Do you ever completely feel powerless? Although I did before that day in Starbucks, I now realize that there is always something I can do. I believe that I have control (that I can do something about any situation I face). While I didn’t know what was in store for me at the time, I had the power to be my best self within my strengths and limitations and make the most of my experiences. Feeling a sense of self-control isn’t defined as ‘controlling every unknown’. Instead, it’s defined as ‘feeling confident about my approach, accepting the consequences and adapting whenever and wherever needed’.
If you feel learned helplessness, it is difficult to achieve the self-control you desire. You developed the perspective that it doesn’t matter what you do, it won’t change the outcome. Time after time, your efforts have been fruitless. What’s the point of trying to change anything now? You are a forever pessimist, and you can show why.
Feeling a lack of control over your life can be stressful. It reminds me of a sailboat in the Caribbean careening out of control during a hurricane. Even if the captain possesses the expertise to meander through most storms, she doesn’t have the tools to handle this storm. The crew will do whatever they can while water swallows each side and the boat rocks violently back and forth.
Their efforts seem like perfect reactions to each new wind and wave but are never enough to combat the flooding waters on the ship. What else can they do? Their ship is slowly sinking, and the crew feels powerless despite doing everything they know to save it.
Many people can relate to this story of survival. You and your significant other work six days a week but never seem to recover financially--there’s always another car part needed or the kids always need something for school.
You seek a moment of peace at work, but there’s always an unfinished project or a complaint you’re dealing with from a customer or colleague. Day in and day out you’re trying to climb to even ground, but your efforts are never enough. You feel powerless. Clients have shared similar situations with a look of frustration, fatigue, and burn out.
Your story may be different but feels the same. Financial burden or an unfulfilling job plagues you. Your relationship is spiraling out of control. You deal with significant stresses, and you don’t know how to change them.
If you were telling me your story like my many clients before (sometimes through tears), you would probably say there’s nothing you can do about it. “It is what it is” or “You don’t understand” are typical answers. You might downplay your ability to make a change and affirm that you’re powerless.
That feeling of powerlessness can show itself in many ways. In an effort to limit that feeling and minimize the unknowns in my life, I lived a structured, rigid life defined by rigorous routine, constant introspection, and the daily analysis of every moment. My life was hardly enjoyable. Any wrinkle that appeared in my life became a pure disruption to my obsessed and finely written flow. Premeditative strategies steered my life. There was little room for the unknown.
Interestingly, a strict routine with constant achievements never made me feel secure, however. I was always achieving feats of success and pushing for more but rarely enjoying the small moments. My college experience substantially demonstrated this. My resume was a summary of defining attributes to obtain the perfect job, and it was never good enough. I felt like I was completely powerless over my future, and I couldn’t escape it.
Let’s say that maybe up to this point you were right about similar situations. You joined a masters degree program with the hope of stable employment, but you still bounce from job to job unhappy. You committed to marriage counseling for a year, but you still can’t resolve the marital issues.
Maybe you were wrong. Maybe you didn’t try everything you could because you didn’t think of the solution, or you weren’t in the right time and place for it to happen. Maybe it wasn’t in your power to change your relationship, but it was in your power to build a new one with the right pieces.
You see, you’re always in control but haven’t defined it in the right way. The world is full of too many unknowns, and it isn’t plausible to think you can control all of it. It would be an endless effort.
You CAN control your perspective and approach. In fact, you have COMPLETE ownership, and nobody can take that away from you.
If one way fails, you can choose another way (or at least attempt it). Choice is your power, and you are not as leashed to a situation as you think you might be. If something can be changed or switched, I recommend trying it. Experiment. What do you have to lose?
If you can’t change your situation, at least you modify something else for now--your perspective. You can reweave your mind with the pieces in front of you. Realign your perspective with your purpose--what you feel you were meant to do (a conversation we’ll discuss in depth later). Flip your perspective of the negative into the positive.
Let’s be honest. Your negativity has most likely placed a filter on your perspective of everything in front of you. It has held you back from stepping forward.
You most likely are overlooking the positives and small pieces for a path to redefine yourself. Think about your life as a game of Tetris: if you spin the object or flip it over, it will eventually fit perfectly into another piece of your life. If it doesn’t, toss it aside and choose another piece.
“But Michael, I hear crazy Russian music and the game is too fast. I don’t have time to flip the pieces constantly.”
Perhaps you’re right. You may need to slow the game down. Are you willing to do this? Are you prepared to make a sacrifice to achieve your best happy self?
An optimistic attitude is what you need. It is a belief that you have control and can create change. If you can’t change your job right now, you will accept that and begin learning how you can operate in that position more happily. If you can’t change your relationship right now, you will accept that and begin looking for ways to become a more effective partner in that partnership.
You can indeed wait forever for change to happen organically beyond your control. However, if you want it immediately, change will only occur if you BELIEVE that you have control over your situation and the environment. How about that? It’s empowering to know that you have the power to steer away from stress or unhappiness! Just believe it.
1.) Awareness: Describe three scenarios in your personal life in which you feel helpless. Where does this feeling of helplessness stem from and what evidence do you have to support this lack of control?
2.) Acceptance: Are you willing to accept that your life isn’t perfect right now, but you have the power to modify the situation or change your perspective?
3.) Adaptation: What new strategies can you possibly utilize to take control over these scenarios? Is there a way to modify your perspective to feel a sense of control? If so, how? What messages can you tell yourself to remain positive?