Powerlessness may be described as an overwhelming feeling of helplessness or inadequacy in stressful situations – making us more susceptible to anxiety, stress and depression. This may include an inability to exercise our freewill when it comes to expressing opinions, making decisions or asserting our personal choices. We might feel we have no influence over others, who seem to disregard our freedom and independence.
Or we might fear confrontation with authority figures – because we fail to assert our boundaries and communicate our needs. Slowly this eats away at our self-confidence and weakens our resilience and ability to solve our own problems. For example, we might feel unable to stand up for ourselves in an argument, voice our concerns in a staff meeting at work or protect our interests with family members for fear of being seen as selfish. We may even seek to please others in an effort to win their approval and favour, while secretly resenting their power over us.
Once this pattern of behaviour becomes embedded, we become trapped and less likely to change our circumstances. Longing for change; but fearing it. Seeking a sense of security that never comes and expecting the worst. Forgetting how to face up to our fears and adapt to change when it comes. This can induce a state of prolonged anxiety and learned helplessness which is triggered by association with the original stimuli. Once we become trapped in this spiral of learned helplessness, we feel unable to take on new challenges and continuously anticipate the worst. As worry and anxiety sets in, we lack the autonomy and drive to propel ourselves forward; reverting to repetitive cycles of defensiveness such as avoiding situations, procrastination, emotional withdrawal, panic attacks or angry outbursts.
If we feel unable to solve problems for ourselves, we become more dependent on others, or start to withdraw into ourselves until we become isolated and alone. But what lies behind these avoidant patterns of behaviour and learned helplessness?
Causes Of Powerlessness:
Trauma - Some of us may have experienced traumatic events in the past that have obliterated our trust and self-confidence. This reduces our capacity to cope with stress – such as managing conflict or overcoming everyday adversity. It’s possible we learned this as children (when we were most vulnerable to stress) – growing-up in families which were emotionally volatile, abusive or frightening. It’s also possible that we learned to avoid intimacy from our parents – believing it is better to hide our vulnerability rather than express with others. We may have learned to feel wary about the world from highly anxious parents who smothered us and displayed hypervigilant behaviours themselves.
Trauma is by definition, a state of extreme helplessness. And the psychological imprint of trauma can become a permanent feature of our lives, as it rewires the brain to respond disproportionately to stress – freezing, panicking or acting out in anger as we encounter reminders of the original trauma. We may even dissociate or enter a dazed, trance-like state in order to cope by numbing-down our sensations and becoming desensitised to our feelings.
Anxiety/avoidance - Some of us learn from an early age to normalise our response to anxiety by avoiding or ignoring the symptoms of stress. This causes an excess build-up of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin, undermining how we learn to self-regulate or manage our emotions in childhood: especially intense feelings like fear, distress and anger. Most children are too vulnerable to mobilise a “fight-and-flight response” to stress, so they learn to freeze and internalise stress as intense states excessive worrying or apprehension (like constantly stepping on eggshells).
But freezing in adulthood reduces our capacity to mobilise into action or cope with adversity, by adapting to change. It induces feelings of extreme detachment (dissociation) and patterns of avoidant behaviour in an effort to seek relief, but it also reduces our threshold of tolerance for stress and leaves us feeling even more helpless. We can even become clingy or needy with others and fear being abandoned, just when we feel most vulnerable.
Depression - When we experience long-term depression we can become detached and withdrawn, losing connection with ourselves and others, yet feeling unable to reach out for help. No matter what course of action we take, we become convinced that no one else cares or understands our difficulties. We feel judged and alone – longing for change, but convinced we are powerless to act. Our sense of isolation increases and tends to overwhelm us until we become more detached. This can lead to despair, a creeping sense of dread, or angry outbursts in order to defend against powerlessness.
Learning to feel connected and empowered
As an antidote to powerlessness, we have to become more connected to ourselves, grounded in our own experience and more present in the moment. This means learning to become more mindful of our physical sensations, emotional states and practising mindfulness exercises to improve our self-confidence and sense of empowerment. As we regain our self-worth we will no longer feel so helpless.