What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

We Admitted We Were Powerless

It's not easy to admit we aren't in the driver's seat.

The very first step of every 12-Step program begins with these words – an admission of powerlessness. For many people, that very first step makes participation in a 12-Step program very difficult and with good reason: powerlessness is an uncomfortable feeling and not one that most people seek out or admit to.

In fact, most of us spend a great deal of energy, time, and effort attempting to try to control things and other people in our lives. We work hard to try to create a life of happiness, as we should. However, these efforts often involve trying to gain control over something we don't have control of, like an addiction. Other times, the efforts involve trying to change or control other people who are in our lives. And understandably, because the people in our lives – their choices and behaviors – affect us; sometimes profoundly.

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But when we stop and look at how effective our efforts are to bend others’ actions to our will – when we really examine how well our efforts to control things go – we find that, in fact, we cannot figure out a way to make others be or do what we want. We discover that using all of our efforts to control someone so they don’t cause us pain doesn’t, in fact, protect us. As the program of Alanon says: we don’t cause the behavior of others, we can’t control it, and we can’t “fix” it. Trying to do so simply makes our life feel unmanageable and increases our unhappiness.

Acknowledging that we are powerless is not about acknowledging that we are weak. Instead it acknowledges what is true, and allows us to focus on the things that we can control and the person who we can help: ourselves. Acknowledging the ways we are powerless also allows us to be more accepting of others, and to find a more peaceful way of being in the world and in relationships.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.  Helen Keller

 

Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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