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Combatting the 'I’m Powerless' Myth

A responsible path to a happy life

Do people who repeatedly put themselves through an emotional wringer suffer from a denial of responsibility for extending a self-sabotaging lifestyle? Dr. Jon Carlson, Distinguished Professor, Governors State University, and author or coauthor of over 45 books, hones in on a major therapeutic and self-help challenge that both Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavior therapy, and Alfred Adler, the founder of Individual Psychology, saw as pivotal to positive change: Stop complaining and blaming and start taking responsibility for your own self-changing.

Albert Ellis frequently told me how his REBT approach shared so much in common with the work of Alfred Adler. Perhaps the most apparent similarity, and the focus of this blog, is the notion of the client’s responsibility or their role in the problem that brought them to therapy.

Counselors are traditionally trained to listen empathically and to capture the essence of each client’s message. The goal is to become a mirror so clients can see their problem from a different perspective and develop an alternative response.

Unfortunately, too many clients are unaware of their role in their own problem and act as though they are powerless because they did not do anything wrong. They sound like whiners talking about their problems as if they had nothing to do with them. They continue to think and speak as if life is unfair to them and fail to see their role in any aspect of the problem. They have unfair bosses, disloyal friends, insensitive partners and so on. Nowhere in their conceptualization of the problem do they see themselves. The counselor who listens and reflects unintentionally communicates to clients that they have a valid point of view (i.e., that everything happens to them and they are powerless).

Adler and Ellis were keenly aware of how discouraging and disempowering supporting a client’s selfless presentation can become. The two Als would be more likely to challenge the client early in the presentation by asking, some variation of “What is your role in the problem?” This strategic response is not meant to blame clients but rather to help create understanding that clients are not victims and they can take responsibility and be empowered to change their role in the problem. If this does not occur clients will continue to approach problems in this powerless manner throughout a lifetime.

Jim is a local banker who sought counseling because his wife has been having an affair with another man and wanted a divorce. The couple has been married for almost 20 years and Jim does not want to see the marriage end. He talked about how he could not understand how she could do this to him. He was obsessed with her behavior and had been to see their pastor who reinforced his belief about his wife’s sins. He was understandably angry, but stated he was willing to do whatever necessary to save his marriage. I asked, “Jim, what do you think you need to do?” He responded that he really couldn’t do anything, as he was not the one who was seeing someone else. I responded with, “Is there anything that you could do to be a better partner? What is it that she is unhappy about?” She says I am too clingy, that I don’t have a life and put too much pressure on her. She feels like being married to me is like having another child. I asked if that makes any sense to him. Jim responded that he could see her point of view, as he wouldn’t like it if she was that over involved in his life. I asked Jim if he had any ideas about what he might do to be “less clingy.” He responded that maybe he could get his own life. As Jim worked at becoming the best partner that he could be, he became less clingy and more what his wife had originally admired about him.

This is a simple example of how Ellis and Adler viewed people as responsible for their role in their problems. People have the power to change the dynamics in terms of how they are involved with other people, and they can also change their thinking. In the case illustration, Jim was not a victim as much as he was not a very good partner to his wife. It is understood that she is not a good partner either as she has not kept their agreement of fidelity. But she is not in the therapy office and all Jim can do is to take responsibility for his role. As Jim began to change, he modeled for his wife that change is possible.

Alfred Adler and Albert Ellis did not see their clients as fragile beings who were incapable of accepting direct feedback. They viewed their clients as having some level of responsibility and once they accepted responsibility it would be possible for them to heal.

This blog is part of the Pioneer of the Mind series to celebrate the contributions of Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy and the grandfather of cognitive-behavior therapy.

Albert Ellis Revisited (Carlson & Knaus 2013) is the Albert Ellis Tribute Book Series centennial book. The publisher, Routledge, offers a 20% discount on the book. Control click on this link: Albert Ellis Revisited. Type the code Ellis for the discount. The book qualifies for free shipping and handling. Bill Knaus’ royalties from this book go directly to the Denan Project charity. When you buy the book, you are helping yourself by learning ways to live life fully, and you are helping bring irrigation, crops, and health care to destitute areas of the world.

For more information on rational emotive behavior therapy, click on Albert Ellis’ official website: Albert Ellis Network:

Special to this blog, The Mind PhotoArt thumbnail image by Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Art & Design, Fayetteville NC.

© Jon Carlson, Psy.D., Ed.D., coauthor of Albert Ellis Revisited (December 2012, NY: Routledge)

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