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What is the phrase "I feel so helpless" supposed to mean?

Is it "I feel as though I am unable to offer help" or "I feel as though no one could help me?"

I saw it in a movie, and always thought it was the latter, but it was clearly used in the context of the first.

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up vote 1 down vote accepted

Actually neither of your suggestions is very close. It's more like "I feel like I can't do anything on my own." or "I feel as if no one is helping me". Note that second example is different from the one you offered of "no one could help me". The phrase helpless doesn't mean you cannot be helped, only that nobody is. However the real meaning is closer to just feeling like you can't do anything unless somebody helps you.

Edit: Your first suggested meaning is not correct, but there is a sense where that is a logical outcome of the real meaning. If being helpless is a state of being incapable, unable to help yourself, unprotected, vulnerable etc ... then someone who is themselves helpless is probably not in a state where they could offer help to somebody else. Therefore it is possible to see a meaning like you describe, but it is a secondary outcome not the primary meaning of the word.

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Did you mean "no one" rather than "now one"? – psmears Apr 2 '11 at 8:40
Yes thanks @psmears. – Caleb Apr 2 '11 at 8:41

The meaning of helpless is "unable to defend oneself or to act without help."
The sentence "I feel so helpless" doesn't mean "I feel as though I am unable to offer help."

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An inability to help, might result in an anxiety over not helping. Someone might say, I feel so helpless, when watching something terrible happen on television, for example. – Sam Apr 2 '11 at 12:32
But as others have said it can mean the second one, or something very like it. – Colin Fine Jan 5 '13 at 22:43

OP's first suggested meaning would be correct if we just discard the word "offer"...

I feel helpless = I feel as though I am unable to help [myself, or another, depending on context].

OED's first two definitions are...

  1. Destitute of help; having no assistance from others; needy. (Of persons, their condition, etc.)

  2. Having no resources in oneself; unable to help oneself; shiftless. (The ordinary current sense.)

...from which you might reasonably suppose that feeling helpless is always and only concerned with your inability to resolve your own problems. But in practice if you're with someone else who has a problem, and you can't resolve that problem for them, it's natural to perceive yourself as having a problem of your own (that of being unable to deliver the help someone else needs).

In short, helpless means powerless to do anything helpful - in respect of your own or someone else's problem, according to context.

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helpless = need help = unable to do things on one's own.

I feel so helpless = I need help = I can't do things on my own

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