The Power in Powerlessness (Or, What to Do When Things Feel Out of Your Control)


I’ve been learning a lot lately about powerlessness.

Case(s) in point: I’ve been waiting for many months for the U.S. government to issue a visa for my fiancé to be able to come back to the States so we can get married. My parents’ dog (whom I adore) just got diagnosed with cancer and doesn’t have long to live. A few of my backyard chickens have intestinal worms that won’t go away despite multiple treatments from the vet.

And that’s just the start.

Here’s what I’ve learned through all this powerlessness:

  1. I hate feeling out of control.
  2. I’ll do pretty much anything I can to avoid it.
  3. Almost everything is out of my control.

The truth is, we are powerful in many ways, but we’re powerless in many more. Most of what happens in this world is not up to us. In fact, when we try to stay in control, what we’re actually holding onto is the illusion of control.

And the illusion of control may make us feel safe, but it’s also at the heart of most of our problems.

Think of it like this: when we come face-to-face with something we can’t fix, it can feel like we’re drowning in the inescapable force of a stadium-sized whirlpool. 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 whirlpool is to stop fighting: you accept that the force of the water is more powerful than you and let yourself sink to the bottom so the vortex will spit you out.

I’ll give you a real-life example. The other day I woke up in a bad mood. I was cranky and irritated and frustrated that I was so grumpy when I had nothing real to complain about. The more I tried to relax and lighten up, the worse I felt.

But then it occurred to me that my moods are like the weather—they come and go of their own accord and are not up to me to fix. And lo and behold, as I accepted my inability to rid myself of my bad mood, it slowly but surely started to lift.

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

Imagine this: you’re walking down the street when you come across a man who is repeatedly banging his head against a granite wall. When you ask him why he’s doing this, he looks at you like it’s obvious, then realizes you’re an idiot and explains:

“This wall is causing me a lot of pain. I’m trying to knock it down so it won’t hurt me anymore.”

Like this man, we often fail to realize that what’s causing our pain is not other people, things, or the situation we’re in, but the fact that we’re trying to change them. We tell ourselves nasty stories about what it means that things are this way; we imagine bad events that will occur because they are.

We bang our heads against the wall because it’s all we know to do.

On the other hand, when we stop trying to change things that are out of our control, they no longer have the power to hurt us in the same way. Granite walls stop being headaches and start to become….granite walls. And when we finally see things how they really are instead of how we want them to be, solutions begin to emerge on their own.

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.

Here’s how to start:

Step 1: Acknowledge what you’re powerless over.

This can be harder than it sounds.

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.

That kind of wisdom can take years or decades to come by. Here’s a cheat sheet:

What you can control: Your choices and actions.

What you can’t control: Everything else.*

*Including but not limited to: everybody else’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and the outcomes of all your efforts.

Often we get it backwards: we spend so much time trying to influence others and the external world that we forget to focus on what we have the most power over: ourselves and our own choices.

  • You can work incredibly hard on a project, but you can’t control whether you get a promotion.
  • You can be as loving as possible to a friend, but you can’t stop them from getting angry with you.
  • You can make a clear and reasonable request to someone else, but you are powerless over how they respond.

If you’re still in doubt, check in with how you’re feeling.  Usually if you’re taking care of something within your power, there is a sense of strength, ease, and groundedness.  If your efforts make you feel more along the lines of exhausted, angry, or anxious, then it’s likely you’re pushing on something over which you have no jurisdiction.

In a world where we’re trained how to exert and maintain control, acknowledging what you’re powerless over is a revolutionary act.  It’s also a powerful one.

Sometimes just admitting that we’re powerless is enough to solve our problems.  When I’m feeling overwhelmed, acknowledging that I’m powerless over the fact that I have limits frees me to stop trying to do everything. And suddenly, I’m no longer overwhelmed.

I can’t tell you how many problems I’ve solved simply by admitting that I can’t change the laws of reality.

Step 2: By all means change what you can.

If you still have problems after conceding you’re not omnipotent, you have options.

You could ask for help.

Often we’re powerless to do something by ourselves, but we find a new power by enlisting others.  Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on this principle (the 12 steps require members to ask for help from both God and fellow alcoholics) and has proven it’s a sound one.

You could make lemonade.

If you can’t sleep, read a good book. If you’re caught in traffic, call a friend. If you don’t get the job you want, look for a better one or start your own business.

You could find a new way of looking at things that makes you happier.

If others are critical of you, choose not to let your satisfaction or self-worth depend on the opinions of others. 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 may be better in the long run than what you had imagined.

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.

Step 3: Accept what 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.

There’s no magic bullet for acceptance.  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 yourself and make sure your 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.

You don’t even have to believe in God to do this. Pray to the universe, your dog, or the tree in your yard. The important thing is to ask somebody—anybody—to help you find acceptance.

Prayer is, after all, a form of accepting powerlessness.

And that, as we have seen, leads to serenity, freedom, and ultimately–in a process that’s totally outside of our control–power.

Now over to you:  What do you make of all this?  What makes you feel powerless?  How to you deal with a lack of control?

If you’d like help on your journey, I offer individual and small group coaching. Find out more here.

***Photo credit: Frederic Bisson

19 thoughts on “The Power in Powerlessness (Or, What to Do When Things Feel Out of Your Control)

  1. This is a great article. Everything you said rings so true. This is really helpful to remember. Normally I don’t make it to the end of articles this size, but I flew right through to the end. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Prayer is a form of accepting powerlessness-I have never thought of it that way despite being very familiar with the serenity prayer-Thank you.

  3. Wow!!! That was a really good read. Thank you for allowing God to use you in showing us another quality of His character. Blessings…

  4. Hi Meredith
    I searched the internet today to find something valuable on the ideas of powerlessness and especially Acceptance—and I was delighted to find your writing. I have been cursed with a perfectionist attitude toward all I do–including my family. Growing up this way was survival for me—and in my 20’s and 30’s this really helped me establish a career and raise good kids.
    But the last few years things have blown open in my marriage, causing ripple effects for my children—and causing me to look AT Me. I want to change but it is terribly hard for me. I want to accept who I can control–only me…
    Thank you for this writing.. Its meant so much to me today.

    1. Thanks for letting me know, Jo. If I had never had crises that rocked me to my core, I never would have had to give up control (or the illusion of it). It takes time, but is one of the most worthwhile things I’ve worked on. I’m not sure if you have any family or friends who are alcoholics or drug addicts, but a great resource for this type of work is Al Anon (a 12-step program for the family and friends of addicts).

  5. I am currently going through things that feel horrible to me. Having no power over my landlord selling the building I live in; his arrogant realtor imposing visits and dozens of strangers traipsing through my house, touching, moving and scrutinizing my things (all during the coronavirus pandemic); the man who could fix nothing for a decade suddenly showing up to do “urgent repairs” without consulting me to set a convenient time; his cutting off my power in the middle of my workday.

    The police, the government body in charge of relationships between landlords and tenants, tenants’ rights organizations: no one I called could help.

    Like Jo, I searched the net to figure out what to do with what I will call the “residual rage” of being subjected to these things. Yours was the most helpful and I thought it important to let you know that something you wrote over a year ago is still current and invaluable. Thank you.

    1. That sounds very hard, Lennie. For some of us (myself included), feeling powerless over our homes is one of the most challenging types of powerlessness. I’m glad the article was helpful and appreciate you letting me know. We’re all getting lots of reminders of our powerlessness these days, and my hope is that we can find the courage to surrender and accept it all so our experiences can transform us for the better.

  6. I just sat thru an AA meeting , I really struggle with the label alcoholic- prefer being a person who is abusing alcohol – and powerlessness in Step one totally irritates me – so I googled – when powerlessness is poerful and cam upon your article – wellsaid and well written – and I will re-read til it sinks in Thansk

    1. Thanks for taking the time to let me know, Linda. I’m glad it resonated. You’re certainly not the only one irritated by powerlessness. My personal experience is that being irritated by it–to the point that we’re forced to figure out our relationship with it–isn’t fun, but it is transformative.

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