing I can do about it. There are ways I can show up. Let's just dive into helplessness and talk about that today.

Joe: Okay, sounds great.

04:30 Brett: Let's start by talking about what it is.

Joe: The way I think about it is helplessness is a component of fear. A lot of people will ask me what the difference is between fear and helplessness. I don't think of it that way. I don't know any fear that doesn't have some part of it that feels helpless, and I don't know any helplessness that isn't fear. I think of it as more of an ingredient of fear, and there are some things where we feel it deeply, almost hundred percent helplessness. That would be getting sideswiped by a car, being overpowered physically, situations where there was just this deep feeling of helplessness and some fear. Then there are things like asking yourself if you are going to do a good presentation in front of your managers, which might have fear in it and a little bit of helplessness, like you can't control what they think of you or if they had coffee that morning or if they exercises, but there is a much smaller component inside of that kind of fear. I think of it as a component of fear and I would say the most potent. I would say it is the cayenne pepper of fear.

Brett: As a component of fear, how would you describe it? What is that particular flavor of fear?

Joe: It is the absence of control. It may not be true that you have no control over the situation, but the feeling is you have no control over the situation. It is an experience of there being nothing you can do to change the outcome, and it is an outcome I really don't want. It is that combination.

Brett: We have got it as an ingredient of fear. What is it not? What ways people might describe helplessness that we are not referring to here?

Joe: I would say some folks would say they feel helpless when they feel stuck, and you may feel helpless and stuck but you might also feel angry and stuck or just a different flavor of fear and stuck. Helplessness is not a feeling of being stuck. Oftentimes, that feeling of helplessness is very alive and potent, like cayenne pepper. If you eat cayenne pepper, you don't feel stuck. You feel movement. I would say it can happen where an overwhelming feeling can make you freeze and there is some feeling of being stuck to that. I would say it is not that.

I would also say it is not learned helplessness, meaning a limiting belief or thinking you can't change something. The interesting thing about helplessness is the more you allow the feeling, the more potent, more virile and the more empowered you actually become in your emotional world. It is that feeling of not being able to do anything about it. I feel like it is not stuck, learned helplessness, being a victim or anything of that stuff.

Brett: Honing in on this, we are talking about the feeling of helplessness, not the story that I am helpless or learned helplessness as the defense mechanism or collapse, recognition, or detachment, feeling like there is nothing you can do.

Joe: None of that.

Brett: The visceral feeling, the cayenne pepper.

Joe: I would say when that kind of fear comes through and it is at its most potent, it is one of the things we do not feel the most, especially for people who are super high capacity or people who become very self reliant and who are big change agents on the planet. That feeling is one of the scariest feelings. They will do everything not to feel it. I will try again. I will be resilient because I do not want to feel that feeling again. I don't want to have that experience again. I am going to be self reliant. I am going to work it out, figure it out and do the thing. For them, it is often the thing they want to feel the least and it is the thing they can't recognize they feel the least. They have a hard time recognizing that emotional experience. For self-reliant people in particular, allowing themselves to feel that level of helplessness is one of the most potent change agents, much like if someone is feeling stuck a lot or depressed, anger can be one of the most potent change agents for them. For someone who is super self reliant, leaning into helplessness can be one of the most potent change agents for them.

Brett: It is really fascinating here because it is the first thing that we feel. We come out of the womb and the first thing that we are is helpless. I don't remember my moment of birth, so I can't speak from episodic memory but I just imagine helplessness is pretty much a beautiful description of our very first moments. It is fascinating that we can find ourselves feeling estranged from that feeling when it really is at the core of our entire life, being small in a big universe.

Joe: We have no idea when the bus will hit us, if the bus will hit us. There are so many ways you can look at your reality and recognize your own helplessness. There are some things that are really fascinating about it as well, which is that it is a close cousin to surrender. Helplessness is the recognition that you are not in control and wanting to be in control. Surrender is the recognition you are not in control and being good with it, which is a state that creates a tremendous amount of relief. It is a really interesting thing that they are really close cousins. Both of them have the aliveness of not being able to control the situation entirely. One is just a severe rejection of that experience, and one is an acceptance of that experience.

11:00 Brett: I love that because the next question I was going to ask after we started defining it was about what helplessness does as it moves through. What happens when we feel it all the way through? One thing you just described there was this connection to surrender. Often people talk about surrender, and I guess that can be conceived of as an end state but helplessness is actually the gateway.

Joe: That's right. I wouldn't describe surrender as an end state. It is more of a verb really.

Brett: It is often described that way. It is often described as a verb too, and what is it that you are doing when you surrender? What are you welcoming?

Joe: What are you not doing when you surrender? My experience is that when folks fully feel through their helplessness, when I first fully felt through mine and when I have seen really high powered executives feel through their helplessness, they become a lot more capable and serene in their capacity. A great step of this is 12 step programs. They have the serenity prayer, which is all about knowing what you can control and not control and having the courage to affect the things you can control and having the peace not to attempt to control the things you can't control. If you think about the kind of thing they do for addiction, one of them is to understand that you don't have any control over the substance, admitting that you are helpless in the face of the substance or if you are in al anon, the alcohol. You are helpless in that. Somehow or another, weirdly as it sounds, it is saying I am helpless to this, which allows you to not be an addict, to not be controlled by it. It is the same thing. As you allow that feeling of helplessness, it allows you to see and experience the fact that you have control but it is not quite control anymore. I don't think we have a word for it in the human language. It is not like you surrender and say you don't have any power over alcohol and therefore now I can have control over alcohol. It is not having any power over alcohol and you keep on admitting that to yourself and in exchange you are far less likely to drink. There is no word for what you get because you don't particularly get control at the end of it, but you see options and choice.

Brett: Agency.

Joe: You have agency. That's right. You see the options and choice, but it doesn't mean you have control.

Brett: I am curious to go into this a little bit from the head, heart, gut perspective as well and how helplessness shows up in each of these.

Joe: That's great. Helplessness is the heart is the emotional experience of fuck, there is nothing I can do. We can all close our eyes and go back to an experience of the most helpless we have felt. When we do this in workshops, a lot of people will go into that place where they were physically abused or were sexually molested or got into a car accident or when the whole world was collapsing on them and there was nothing they could do. Interestingly, often a precursor to awakening is this experience as well, which is part of the journey into the identity fading away and seeing the truth of who we are is the recognition that you have no control and that you are absolutely helpless to the identity and to the identity falling apart. You can't actually protect it. Again, it doesn't give you control over the identity, but it somehow allows you to have agency with the identity. The heart is that emotional experience.

The head is literally there is nothing I can do. It is the thought process of there is nothing I can do. It is an extremely heightened state of the nervous system. When you are feeling one hundred percent helpless, it is around life and death. Whether that is egoic death or physical death, that's where you are going to feel it.

Brett: What happens if you speed bump the experience of helplessness and just skip over it or embrace it? If it is such a natural experience and we are born into it, what makes us find distance from it? What makes it not just flow smoothly and naturally?

Joe: It is super uncomfortable, that confrontation. Our egos and our identity don't want to experience its death as it turns out. We just push it away, and what seems to happen is the more that that experience isn't lived with in the minutiae and in the large experiences, what I notice is people are more likely to be controlling, to live with low level anxiety often, to have a low level of experience and to perpetually feel under attack. What I notice is when people constantly lean into the helplessness, they feel more and more agency. There are now hundreds of tales, but I think the most common one is Mandela, who was in a prison, and he dealt with physical abuse, pounding rocks, and being made to feel small. He was in a completely helpless situation. By feeling into that helplessness, he was able to have an open heart, agency and love. He wasn't able to stop being abused or pounding rocks. He didn't have any control over this situation, but he had this deep sense of internal agency that came with it. That's what it does. It is that similar thing of seeing through, just like surrender does, the material world of control and feeling into the sense of agency and empowerment that can't be controlled by the external world. If you don't do it, then you don't have that sense of empowerment and you are constantly chasing power and control. It can all be taken away from you. Nothing could be taken away from Mandela. It had all been taken, and there he was there, still there, and he came out of that situation empowered and not beaten down.

Brett: It sounds like there is an acceptance component in it as well. There is a way that experiencing and feeling your helplessness burns through some of the illusions and fantasies of control that are attached to what you are so that you can find and connect to what's actually here right now. From there, you can develop agency, competence, and a clear vision.

Joe: The only thing I will say there is what the human mind when it hears that, what it wants to do is say now I will accept the fact that I don't have control, which is just a work around not to feel the helplessness. It is the same kind of thing as if somebody was going to say I am going to surrender now. Surrender is something that's constantly happening. It is more of an acknowledgement than a doing, and the doing is the opposite of it. For instance, the reality is we are all surrendered to our brains having thoughts. We are not controlling the next thought we are going to have. There are just thoughts coming, and some of those thoughts are you are wonderful and some are you are shit. The thoughts come. You are not thinking the next thought I am going to have is this and then the next is this. We are in a state of surrender of that. It is just whether we are recognizing that or whether we are trying to do something about it. If we are trying to do anything, including trying to surrender, then we are not actually surrendered.

It is the same thing with the experience of helplessness. It is allowing the feeling of helplessness that creates the acceptance. It is not becoming accepting that creates the freedom. A lot of people say they are going to accept their helplessness and be all zen about it, but that doesn't actually get you there.

Brett: It is another form of management, another control pattern in the avoidance of the feeling of the helplessness.

Joe: A more subtle one and in many ways a better one than other ones, but yes.

Brett: What are some other ways this might show up for people? We have talked about higher powered exes, teaching someone you love to do something dangerous, parents and addiction.

Joe: I would say the important thing is that there is a little bit of helplessness in every one of our anxieties and fears. There is actually truly something helpless. If we are going into a meeting and we want people to think we are great or think our presentation is great or get agreement, we don't have full control over that. There is a part of that that is helpless. If you go into that helplessness and feel that helplessness, it frees you quicker than any other way of freeing yourself from fear. Again, it is not freeing yourself like it goes away. It frees yourself by going through. If you do it to manage your fear, it won't work. If you do it as a way to fall in love with your fear, it will work. What's interesting to me is other examples are any place where you are anxious, so if you are anxious that your girlfriend won't love you if you say X, Y or Z, it means that there is some part you are helpless about. You cannot control your girlfriend's love for you. You just can't do it. Or you are really scared the car is going to break down. There is some way in which you are completely helpless to whether that car breaks down or not. It is in every one of our fears, and I think knowing that and going into that is incredibly important.

As far as full, hundred percent cayenne pepper helplessness, I remember I had a really deep experience of it when I had given everything I could to this company. I cared so much about it. It was doing so much good in the world, and I had to close the company. That feeling of just oh shit, my whole world collapsing, everything I think I am collapsing. How much freedom and spaciousness I had afterwards surprised me. It was literally two days and I went right into the helplessness. It was a bumpy two days, but within two days, I felt so much freedom and so much more capable of investing, so many lessons learned, whereas if I would have beat myself up asking myself what I did wrong, the lessons would not be half as potent or varied. But I have seen people do this when their whole world collapses, the divorce, the kids leave, the business collapses. They have that deep feeling of helplessness then, too.

23:50 Brett: How do we recognize and work with our helplessness? First of all, notice where we are avoiding it because in many places we have probably avoided it so well that we are not consciously aware that it is there. Once we find it, how do we work with helplessness in such a way that we don't go into any of the backwaters, like the story of the helplessness or the collapse around it or acceptance as a subtle control mechanism?

Joe: Ways to find it are pretty simple. Look for the places where you are most controlling and where you have the controlling thing that you know creates a rigidity and a disruption in your system. That's a great way to find it. Another way to find it is whatever anxiety you have, look for the place that has the most cayenne pepper in it, like somatically feeling where the thing that is most scary is. What's interesting is you don't particularly need to feel it in every situation if you start feeling it in any situation. Then it relaxes in other situations, just like if I move anger, then anger moves more easily with less violence and friction to the system. Similarly, if you move the helplessness in some of the key areas, like going into your memory and asking yourself when you felt most helpless, and you start moving those experiences, then it changes the way that it moves through you and the rest of your life. You don't have to find it in every location. Once you have found it three, four, five, six, seven times and you move it, it starts moving differently in your system. You will recognize it far more easily. That's how to identify it and to start the movement.

The movement is literally to allow your body to have the fear release of shaking and going to worst case scenarios and feeling all of the experiences of that. It is the recognition that you are not in control, and to go into either the scenarios where you lose if it hasn't happened yet or where you have lost, so to speak, or have suffered that loss or trauma in some way. It is really important when you are doing this that you have a lot of support around you. A person who can be with you is really great. A person who can be with you and not be in fear and understands that they are there to be a grounded support is a really useful thing. We would never do a release like that in a group unless there was a very strong container of love and support. I think that's really important to be able to do that. That prevents a lot of the backwaters.

What can happen if someone moves a lot of helplessness but they are alone and they get caught in the past where they felt it and they can't see the reality of today, their nervous system gets overwhelmed and then it can be counter productive for sure.

Brett: Which was going to be my next question, for listeners just hearing this episode and they want to explore working with their helplessness, what is one way you would suggest they can play with that in a way that is not likely to lead them into opening it up too much and getting stuck in it?

Joe: An easy, gentle approach is the emotional inquiry we talked about, I think, in the last episode. We can put a link to that audio. That would be a great way to put your feet in the water and feel it. That is not having a full release of it. It is being deeply inquisitive and full of wonder about the somatic experience of it. It is allowing it to be in your body, but it will make sure that your body doesn't get overwhelmed and dysregulated. That's a good way. The other way is to take five seconds any time you are feeling anxiety and go to the really spicy part of it. Ask yourself what the really scary thing is and go right into that just for five seconds and then go about your day. That's a really good way to start exploring it, somatically go into it.

Brett: That reminds me of the practice people go through and they visualize everything they are afraid of, all of the way through their death and beyond their death. There is a way to do that as the story, visualizing the thing I am afraid of, my company or relationship falling apart, my kids getting on heroin, whatever those might be, but then there is also the underlying feeling. If I visualize it and put myself in that position, what does it feel like? We can also do that backwards through our lives, too, and then do the emotional inquiry with what comes up there.

Joe: The same thing can be found in many traditions, the Roman tradition and the Samurai tradition. They all had this tradition of visualizing your death emotionally in parts. You can visualize any negative thing. I also recommend doing the opposite, too, which is visualizing the whole thing working out perfectly well and having all of those experiences because sometimes those are the scarier things. The ego dies either way. If the worst happens, the ego has to shift. The self identity has to shift. If everything goes incredibly beautifully, the self identity has to shift. Both of them can be really useful.

Brett: That brings up a very important point here which is what the difference between doing this practice and catastrophizing is. Many people do that all of the time. This isn't going to go well. That's going to go to shit.

Joe: One is in the head, and one is in the body. One is a thought process created by an emotional state, and the other one is fully deeply feeling the emotional state all of the way through. Even if you catastrophize, thinking everything could blow up, you will notice in the way I said it, you could hear my whole body tighten, which means I am holding back the emotion. If you can even say everything is going to blow up and you can allow yourself to feel the whole thing, that can be incredibly healing. The catastrophizing, that's dangerous or it creates less freedom and more rigidity. It is the one where you don't feel it.

Brett: That makes it loop. You just keep looping in it. There is a reason why those thoughts are coming up. Your body wants to process this, and so it is going to keep knocking on your door until you actually feel it. If you are just letting yourself have the thought but constricting around the feeling, then it is going to continue. I also like the component of remembering to do this on the flipside, on all of the positive things. There is an emotional yoga here, expanding the range of motion of how much you can be with and experience from the range of helplessness to everything is going great, all of the way in between. Then whatever actually does happen, even in those little moments, let's say you are giving a speech and between each word there is some amount of rigidity, self censoring, and management, and all of that can relax if you feel capable and welcoming of the full range of the experience. You will have that much more freedom.

Joe: I think the key there is the welcoming. I know I have said it once, but it is so important I want to say it again. If you do all of this stuff to control your experience and to control the emotions, it will not work. It has to be welcoming, like you can't wait to feel helpless again. The freedom is not in not feeling helpless again. The freedom is in not being able to wait to feel helpless again.  

32:35 Brett: I would love to also ask about how this works in a team.

Joe: That's a great question. There are so many ways to think about that question. What happens when an entire team feels helpless? What happens when one person in a team feels helpless? What happens in a team where nobody allows their helpless feelings? Those are all different things that occur inside of a team. Typically if there is something that a team is not comfortable with, like they are in denial about something in the business or in their objectives, one person will start feeling more helpless and they will get rejected by the rest of the team.

Brett: One person is holding the helplessness for the team and consolidating it, and the rest are not feeling it.

Joe: Then they reject that person. That person goes away and a new person in the team starts holding it. That's what usually happens with one person. If the entire team feels helpless, and I am assuming they are not fully feeling helpless, and the whole team feels this is never going to work and they are not processing that, divest. Get out because that becomes that learned helplessness, that collapse, and burnout. If I am talking to somebody who is burned out, not the burned out of having worked hard for a long time and needing a break but the burned out of a psychological burnout, it is because they are not in that serenity prayer. They are using anxiety to motivate themselves over time because they feel responsible for dozens of reasons. Typically that's going to lead to some sort of burn out if it is being used as refusing to feel helpless, and therefore, I am going to motivate myself. There is going to be a burn out that's going to occur for those people. It is going to be pretty bad typically and last years. That's another one.

If a team is not scared of the feeling of helplessness, then they feel it and then they pivot. There is a lot more enjoyment and movement in the team. They will confront things easily, happily, even difficult things, because they know that by confronting it and feeling the helplessness, they will move into a truth and a better way to go very quickly. They think it is cool to feel helpless because they know on the other side of that they are going to have a clear vision of how to move forward that's going to work better.

Brett: I imagine that also applies to a family in many of the same ways.

Joe: Yeah. There was this moment I had with Esme recently. Esme was going through something with her boyfriend, and at some point I thought that it was my fault. I told her this was the way I raised her, and because I raised her this way, it is creating this kerfuffle in her relationship. I said I was really sorry for that. In that moment, there was a helplessness that both of us felt. I wish I hadn't done it that way, but I had done it that way. She said it was done and she loved me and there was nothing but this that can be done about it. We just sat there and looked at each other. Then we cried for a bit. She told me she felt really fortunate that we could have that moment together, and that was the end of it. That was the end of the process, and oddly just that in itself relieved the pattern in her. The pattern went away just in that acknowledgement. I remember thinking to myself how when I was younger and parenting her, I was so scared of fucking her up. I thought to myself if I fucked her up one hundred ways and each one led to a moment like this, totally fucking worth it.

Brett: I can imagine the puckering. I don't have a kid, but I can imagine the puckering I would feel if I said I am sorry for raising you this way and now you are wrong. That's how I would be afraid of that coming off. Peace, sorry.

Joe: I wasn't saying she was wrong.

Brett: I can see that being the fear of acknowledging it.

Joe: There was definitely that moment of oops. You are in pain like this because I wasn't fully competent as a parent, and I was scared of X, Y, and Z and so I did A, B and C. I remember that moment where we just looked at each other and we were helpless in it and then the tears. That's a really great way of feeling through that.

Brett: That's a really great way of closing this episode on helplessness.

Joe: Pleasure as always. It is good to be with you.

Brett: Thank you everybody for listening. Don't forget to send us any comments or questions. You can find us at or on Twitter @artofaccomp. Take care.

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