There are lots of things that can feel out of our control. 

Memories that turn into flashbacks. Anger that blossoms into rage. Depression that spirals into despair. Tiredness that sinks into fatigue. 

When we start investigating ways we can possibly keep these things from ruining our lives, we often come up against a brick wall when we realize that so much feels so out of our control. 

It can feel overwhelming when we come up against this wall. It often makes us want to give up the project of personal growth or therapy altogether, and just retreat back into a cloistered existence where the main objective is to get through the day hurting as little as possible. 

If you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone. Many people find themselves confronted with the wall of how out-of-control our emotional and physical existences seem to be. 

Therein lies one of the great paradoxes of personal growth and therapy: in order to have any hope of mastering the knowledge and skills necessary to get our lives back on track, we need to learn to deal with that feeling of powerlessness. 

We need to accept that, at least for a minute, we are going to feel powerless, and maybe a little hopeless and alone. 

But there’s also something we need to accept in this process that seems even more difficult for many people to accept: the fact that because we FEEL powerless doesn’t mean we ARE powerless. 

Because it FEELS like our memories, our anger, our depression, and our fatigue are beyond our control, that doesn’t mean they truly ARE. 

It may be true that we don’t YET have the tools we need in order to change our lives…but that doesn’t mean those tools don’t exist. 

Many people resist embracing these truths. 

For some people, accepting that they can develop knowledge and skills that will eventually put them in charge of their emotional lives feels tantamount to blaming themselves for not ALREADY having that knowledge and those skills. If those skills exist, they reason, it’s my fault for not already having them— thus my misery is on me. 

This is what cognitive therapists call a “personalization distortion.” 

Why on earth would it fall on you to have already mastered skills you didn’t even know existed? 

That’s like blaming a child who hasn’t yet learned to read, for not knowing how to read. I.e., the fact that a kid doesn’t yet know how to read doesn’t mean they can’t learn to read…and it would be silly to expect them to know how to read without instruction and practice. 

Believe it or not, the various skills that we need in order to grow as a person and/or recover from emotional difficulties aren’t “common knowledge.” 

We are not, as children, taught particularly strong emotional regulation skills. 

(Many of us, as children, were taught and rewarded for OVER-regulation of our emotions…but that’s not the same thing.) 

Accepting the fact that there are things we can do to feel and function better is NOT the same as blaming ourselves for currently being miserable. 

Nor is it a legitimate pathway to blaming anybody else for their misery, although there is definitely a subset of people who love trying to blame vulnerable people for their own unhappiness. 

The fact that tools exist to help us live more livable lives is useless to us unless we happen to have also come across the resources that teach us those skills and show us how to use them in the real world. And the fact is, many people who do end up connecting with those resources often end up doing so by chance. 

They happen to stumble across the right blog. 

They happen to get hooked up with the right therapist at the right time. 

They happen to read the right book which happened to be on the shelf that happened to be at eye level. 

Don’t fall into the trap of believing that your difficulties have to be either beyond your ability to deal with them, or else it’s somehow your fault that you’re not yet dealing with them in an optimal way. That’s a false choice. 

Instead, err on the side of assuming that every problem you’re facing may have a solution. 

If you haven’t found the solution to the problems facing you yet, err on the side of assuming that you simply haven’t stumbled across the right resources at the right time— and keep looking. 

It’s okay to feel intimidated when you look at the array of stressors crowding in on you. It’s normal. ANYBODY would be intimidated to be facing such adversarial forces. 

But don’t assume that those feelings— being intimidated, even being discouraged or feeling momentarily hopeless— actually mean that you cannot learn the skills and use the tools that truly are out there to improve your life. 

Feeling powerless is not the same as being powerless. 

Repeat this as necessary. 


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3 thoughts on “Feeling powerless is not the same as being powerless.

  1. Wow! This is spot on for me. But then most every thing you print is. Have a great day, Doc. And thanks for caring & sharing your keen insights!


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