Frustration Meltdown

Empowerment Continuum

Generally speaking, many of us in the disability community experience daily lives filled with frustrations both small and large. I founded my website, Handihelp, with the express purpose of sharing with others some of the techniques I and others had developed to reduce some of those frustrations and to help us to empower ourselves. I prided myself on the fact that I had been able to adjust so well. As a result of carrying my message to others, a graduate student summed up what I said as learned helplessness or learned empowerment which I thought was perfect.

Over a recent weekend a personal frustration got the best of me. It felt as if I had no technique, idea, or activity which could help me handle this overwhelming situation. As it spiraled out of control, I reverted to a coping mechanism called passive aggressive behavior. For the last 10 years of my teaching career I taught a special education class of high school students with emotional and behavioral problems, so I am very familiar with passive aggressive behavior. Wikipedia states:

It is characterised (sic) by an obstructionist or hostile manner that indicates aggression, or, expressing aggression characterized in non-assertive, subtle (i.e. passive or indirect) ways. Passive aggressive behavior can manifest itself as learned helplessness, procrastination, hostility masquerading as jokes, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, or deliberate/repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.*

Initially, I became hostile, resentful and sullen. The following Monday, I “took action”. As soon as I got up, I canceled all but one of my activities scheduled for the next couple months, including several college speaking engagements and a new doctor’s appointment. I had already spent considerable time preparing for the workshops at the schools, and I was looking forward to doing them. I was vaguely aware that I was “shooting myself in the foot”, but the drive to follow through on this action was overpowering. Almost instantly, I felt a calm that had been missing for several days.

As the week passed, the foolishness of what I had done slowly became evident to me. All my blogs and all the advice I’d offered to others seemed meaningless. Why had I done this? What could possibly have been my motivation for something so stupid? I think I finally figured it out. I did it because I could! To begin with, I was in a situation in which I felt I had no control, so my actions allowed me to resume control over something.

My workshops and talks usually revolve around the idea of learned empowerment or learned helplessness being a choice for members of the disabled community. By Wikipedia’s explanation, my actions could be characterized as learned helplessness. I was mortified by my behavior and actions. The stupidity was apparent. I wrote an e-mail to one of the professors with whom I work with quite a bit and for whom I have a great deal of respect. She reminded me that empowerment was a continuum that one moves along, as opposed to a destination where one resides. We would all do well to keep that in mind as we move through our challenging, and yes, often frustrating lives.

*Wikipedia: Passive–aggressive behavior

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