Powerlessness: Learning to Live with the Unchangeable

people with umbrellas waiting to cross streetMost of the people who come to my office are contemplating a life change or trying to feel better about one that happened recently. They feel stressed and unsure about decisions they have to make, such as a parenting issue or what to do after graduation. Or they are unhappy about a decision that has been made for them (divorce, layoff, medical issue).

Many times, there is some room to move within this uncomfortable spot. A person can try to improve a relationship, job marketability, or health. But what are we to do when a life situation involves working with the unchangeable? How does solution-focused therapy help people live and thrive when something about their situation is completely outside their control?

Have you been stuck with a situation that feels unbearable? This might include:

Feeling powerless and at a dead end is how some people I work with describe themselves in these situations. They can take some small steps in some of these cases, but for the most part these people feel like they have no control.

I find it to be NOT useful in these moments to remind people of all they have. Someone who is mourning the end of a relationship is unlikely to appreciate his or her health, and someone whose financial woes have overtaken daily life is usually unable to be glad that at least he or she has a job. A couple struggling to conceive a child may not feel fortunate that “at least” they have this or that. Gratitude is a powerful, necessary element of life which unfortunately does not initially help those who are feeling regret, guilt, and sadness.

Gratitude is a powerful, necessary element of life which unfortunately does not initially help those who are feeling regret, guilt, and sadness.

When we must live with the unchangeable, I find it most useful to find outlets for the feelings that result from our position of powerlessness or suffering. There are plenty of tactics that we can use with cognitive therapy to help someone compartmentalize thoughts about his or her situation so that the person can function throughout the day. But what about those unstructured times, such as in the shower, driving, or late at night when the house is quiet, when the feelings creep in and feel hard to withstand?

Acknowledge your feelings, but give them a place to go. Even if you write the same thing down every night for a month in a cognitive thought chart, it is important to allow your expression to have an outlet. This could also look like a journal, a walk where you allow your thoughts to fill the time, a yoga or exercise practice, or creative expression such as painting, gardening, or baking.

Accept that, for now, these feelings and thoughts about your unchangeable situation are going to be with you for a while, but they do not have to paralyze you or sink you like an anchor. For example, people who struggle with grief come to think of that heavy feeling as one that can accompany them for a few hours but does not have to keep them from going about their days. In time, this becomes easier as you welcome the feelings that come and then go in waves. When they arise, they can go with you throughout your day. You can familiarize yourself with what they feel like and be extra compassionate with yourself. You will see that your feelings are nothing more than emotional states that come and go throughout your life. You can endure them. You were built with resilience to manage them.

Make some meaning out of your daily routine that gives you power over your situation. You may not be able to swap out your boss, move the calendar forward faster, or undo something you regret, but you have control over how you think and feel about these things today. Take charge of what you can. Have a brainstorming session about what could be part of your day that you think will help you feel good. Start with little things—guaranteed things that you know bring you happiness. Start your morning in the most positive way possible, employing these ideas as much as you can. Hang your expression of art or wear a token of strength or memory to remind yourself that you are honoring the unchangeable but not controlled by it.

How a Therapist Can Help

Seek therapy to put this situation to rest. It might sound elusive, but many people find that achieving peace with their situation is a process that is helped by the presence of a skilled professional. A therapist can help you understand why you might be stuck on a certain part of your story, or help you gain clarity to the meaning of holding on to the feelings you have.

At the very least, it is a great relief to have another person on your team during a time you feel powerless. We all need someone who believes in our ability to endure the unchangeable, and who can abide with our journey.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • bret

    June 30th, 2015 at 8:39 AM

    No sense worrying yourself sick over the things in life that cannot be changed

  • jane

    June 30th, 2015 at 12:29 PM

    I always have to TRY to change whatever it is. It may be obvious to everyone else the situation is out of my control, but until I have TRIED, it is hard for me to accept being powerless; however all the effort is exhausting and frustrating. As I have gotten older I get to acceptance a little sooner, so at least I am moving in the right direction. I think :-)

  • Greg

    July 2nd, 2015 at 1:07 PM

    my wife and I are going through bankruptcy right now so it is interesting that you brought this up.

    we know that the choices that we have made along the way have brought this on and while i think that we have made our peace with that we are also pretty upset that we know that we are kind of under water for a while now and there is nothing that we can do but learn from this and move on.

    i am hoping that the two of us are able to stay strong and work through it together without it getting the best of us, but i have to tell you that when you feel so out of control and useless, that can be hard on a daily basis.

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