On Powerlessness

Addiction is in my thoughts every day but especially today because of the death of the immensely talented Philip Seymour Hoffman of apparent drug overdose.

It is no accident that the first step of the 12 Step program confronts us with powerlessness. The cornerstone of ongoing addiction is the belief “I can stop anytime I want to.”

Yet we resist accepting powerlessness. It is not just addicts who must accept it. We all wrestle with degrees of powerlessness in our daily lives. Have you ever struggled to figure out what’s bothering your screaming infant at 3 AM? Have you ever been late for appointment and stuck in a traffic jam? These are just a few examples of the daily dose of powerlessness we are all fed. Other instances of powerlessness are far more serious ranging from life-threatening illness to prolonged abuse to political oppression.

How do we typically react to powerlessness? Most of us (including me) get angry and try to invoke some sort of control, whether that control is an effort at constructive problem-solving or simply blaring one’s horn and yelling at other drivers. Some of us. when confronted with powerlessness, give up. “There’s nothing I can do. Why bother. I think I’ll just stay in bed.”

What can we do in the face of powerlessness? Many great spiritual thinkers from Jesus to the founders of AA to Gandhi to Martin Luther King encourage us to embrace the powerlessness and to find therein a different type of power. That power may have to do with turning our struggles over to the God of our understanding, a step that can bring peace and often a better outcome. Sometimes, too, the decision to embrace powerlessness empowers the person in other ways as it did in India and in Selma Alabama.

The ultimate unhealthy response to powerlessness is to become violent. “I can’t get you to do what I want so I will beat you until you do.” A common response nowadays. So it would seem that, if our intent is to embrace a theology and philosophy of peace, we also must embrace powerlessness.

I used to get into a lot of fights when I was young. It usually was a response to something over which I had no control such as someone else’s behavior. I never felt good about it. In time, I have tried to learn the power of powerlessness. Here is an example.

Some time ago I met for an evaluation with a soldier. He greeted me by saying “You’re the fifth f*****g shrink I’ve had to talk to and I’m f*****g tired of it.” The old me would have told him to get the h*** out of my office. Instead I said that it must be very frustrating having to tell one’s story over and over and that I’d make it is as tolerable as possible. He calmed down to the point that, when he was leaving, he turned to me and said “Well, I guess you’re not so bad so I’ll shake your hand.” One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever had!

This story is nothing in comparison to the abuse endured by Freedom Riders but it is intended to suggest what can happen if we accept powerlessness. As the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus said “Don’t expect or demand that events happen as you would wish them to. Accept events as they actually happen.” Easier said than done!

Reflection: Where do you experience powerlessness in your life? How do you deal with it?

About richp45198

I am a clinical psychologist and have an abiding interest in matters spiritual.
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6 Responses to On Powerlessness

  1. Dr. Patterson:

    Very interesting post. Richard Rohr, one of my “virtual” mentors (due to his combination of Catholic spirituality and Jungian psychology) had a reflection today on the topic of powerlessness so I have been reflecting on this for a few hours. Fr. Rohr describes powerlessness as Stage Six spirituality (beyond traditional surrender of the ego and “enlightenment”) and a place that is “God’s waiting room”.


    I am not (yet?) at the Stage Six spirituality that Fr. Rohr discusses but I am going through a transformation in which my ego is being integrated with my subconsciousness and my spiritual awakening is at the center of this process. During this journey, I am learning deep humility, which I interpret as being different than powerlessness.

    I am heading to Europe tomorrow for ten days and I am hoping to find time to read your book “Turtle on the Fencepost” as I believe you have some wisdom and experiences that I can learn from. It is unfortunate you are not geographically closer as I really need both a good psychologist and a good spiritual director 🙂

    W. Ockham

  2. Richard: Thank you for sharing the wisdom of Richard Rohr and for reminding us that acceptance of our powerlessness is easier said than done. I’m glad you mentioned that in working to accept powerlessness, we find a different kind of power.

    One thing that is helpful to me is to practice mindfulness when I feel powerless. I check in with how I feel and how powerlessness feels in my body. Sometimes it reminds me of earlier scenes from childhood and/or perhaps brings up feelings of abject terror. It becomes a fight or flight thing where if I don’t act, or so I think, I’ll die. But if I can take a second to look at how powerlessness feels in my body and if I can go a step further and watch myself feeling powerless, then I might be able to ask and answer the most important question which is: WHO is feeling powerless? When I do that, I’m practicing mindfulness and staying with myself. As a result, when I do decide to act, if that is even possible, I am likely to act with more discernment and tact. And as you say, at that point, I discover a different kind of power which is often more effective than the ego-based “power” of mind-LESS-ness.

  3. mulchmantrc@aol.com says:

    youre not so bad — tom

  4. Eileen P.Williams says:

    I have been thinking constantly about Phillip since I heard about his death. I think I have been more focused on the mystery and frustration associated with addiction than the experience of powerlessness. Now that I read your post I understand that I have been mourning even though the person I love has not died from his addiction. I am mourning my inability to change everything and to fix him. I think I deal with powerlessness by substituting that condition with being busy and over committed when in fact what I really feel is a numbness. I have learned to accept this and am now wanting to break out of this condition. My prayers are with Phillips family as I feel a sort of resignation that at least he doesn’t have to fight that monster anymore and he is free. I know he is with God as he already lived in hell while on earth. Making a beautiful piece of art also helps me deal with powerlessness and it’s friend RAGE– I am almost finished cross stitching the entire Serenity Prayer. I will bring it by one day, Dr.P………

  5. Susan Bass says:

    The old you would also not have told him to get the hell out. I knew the old you too. My mother once told me to see an older therapist. I told her, “He IS old. He is 37 and he has grey hair!”. Happy for you (and the soldier) that you were able to bring comfort and understanding.

  6. Ѕtunոing story there. What occurred after? Take care!

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