Embracing Powerlessness

May 29, 2020

When we think of powerlessness, most people think of the Twelve Step Program, which is an amazing healing program of recovery.  However, what I want to address today is the powerlessness in our operating system that sets the Foundation for Freedom, for the development of healthy boundaries and for engaging in and interacting with things that are absolutely outside of our control.  Most of us do not come to the table with the desire to embrace this kind of powerlessness.  For most of us, this is the kind of thing that is literally “beaten out of us”.

The true essence of freedom is living in a way that no external circumstance or force can influence us into a state of instability, of chaos or of being overwhelmed. Freedom from how the dark and light influences us, is a rigorous practice, yet completely possible and doable. When we make a choice that no matter what should arise, to remain stable, to lean on our faith and remain objective, then freedom is achieved.

For example, I would cut off my right arm if I could free my daughter from her Bipolar Disorder.  However, through years of pain, trials and tribulations, it was only when I TRULY realized I did not create it, can not change it, cannot take it away and that I am not a bad mother, that I was able to shift my support to a place of fierce strength in holding space for her while she navigates this enormous challenge in her life. 

Other examplesof things we are powerless over are:

  • Losing a family member to suicide, disease or natural causes
  • Growing up with a dysfunctional or absent parent; one with mental illness, narcissistic, abusive or other pathological process
  • Being a victim of sexual, physical or emotional abuse as a child
  • Being a victim of violent crime
  • Losing our home to natural disaster
  • Having a loved one who develops an alcohol or drug problem
  • Having our dog (whom we adore) getting diagnosed with cancer with a limited amount of time to live.
  • Travel or life events being canceled due to risk of the spread of coronavirus

This is what I know about being powerless:

  1. We all hate feeling out of control.
  2. We will do pretty much anything we can to avoid feeling powerless.
  3. Almost everything (all other people, places and things) are out of our control.

The truth is, we are powerful in many ways,  however, we’re powerless in many more. Most of what happens in this world is not up to us. While we may “feel” like we have control, what we actually have is the illusion” of control.  This illusion of control may make us feel safe, but it is the cornerstone to our suffering.

For example: when we confront something we have no power over, it can feel like we’re drowning in the inescapable force of a rip tide, where the under-tow is pulling us out to sea.  So we fight the current and swim harder to get back to what feels like solid ground. But the more we fight, the more exhausted we become, and the farther we drift from what we want. The key to getting out of a rip tide is to stop fighting, to accept that the force of the water is more powerful than you and let yourself flow out to the sea and where it will then drop you back to shore.

There’s a power that comes from accepting our powerlessness.

I am in no way saying that we should never take action for change. But paradoxically, we will become far more powerful if we can fully accept our powerlessness. When we love, we would go to all lengths to help a hurting, unhappy, lost or confused loved one.  However,  what many of us don’t realize is the energy and emotional resources we pour into trying to influence a situation that we have no power over is nothing short of emotionally exhausting.  Furthermore, and even more devastating, is that our efforts to help, or CONTROL something that we are powerless over, not only can make things worse, cause more shame for those suffering and increase the pathology of both ourselves and the situation, but, we, in effect try to PLAY GOD in people’s lives and interfere not only with them taking responsibility for their challenges but also interfere with their opportunity to reach out to God for help.

Embracing powerlessness is not about giving up and not caring, it’s about SURRENDERING to the reality that we simply have no control, no influence.

The key  is developing the keen skill of differentiating where we do and do NOT have any control, power or influence. We need to focus on the “how” not the “why”.  How do we navigate through this challenge?  How do we stop trying to control the details with which we have no control over? How do we take the approach of “crossing that bridge when we get there”?  How do we lean on the Lord and “choose” to trust and believe in “Thy will be done”?  Willpower is not the key to survival here, surrender is.

How much time have you spent trying to make people be, do, or feel something they aren’t, don’t want to do, and choose not to feel?  For example, trying to get your diabetic family member to exercise and eat healthy.  How many of you have spent your childhood trying to make your alcoholic or narcissistic parent, who didn’t love himself, be a normal person who loved you?  How many of you have then gone on to marry an alcoholic or narcissist and spent the next decade trying to get them to stop drinking or to love you?  How many of you have spent years trying to make emotionally unavailable people be emotionally present for you, or spent years trying to make family members, who are content feeling miserable, be happy?

By surrendering to powerlessness, we gain the presence of mind to stop pouring our emotional resources, time and energy trying to change others or circumstances and to instead focus our resources to influence  that which we can change or help. That being ourselves!

Powerlessness gives us permission to stop trying to do the impossible and focus on what is possible: being who you are, loving yourself, feeling what you feel, and doing what you want to do with your life.”  when you deal with the “reality” of what you are powerless over, it allows you the freedom to invest your emotional resources in the areas you do have influence over, such as navigating through the current challenge.

In the growth process, and in developing healthy operating systems, we learn that the more we are focused on controlling and changing others, the more unmanageable our life becomes. The more we focus on living our own life, the more we have a life to live, and the more manageable our life will become.

Accepting powerlessness leads to a new sense of freedom.  Being powerless is not a comfortable feeling, especially when we watch someone we love engaging in harmful activities, or if we find ourselves on the receiving end of someone else’s thoughtless and cruel behavior.  When someone engages in a harmful behavior and has no desire to stop, we are kidding ourselves if we think we can force the person to change. We can only change ourselves and our own responses.

So what does powerlessness look like?

Step 1: Acknowledge what you’re powerless over.  This can be harder than it sounds.  We struggle between reality and illusion. When I’m not sure whether I’m banging my head against a wall or simply being persistent, I use the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

What you can control: Your choices and actions.

What you can’t control: Everything else.

Often we get it backwards: we spend so much time trying to influence others and the external world that we forget to focus on where we have authentic power: that being over ourselves and our own choices. For example, You can work incredibly hard on a project, but you can’t control whether you get a raise.  You can be as loving as possible to a friend, but you can’t stop them from reacting negatively toward you. Or, you can make a clear and reasonable request to someone else, but you are powerless over how they respond.

Another way to determine if you are clear as to what you are powerless over is to check in with how you’re feeling.  Usually if we’re taking care of something within our power, there is a sense of strength, ease, and groundedness.  If our efforts make us feel more along the lines of exhausted, angry, or anxious, chaotic or overwhelmed, then it’s likely we’re pushing on something over which we have no control.

Sometimes just admitting that we’re powerless is enough to solve your problems.  Acknowledging that we are powerless and that we have limits, actually frees us to stop trying to do everything. And suddenly, we are no longer overwhelmed. At this point we can ascertain where we in fact DO have influence, where we do have power.

Letting Go means giving up the need to convince or persuade others of our point of view.  Rigidity and resistance remove us from being present to the moment at hand.  By letting go, we can be in the moment, we can be present.  When we are trying to force our will onto another, that person’s resistance only increases, and resentment and hurtful feelings follow.

Step 2: Change what you can.

Ask for help.  Often we’re powerless to do something by ourselves, but we find a new power by reaching out to others.  We can reach out for comfort and connection to our loved ones.  Seek the wisdom of those dear to us and seek support for our powerlessness.  Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on this principle (the 12 steps require members to ask for help from both God and fellow alcoholics) .

Find a new way of looking at things.  If others are critical of you, choose not to let your satisfaction or self-worth depend on their opinions of you. If things aren’t going according to plan, consider that there might be a plan better than the one you made. If you’re not getting the results you wanted, keep in mind that what you’re getting maybe better in the long run than what you had imagined.  The simple reality is, it’s not what happens to us that determines our happiness but rather the stories we tell ourselves about it.  And you can always choose what story you tell yourself about anything.

Take Responsibility for yourself.  This means not getting stuck on blaming anyone or anything for your situation, not even yourselves.   Blaming does not solve problems. We can then turn our attention and energy into understanding our own behavior and exploring new ways to take care of ourselves.  We have the power to take care of and use RESPONSIBLE communication skills and coping mechanisms.  We can seek nurturing and support and comfort and connection for all of the emotions associated with the issue, so that we can move to a place of holding space for ourself and others as we/they navigate the challenge at hand

Step 3: Accept that which you cannot change.  Ultimately, we will be a lot happier if we can accept things the way they are and stop fighting reality.  Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.  It can help to look at things from different perspectives, talk to others who see things differently and do your best to be compassionate with ourself, and make sure our nurturing needs are getting met.

If something still feels absolutely unacceptable to you, the best thing I know to do is pray—not to get what you want, but to be able to accept what is.

Stop struggling to change people, places and things and accept things as they are, not as we wish they were.   It is what it is and we are powerless over changing it, them. Note that this is definitely a practice, not an arrival state.  We are constantly looking at what life puts before us and we start with the assessment of where we have influence and where we do not and establish boundaries with SELF over that reality.  It does not mean we do not care.  It means we are dealing in reality

Step 4:  Holding Space  Meet others or a situation where they are on their journey and then provide the comfort and connection to navigate through it. For example, my daughter’s life with Bi-polar is her journey to navigate with her own two feet.  If I am trying to do it for her, trying to get her to change or to stop this or try that, I simply interfere with what is really needed, that being the FREEDOM to meet her right where she is at any given point, not afraid of the disease or fearful of the outcome, just to be there for HER as she meets the daily challenges of this illness. This is the same for a loved one with a health condition or an addiction, of any life challenge that is beyond our control.  Only THEY can do the work or make the changes and the more we “think” we can heal them or change them, the more we “contribute” to the challenge.

Practicing powerlessnessmeans we cease resistance, remove our defenses and take responsibility for ourselves.  We move from focusing most of our time and attention on another person’s behavior, or outside circumstances and we quit trying to enforce the unenforceable. When that happens, we will experience a sense of freedom, find new energy and discover new possibilities.

The big problem with powerlessness in our culture is that when people are faced with this in the real world, they try to “cope” with their powerlessness with an attempt “not to care”.  This does not work.  The challenge is to be able to clearly define where we have influence and where we are powerless.  And then the feelings that fall in the space in-between is what we need to take into relationship with others for connection and comfort.  For example, the powerlessness we experience in trying to get an addicted loved one into sobriety.  When we realize we cannot control the outcome, we are left taking it personally, or feeling like a failure when they relapse.  These emotions actually sabotage the very thing that is needed for all healing…that being connection.

The concept of powerlessness can be hard to grasp. Powerlessness is often mistaken for weakness, but this is actually a step of strength. “We gain strength through acceptance of our limitations”. In a highly individualistic culture, we often believe that we should be able to take control of our lives, fix our problems, and overcome our struggles alone, but admitting powerlessness involves leaning into others, trusting a community, and surrendering the things we can’t control.

The true essence of freedom is living in such a way that no external circumstance or force can influence you into a state of instability. Freedom from how the dark and light influences us is a rigorous practice, yet completely possible and doable. When we make a choice that no matter what should arise, we remain stable, to lean on our faith, and to remain objective, then freedom is attained.

Lisa Day

Dr. Day is the director of the Meier Clinic in Sun Valley, Idaho and has over 20 years of experience working with individuals, couples, and families struggling with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, behavioral/medical issues, addiction, relationship struggles, interpersonal boundary concerns, work/life balance, major life adjustments, divorce recovery, crisis, grief, forgiveness, and loss.

Located in our Sun Valley office


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