Grumbling now and then may be good for us, but prolonged bouts are an expression of helplessness, of falling prey to the victim trap…
By Vijay Nagaswami
I t's not uncommon for many, if not most of us, to find something or the other to complain about. If it's not the spouse, it's the boss who gives us our daily dose of grief. If not the boss, it's the children. If it's not the children, it's the parents. If not the parents, it's friends. If not friends, it's the traffic. If it's not the traffic, it's a service provider. If it's not a service provider, it's the government. In fact, every one, except perhaps God (and sometimes even He) can mess up our day, thereby giving us adequate reason to engage in what's rapidly becoming the second favourite national pastime after cricket – bellyaching. And just to keep things in perspective, we bellyache about cricket as well. I'm sure that by now, you've realised that when I use the term ‘bellyaching', I refer to the act of grumbling or complaining and not to a pain, however severe, in the abdomen.
Sometimes when one looks at and listens to someone bellyaching, you get the feeling that they're actually enjoying themselves. And what's more, they seem to make us want to grumble a bit as well, for, bellyaching is often contagious. I do appreciate the fact that most of us live under uncertain, unpredictable and difficult circumstances and that many of us feel the need to ventilate to others whatever grievances we may feel. However, there does need to be a ‘grumbling limit' we need to set for ourselves, for, the more we bellyache, the more we set ourselves firmly in the victim position. As a result, we may well end up spending the rest of our lives feeling victimised and what's worse, feeling that we can do nothing about it and that it's best to accept that we are, and will always be, victims of circumstances.
This phenomenon, called ‘ learned helplessness', was demonstrated by an American psychologist called Martin Seligman, through a series of not necessarily elegant, but effective, experiments in the 1960s and 1970s, in animals as well as human beings. His basic theory, and clinical evidence over the last half a century confirms this, is that when people learn in childhood to feel they are helpless victims of circumstance, they tend to feel less able to cope with their adult life situations, as a result of which, they may succumb to depression. Where do people learn to feel helpless? From the negative comments about the world, about life and about people that they hear as children at home, at school and when they're with peers, as well as the negative experiences they are exposed to in the course of their childhoods. Of course, not everybody grows up to experience clinical depressions, only those who have significant negative conditioning during childhood do, but the rest of us invariably end up bellyaching.
Some of us, more than others, by virtue of having a series of negative and even, traumatic, events taking place during our childhood, are quite possibly justified in feeling victims of circumstances, but even so, we must, as adults, consciously make an attempt to understand that by continuing to feel helpless, we are falling into a ‘victim trap' and that the only way we can deal with our lives is to understand that we do have choices. How often do we hear people saying, “What can I do? I have no choice”, thereby giving themselves permission to accept unhappy jobs, unhappy marriages, unhappy relationships or unhappy environments as their lots in life? People who have learned to be helpless, feel they have no choice, and therefore continue to live out their self-fulfilling prophecies. If they realise that they do have a choice to stop being victims and get on to the ‘ survivor mode', then their quality of life can change quite dramatically, for the better. And what's more, when they stay in a victim position, they tend to influence others around them — their children, their spouses, their friends and their co-workers, who eventually either tend to avoid them, or join them in a good bellyache.
Make your choices
Yes, we do have choices. Often we don't see them, or even if we do, we don't recognise them as choices. As a result they pass us by and we stay on in our helpless fug, continuing to believe that there's nothing really good in life to look forward to. To recognise our choices, we need to first accept the fact that they are there, and then we need to start looking for them. And to do this, we need to fight the helpless feeling that pervades some of us, and realise that, even if the cards we were dealt in our lives may not be great ones, we can still find ways and means of using them effectively to get us to where we want to go. It's certainly doable. There are many before us who've done it, and many after us who will. But are we ready to follow their leads? All right, I'm now going to stop bellyaching and am going to assume that each of us will make wise choices, and that if we don't, we will at least learn to accept that we didn't, and not believe that we couldn't.
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I am going to assume that each of us will make wise choices, and that if we don't, we will at least learn to accept that we didn't, and not believe that we couldn't.