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Chapter 6 Accepting Powerlessness

Tools for Handling Control Issues

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.

What is powerlessness?

Powerlessness is the:

  • Inability to control the uncontrollables in your life.
  • Lack of ability to affect or change the compulsive or addictive behaviors of others which affect you negatively.
  • Inability to make others exactly what you want them to be.
  • Inability to change past events which have had a negative impact in your current life.
  • Complete lack of control, authority, or status to affect how others will treat or act towards you.
  • Inability to insure that all of your dreams and fantasies for the way you want life to be will come true in reality.
  • Continuing of the negative consequences of compulsively driven behaviors which affect your life and which are out of your control.
  • Inability to completely change things you have attempted repeatedly to change with no success.
  • Sensation of being out of control with no apparent solution to help you to regain control.
  • Recognition that there are for you problems, people, and things that are uncontrollable and unchangeable and out of your power to completely affect, control, or change.
  • Presence of impulsive, addictive, compulsive, and obsessive behaviors in you which up to now you have not been able to get under control and which are causing your life to become unmanageable.
  • Lack of strength, competence, or skills to overcome realities in life that have no current apparent solution such as the cure for AIDS and cancer; complete recovery from cerebral palsy or bringing back to life a loved one who has died, etc.
  • Lack of capability to affect the realities of life out of your control like: how others act towards you; if you will get a job you want, or be accepted to a school you desire to attend; what the weather will be; if an accident will occur or if an act of God will affect you or others, etc.

What are the negative consequences of not accepting powerlessness over the uncontrollables and unchangeables in your life?

If you do not accept powerlessness over the uncontrollables and unchangeables in your life, then you could:

  • Begin to frustrate yourself in your attempts to gain control and to fix the non-fixable.
  • Become extremely rigid and dogmatic in your handling of life's problems believing that there is only one way to do things, the perfect way.
  • Deny the enormity of the things which you do not have power to change and become locked into fantasy or magical thinking that given enough time, energy, and resources you can succeed in changing them.
  • Become so full of self-pride as to believe that only you can be the savior for the ills or problems you are facing.
  • Become so self-preoccupied that you become incapable of reaching out to ask for others' help and support in facing these problems which are beyond your power and control.
  • Deny the existence of a Higher Power in your life upon whom you can call for help and assistance.
  • Lose your faith in the capability of human beings to help out a fellow human who is in need of help and support.
  • Become so frustrated and depressed in trying to solve the unsolvable problems that you find your temper, anger, and rage igniting and flaring up spontaneously, inappropriately, and disproportionately.
  • Feel so defeated by the non-fixable realities of life that you come to believe yourself an inadequate person.
  • Forget that you are a human being and as such open to failures and mistakes and not the perfect being who is omnipotent and infallible in all things.
  • Cling onto the people whom you cannot control or change until they one day walk out on you frustrated by your incessant efforts to change, correct, or reform them.
  • Lose perspective of your own limits and not be self-protective of your energy, resources, and spirit in your incessant effort to solve the unsolvable.
  • Increase in a sense of low self-esteem because you are incapable of making everything right and perfect with all people, places, and things in your life.


How is accepting powerlessness a control issue?

Accepting powerlessness is a control issue because:

  • It gives you the ability to retain the locus of control in your hands because you have the right to accept or reject, to reach out or to pull in from others' offers of help.
  • In recognizing that you have addictive, impulsive, compulsive, or obsessive behavioral patterns which you are powerless to control or fix on your own, you are capable of seeking help and support from others to fortify your efforts in this regard.
  • By letting go of the pride of survivorship that says that only you can solve your own problems, no matter how big they are, you recognize the need of the strength and assistance of a Higher Power with whom you can share the solving of your overpowering problems.
  • In so doing you give credibility and validity to the belief that there are issues in your life that no matter how long and how much you control them you will never gain full power over because they inevitably will happen. Such items as death, taxes, weather, climatic changes, acts of God, are just a few of those things you will never be able to control and thus you are powerless to change.
  • It is a first step in accepting help for any problems which are stronger than you and are resistant to efforts to correct.
  • It is a behavior similar to helplessness but yet qualitatively different because helplessness is really a guise for maintaining control over others whereas accepting powerlessness is the inviting of others into your life to support your need to correct a problem.
  • It is an honest appraisal of how much control or power you have over problems, situations, people, places, or things.
  • In recognizing that there is a Higher Power who has a role in your life, you are able to put into a healthy perspective how much energy, resources, personal investment, emotional and physical effort and time you need to contribute to the partnership with your Higher Power to face those problems over which you by yourself are powerless.
  • You don't like to admit you can't control something on your own and yet unless you do so you will continue to knock your head against a brick wall. 

What is some of the irrational or unhealthy thinking that leads you to deny powerlessness over the out-of-control people, places, things, and personal behaviors in your life?

  • You must be able to have control over everything in your life.
  • It is a sign of weakness to admit your inability to control or change things.
  • You should be able to solve your own problems on your own.
  • What would people think if you reached out for help to deal with the aspects of your life which are out of control?
  • You should be able to work things out on your own, once you realize what the problem is.
  • There is no problem too great that it can't be solved.
  • God never gives you a problem too great that you can't handle it on your own.
  • You are a real wimp or wuss if you can't deal with it on your own.
  • People are able to handle everything in life. That is why they were given intelligence, creativity and imagination.
  • It is a sign of moral weakness if you are not able to get your impulsive, addictive, compulsive, or obsessive behaviors under control.
  • You are a bad person if you are powerless to change your behaviors on your own.
  • You are not supposed to ask for help from others when you are dealing with your weak character flaws.
  • When you ask for help, you always become dependent on others to solve your problems for you.
  • Certain behaviors have a genetic basis and it is best to ignore them so that they don't occur in your life.
  • Ignore your problems and they will go away.
  • An impulse is an easy thing to get under control.
  • You are morally weak if you have an addictive behavior problem.
  • The only way to change sick behaviors is to work at it on your own.
  • If you don't face your problems, they don't exist for the moment.
  • Admitting you are a human being when facing problems is admitting defeat.
  • You should be able to handle every challenge in your life on your own.
What are some steps to admitting powerlessness so that you can solve problems?
When you are troubled by personal behaviors or by uncontrollable and unchangeable people, places, things, and situations in your life, you can follow these steps so as to admit your powerlessness over them to enable you to get help from others to deal with them.


Step 1: Identify what behavior, person, place, thing, or situation is causing you problems and making your life unmanageable.


Step 2: Identify what it is about this problem that makes you feel powerless.


Step 3: Identify what irrational beliefs keeps you from admitting being powerless over the problem.


Step 4: Replace this irrational thinking with healthy, rational, more realistic thinking about powerlessness such as the following positive self-affirmations.
  • I am a human being and deserve support from others in my efforts to address problems over which I currently feel powerless.
  • I deserve support and help to address these problems for my self-growth.
  • It is human to feel powerless since only God is all powerful and omnipotent.
  • I will get closer to recovery from my problems once I admit my inability to solve them on my own.
  • It is OK to feel powerlessness over my problems as long as I reach out to my Higher Power and others for assistance and support.
  • I can solve problems that come my way as long as I am willing to admit my inability to solve them on my own and seek help to deal with them.
  • I gain more in life by letting go of control over those things that are out of my power to control.
  • I gain serenity in life by admitting what I am powerless to change and control.
  • I am a human and not God and that's OK.
  • Help is only given to those who ask for it.
  • I can reach out for help when I am powerless to solve a problem on my own.
  • I will seek help from my Higher Power and others when I feel powerless to solve a problem on my own.


Step 5: Once you have affirmed your right to admit powerlessness over the problem, then reach out to others to seek their support and assistance.

 Step 6: Simultaneous with reaching out for help from others to deal with the problem, seek your Higher Power's assistance by the following:
  • Handing over the uncontrollable and unchangeable elements of the problem.
  • Asking for the strength, wisdom, and courage to deal with the controllable and changeable elements of the problem.


Step 7: Once you gain help and support from others and your Higher Power, conscientiously and assiduously take steps to address the changeable elements which you have the power and ability to change.


Step 8: Recognize that progress will be slow and erratic at first in changing personal behaviors of an impulsive, addictive, compulsive, or obsessive nature. Give yourself enough time to change, taking one day at a time.


Step 9: Admit to yourself that, in changing personal behaviors or habits, relapse into the old behaviors is a fact of life:

  • Give yourself permission to be a human and to experience a relapse into old behavior and then get back onto the wagon of recovery.
  • Don't end your efforts to change if you should experience a slippage into old patterns or habits of acting.
  • Do not seek perfection in recovery.
  • Admit that you are not a perfect being and that you don't have to recover perfectly all at one time.


Step 10: Monitor your progress in solving your problem and handling relapses of old behaviors. Try not to take on more than you can handle by remembering:
  • Take one thing at a time.
  • Step by step.
  • Easy does it.
  • First things first.
  • Day by day.
  • Hour by hour.
  • Minute by minute.
  • Progress is slow but steady.
  • You are the determiner of pace.
  • You are in charge of your destiny.
  • Rome wasn't built in a day.
  • It took a long time to get you into this and it will take a long time to get out.


Step 11: If you are again overwhelmed by your efforts to solve this problem, admit your powerlessness and gain support and assistance to persist and not give up your efforts.


Step 12: If you are not experiencing success in solving this problem, the chances are you have not fully admitted your powerlessness to change, control, or solve it on your own. Return to Step 1 and begin over again.

What are the steps to admitting powerlessness?


Step 1: In order to admit powerlessness, you first need to identify what is causing your life to be unmanageable. In your journal for each of the categories listed below consider the questions that follow the list.
The categories of personal problems:
  • People
  • Places
  • Things
  • Situations
  • Personal behaviors
  • Impulsive behaviors: a thing you do right away with no pre-thought or hesitation.
  • Addictive behaviors: a thing you do with no thought at all which is a habit and out of control.
  • Compulsive behaviors: a thing you do with little thought, over and over again and it is hard to control.
  • Obsessive behaviors: a thing you do over and over again because you don't believe it is perfectly done unless it is corrected and modified over and over again.
Now consider these questions for each item you identified above in your journal:
  • What is problematical about it?
  • Why is it problematical for you?
  • Why is it causing your life to be unmanageable?
  • What efforts have you used in the past or are you currently trying to use to correct it?
  • Why have your efforts to solve, change or control failed to this point?
  • How do you feel about your lack of success at solving, controlling, or changing it?
  • Whose help, assistance, or support have you enlisted to solve it?
  • To what extent is it an uncontrollable or unchangeable element in your life?
  • To what extent is it a controllable or changeable element in your life?
  • Why have you not let go of the unchangeable or uncontrollable elements of it before this time?


Step 2: Once you identify your problems, then identify in your journal the thinking which still keeps you from admitting you are powerless to solve each one of these on your own.


Step 3: In your journal develop a set of new self-talk or self-affirmations to give you permission to admit your powerlessness over each of these problems.


Step 4: In your journal identify for each problem a person from whom to seek support, assistance, and help to address it.


Step 5: In your journal identify how you would seek your Higher Power's assistance for each problem.


Step 6: Seek help from others for each problem. Let go or hand over the uncontrollable and unchangeable problems to your Higher Power and seek assistance from your Higher Power for the controllable and changeable elements.


Step 7: Monitor your progress in addressing these problems. If you are having little or no success, you probably have not fully admitted powerlessness over solving them on your own, so return to Step 1 and begin again.