Lately, you’ve been feeling powerless and helpless. Maybe you’ve experienced a devastating loss. Maybe you’re going through a difficult situation, and you feel stuck. Maybe there’s always been an undercurrent of I just can’t do this. I can’t change my circumstances. This is just how it is (and maybe always will be).
Thankfully, just because you feel powerless and helpless doesn’t mean you actually are. This happens because when we get scared, we get tunnel vision, said New York City psychologist Lauren Appio, Ph.D. And it becomes “hard for us to take a step back and review our options because in this state of mind, we don’t feel we have any.”
Or, if we start considering options, we zero in on the potential threats, she said. We fear we’ll make the wrong decision, and feel deep regret.
Sometimes, people feel powerless and helpless because they’ve been regularly invalidated or treated as incompetent—and “it can be incredibly challenging to know how much power and influence you actually have in your life.”
While therapy is one of the best ways to work through these kinds of issues, especially if they’ve been going on for years, there are also actionable, relatively small steps you can take. Below, therapists shared their expert tips.
Identify your strengths and skills. Everyone has different natural talents and abilities they’ve honed throughout the years. To discover your’s, Appio suggested examining the times you’ve felt empowered and effectively took action: How did I feel in my body when I felt empowered? What thoughts crossed my mind? What actions did I take? What supports did I have? What worked well? Once you know what your specific abilities and talents are, you can use them to help with your current situation, she said.
Practice creative visualization. Our thinking creates our feelings, so in order to change our feelings, we need to change our thinking first, said Christy Monson, MFT, a retired psychotherapist and author of the book Finding Peace in Times of Tragedy.
Creative visualization—which is simply “daydreaming with a purpose”—helps to create a calm, healing inner world, and to connect to your inner wisdom, she said. For instance, a woman who’d lost her husband felt helpless and was having a hard time focusing on daily tasks. Every day she started visualizing herself discussing her feelings and the tasks she needed to do that day with her late husband. As Monson noted, they’d been married long enough so she knew how he’d respond. She was “able to continue life with him by her side in this visualization process.”
To practice this technique on your own, Monson suggested the below to connect to your inner child:
- Sit quietly and comfortably. Notice your hands and feet, and the chair you’re sitting in. Observe the light around you.
- Inhale through your nose slowly, counting your breath, and exhale slowly.
- Close your eyes, and picture a flight of stairs.
- Climb the stairs, and count each step until you get to 10. Pay attention to the stairs’ details (which can look however you’d like).
- Picture a beautiful space at the top of the stairs (which might be anything from a mountain to the beach to a park).
- Look around this beautiful place, and find the little girl or boy you were and get acquainted with him or her. What does she want? How can you protect him?
- Fill this scene with anything you’d like, and use all your senses to fully experience it. Savor the light around you, and “feel her [or him] healing in this place.”
- After caring for your inner child, care for yourself.
- Find your inner wise mentor, if you’d like, and discuss your concerns.
- When you’re finished, use the stairs to return.
- Give thanks for the beautiful place and the wonderful person you are.
Address your thoughts. Another way to work with your thoughts is to pay close attention to how they lead to feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. For instance, maybe you start magnifying the negative, and not even thinking about the positive aspects of a situation. Maybe you start thinking catastrophic thoughts: What if I fail? What if everything goes wrong? What if it’s a complete disaster (like it always is)?
California-based psychotherapist Stefany D. Fuentes, LMFT, regularly has her clients review a list of cognitive distortions and identify whether each one sits hot, warm, or cold. Then she asks clients to challenge each distortion by exploring these questions: “What is the evidence that this thought is true? Is there an alternative explanation? What’s the worst thing that can happen? Has this situation unreasonably grown in importance? Am I worrying excessively about this?”
Take the first smallest step possible. We can quickly feel helpless and powerless when taking action feels overwhelming. This is why it’s vital to break it down, and as Appio said, “way down.” Make it so small, simple, and doable that it’s easy to take action.
For instance, Appio’s clients often need to feel empowered when speaking up for themselves (and their needs) with others. A small, simple, and totally doable step would be to notice you have a preference or need, and then name it for yourself, she said. Another small, simple, and totally doable step would be “expressing your preferences in lower-risk contexts, like offering your opinion about a movie you saw recently or where you’d to go for dinner.”
Consider this question. When we feel powerless, we often criticize and shame ourselves for past mistakes or bad decisions. Instead, try to refocus on solutions. Monson suggested contemplating this question: What will I do differently next time? Channel any regret or anger you’re holding onto into exploring creative, effective solutions for that next time.
Spotlight your why. Consider the deeper why of what you’re doing. That is, if you need to make a specific change, pinpoint the reason you’re taking action. Appio suggested considering: Why am I making this change? Why now? What will happen if I don’t make it? Then “stay connected to what makes the time and effort worth it for you.”
When you’re feeling powerless and helpless, and thinking similar thoughts, remember that this isn’t the truth. Remember that this is your fear talking (or years of ridiculous statements you’ve heard). Remember that you can take action—no matter how small a step might seem. Everything counts.
Remember that you can always reach out for help—whether that’s a loved one, a support group, or a therapist. This doesn’t make you weak. It makes you smart.
Remember that the way to effectively navigate difficult situations is simply to practice and grow your skills. And you can absolutely do that. You’ve likely done it before.