despair… and its cure: or “They came to help because of Sadness.”

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Joy and Sadness from Inside Out (2016)

One of the most important pieces of science I found as I was writing Come As You Are, had nothing to do with sex, really. Here it is:

In your brain there is a little monitor, a watcher, who knows:(1) what your goals is, (2) how much effort your investing in that goal, and (3) how much progress you’re making. And it keeps a ratio of effort to progress.

And it has a very strong opinion about what that ratio should be.

Now, when you’re putting in not-too-much effort and you’re making great progress, how does that feel?

Amazing, right? You win!

If you’re putting in a lot of effort and not making quite the progress your little monitor expects… that can actually be motivating and make you work harder!

But if you’re really giving it everything you’ve got and you’re still not making the kind of progress your monitor is convinced you should be making… that starts to get… frustrating.

And that frustration may escalate… into rage!

And at a certain point, if you’re working hard and just not making headway, your monitor will switch its assessment of your goal from being attainable, to being unattainable! When it does that, it pushes you off an emotional cliff into a pit of despair.

It’s called the “discrepancy reducing feedback loop” and “criterion velocity.” In the scientific research, it’s represented by the most exciting boring graph in the history of science:

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see Carver, 2004 (PDF)

You may have heard of it as “learned helplessness” — an animal subjected to electrical shock from which they can’t escape, doesn’t even try to escape when given the opportunity. Their central nervous system has learned that when they are suffering, nothing they can do will make a difference.

One classic example of inducing learned helplessness if the “forced swim test.” Rats can swim, but they don’t love it; they want to get to land as soon as possible. So when you put a rat in water, it will swim and swim and swim and swim… until its little monitor gives up on the goal of getting out of the water, pushes the rat off the cliff into the pit, and it goes immobile:


There’s another test called the “shuttle box,” where half of a the floor is electrified (it doesn’t hurt, but it’s unpleasant), and the rat has to bolt through a door to get to the unelectrified side

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Most rats learn quickly to get through the door.

Rats who have been through the “forced swim test” just lie there, immobile. Their bodies have learned that nothing they do can make a differences. And so they don’t try.

“So That’s Where Despair Comes From. Now What Can I DO ABOUT IT?”

What I love about this model is that offers us some straightforward, effective way to respond when we find ourselves trapped in that pit of despair.

  1. Change the goal.
  2. Change your effort.
  3. Change your expectation about how difficult the goal will be.

This article is going to focus on changing the effort. I assume you want to keep the same goal — something like “Making the world a better place, especially for the most vulnerable among us.” Don’t change that.

But especially in the face of defeat, we need to learn the special skills for getting out of the pit, so that we can continue working toward the goal.

As you might anticipate, people with trauma histories, people who experienced childhood neglect, people who’ve lived under the burden of oppression and social exclusion, may all be more prone to feeling helpless; their bodies have learned from experience that nothing they do can make a difference.

But all of us, even those with difficult life histories, do indeed have the power to begin small practices that unlock our bodies from feelings of despair and helplessness. And there’s research to tell us how.

Here are four evidence-based strategies you can start using today:

1. Connection. Too many of us have been taught that grief, sadness, and despair are sources of shame; we hide them away, hide ourselves away, as if our unhappiness were an infectious disease we had to quarantine, or a moral failing.

In fact the opposite is true:

Grief, sadness, despair — this is the BAT SIGNAL of your emotional life. It is the beacon that calls for help. When you find yourself in the pit of despair, feeling helpless, like nothing you can do will make a difference, turn toward others, so that they can turn toward you.

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TO DO: A twenty second hug with someone you care about and trust, who cares about and trusts you. Each of you should be standing over your own centers of gravity, and hold each other tight. Twenty seconds in a row.

2. Move Your Body. When Seligman and other early researchers on learned helplessness were trying to undo the helpless learned by dogs, they physically dragged the dogs from the electrocuted side of the shuttle box to the safe side of the shuttle box, over and over, until the dog learned that it can, in fact, move its body and enact change. Move your body. Prove to your body that it is not helpless. Just as pasting a smile on your face can change your mood, moving your body can unshackle you from a feeling of helplessness.

TO DO: Aim for 30 minutes of moving your body in some way, anyway. Something weight bearing — walking, yoga, running, dancing — is ideal.

3. Belly Laughs and Rough-and-Tumble Play.

For details on laughing, see Sophie Scott, but here’s ashort-cut on belly laughs. Watching other people try really hard not to laugh, like maybe:

Or :

Rough and tumble play is a “primary process,” as basic to a mammals instincts as curiosity and sex. It bonds us together, teaches our bodies that we are safe with our tribe.

TO DO: Play tug with your dog, have tickle fights with your kids or partner and sibling, play rugby or roller derby or another contact sport for fun.

4. Creativity/making stuff. Channel the rage and despair into some productive outlet. I have written before about how writing fiction helps me move through despair and into hope. A different example: My sister, just today, combined physical activity with the actual Making of A Thing by building a walkway outside her new fixer-upper house.

Both are examples of teaching our bodies and brains that LOOK! WE *CAN* DO STUFF! WE ARE NOT HELPLESS.

Writing this article has been the beginning of my own belief that I am not helpless. Things I do can make a difference. If nothing else, I can help people learn and begin practicing strategies that help them, too, know that progress may be slow, but they are not powerless.

As President Obama, told us,

“One voice can change a room. And if it can change a room, it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation. And if it can change the nation, it can change the world.”

Fired up. Ready to go.

We are not helpless. But we need to know how to get out of the pit, before we can get back on our feet and begin fighting again.

Love to you all,


sex educator, author, researcher, and activist. also: nerd. and @emilynagoski

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