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The Illusion of Power and the Gifts of Powerlessness

Updated: Oct 28, 2019

"Many of us enter an illusion of omnipotence, a very slippery and seductive illusion indeed, and one that is at best frustrating, exhausting and self-defeating, and at worst, catastrophic."

Many of us do not like to think of ourselves as powerless. When I was younger this word seemed to evoke something akin to an existential crisis in me, but as time has gone on I have grown more and more fond of it and would even go so far as to say that these days I find a deep comfort in the concept. It honours one of the inescapable truths of existence, describing my relationship with an inordinate amount of life and phenomena. Over other people, places and things I have no power. I cannot control how they are, what they do or what happens to them. That is the domain of far more powerful, complex and mysterious forces than I, and believing otherwise is a type of madness all of its own….a madness that much of the human race seems to suffer from. Many of us frequently enter an illusion of omnipotence, a very slippery and seductive illusion indeed, and one that at best is frustrating, exhausting and self-defeating, and at worst, catastrophic.


When we love someone who is in the throes of an addiction or other mental health crisis, this illusion becomes particularly seductive. Entering the illusion that we have the power to save our loved one or arrest what is happening for them can help us avoid the very difficult emotions which necessarily go along with the experience of loving a using addict…..fear, pain, grief, anger, loneliness, despair.


When we deny how small and helpless we actually feel and enter the illusion that we can control the choices and outcomes for somebody else’s life, we falsely empower ourselves into an over-adequate, over-responsible position. We become judge, controller, warden in relation to our loved one…where we tell them what they need to do and how to do it, when and in what way….where we intrude into their life space and their business and try to do their thinking and make their decisions for them. In this way we unwittingly disempower them….exactly the opposite of what is needed and what we are really trying to achieve.


The illusion of power on the part of the helper or caretaker can become a significant part of the addict’s problem and fuel the fire of their addiction or mental health crisis. Interference, criticism and control are like kerosene being poured on the mental health fire, and are the the most natural but the least helpful interventions in the crisis. These interventions often have a high degree of anxiety and fear flowing through them and both can be contagious when they are uncontained. That anxious and fearful emotional flavour often flows straight to the struggling loved one, further overwhelming and paralysing them. What family and friends are so often communicating, unconsciously, subtly or very directly, is….if you aren’t okay, we can’t be okay. You NEED to be okay, otherwise we won’t be. To be on the receiving end of this kind of ‘care’ or ‘help’ feels anything but caring or helpful. It feels like an immense burden, a pressure that the person who is already struggling is ill-equipped to shoulder.


If there is one thing I hear time and time again from substance abusers and people with depression etc it is how incredibly suffocating it is underneath all their loved ones monitoring, advice-giving and checking in. The constant anxiety about them and anxious intrusion into their lives leads to a feeling of ‘this is not my life’ and actually invites more collapse, less ownership and responsibility, and a feeling of there being no space to even breathe, let alone work out their struggle.


Whilst an intense over-focus on the person is a natural and instinctual response, it is not a helpful one. There is a profound difference between what I have described above and the more helpful alternatives. Staying connected is helpful. Presence, compassion, understanding, holding space are helpful. Calm is helpful. Control, anxious monitoring, disallowing space, violating privacy, believing we have the answers for someone else’s life….is not.

I have come to believe that what it takes to really love someone affected by these conditions, is a courage that many struggle to find. Because it involves letting them go….not disconnecting from them (though sometimes we do because this is also instinctual at a certain level of perceived relationship threat)….but allowing the to determine their life path, what quality of life they will have, and what their solutions will be. Because the truth is that we have no power whatsoever to change others, and when our change effort is directed at changing others, we are wasting valuable time, energy and resources on spinning around on a pretty futile merry-go-round. If we can risk feeling our despair at this truth, we can also rest in our powerlessness. We can know that there are larger forces at play than us, and that a larger solution than us will be required for the person to get well. There is so much humility in accepting this, and we are so human in this place of not being all-powerful.


Another reason to be mindful about how we ‘care’ for others is that often we think we can see what is going on with another person but we often do not know as much as we think we do. For example….what might be going on at soul level in someone’s addiction or mental health crises? In the west we treat mental health symptoms and addiction as pathology, whereas in some other parts of the world these are often viewed very differently….as a spiritual gateway….an invitation and initiation into becoming a healer. In light of this, how far does our knowledge on addiction actually extend? What is happening for the person at deeper more inaccessible levels? What do we truely know of these things?


People have their own wisdom and their own journey to walk and when we can step aside and bow down to the other’s journey and and be a loving witness to whatever process they must necessarily go through in order to make it through to the other side, we contribute something profoundly comforting that has far more value than criticism, control and interference. But we must be willing to let them go in order to do this. This is completely counter-intuitive and requires daily acts of bravery. As with much of life, letting go and surrendering allows life to flow with more grace and serenity, and allows us to use our energy more wisely,…for living.


Perhaps the biggest gift of embracing our powerlessness, is that we can clarify where our power actually actually lies. It is over ourselves that we have some power. We can direct our time, energy and resources into our own self-care and our own change process, a beautiful by-product being that our own wellness and change process may also inspire, motivate and teach those we love by example, if they are open and ready. It is paradoxically true that when we can accept our own powerlessness over others, and can truly surrender, we can become immensely powerful in our own lives.

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