Powerless Not Helpless

The Difference

A few posts ago I wrote about powerlessness. Today, I want to talk about what separates powerlessness from its true danger. Powerlessness isn’t intrinsically bad for us. In fact, good and healthy things can come from it. And, not simply the kind of good that only God can bring from disaster. Rather, powerlessness can deliver robust, nourishing benefits. Specifically, trust and connection. 

“Every day the world turns upside down on someone who was on top of it yesterday.”


Connection > Control

Regardless of how we may try, the truth of life is that we cannot control it. But boy, do we try. As a matter of fact, most of us cringe at the idea of being powerless, of not having control–we hate the thought of it. The pastor that married me and Tom used to say, “Every day the world turns upside down on someone who was on top of it yesterday.” Essentially, he meant control is a facade. None of us have it. But, we all want it.

Ironically, we were never designed for control. We were designed for connection. What’s more, being in control can quickly separate us from connection. Consequently, connection is a far better aspiration than control. To boot, we live in a construct intelligently designed to promote the thing we were made for—connection. 

The Root

Accordingly, connection is the root of what we need and what we desire. For this reason, when we lack connection it’s harmful to us and our development at any age or stage. Think of a child. Childhood is a time ripe with powerlessness.

Few children experience a childhood with parents who intentionally seek to empower them as they grow (in developmentally appropriate ways of course), possibly because many parents struggle with not having done their own emotional work or possibly because they believe their primary job revolves around other important needs of their children like safety, a good education, and nap sack full of skills. This isn’t bad. But, it isn’t wholly what a child needs either. What they–we–most need is connection. 

Not the Same

To bring it back around, let’s talk about how powerlessness and helplessness affect connection. Powerlessness doesn’t damage connection. Helplessness does. Therein lies the distinction. Powerless describes our inability to control, we lack the power to change a thing on our own. Consequently, connection is the path back to some form of power. To the contrary, helplessness is what happens when we give up the power we do have. 

The Real Danger

Helplessness exists when we stop fighting for ourselves. We just quit. Give in and give up. This is when we face the real danger. We decide we have no agency left. This sometimes happens when we feel overpowered and/or there is no other power to whom we can connect. Therefore, powerlessness is only dangerous when it becomes helplessness. 

Stay Angry

Avoiding helplessness has everything to do with perception. How we think about our situation matters. We may lack the control we wish we had. This is the essence of powerless. However, even in powerlessness we can retain healthy measures of autonomy and self-efficacy. We do this when we remind ourselves situations and circumstances are temporary. Ergo, we stay angry for ourselves. We must stay angry for ourselves. If we don’t the ground will be fertile for our powerlessness to grow into helplessness. 

Survivors Not Victims

And, that makes us feel like victims instead of survivors. Once we slip into victim mentality it becomes all the more difficult to avoid loosing ourselves because victims identify in relationship to harm. In other words, harm is the biggest reality for victims. It overshadows the ability to connect to help.

Consequently, victims feel helpless. As a matter of fact, helplessness is inherent to being a victim. This is why we hear people who lived through horrific events proclaim themselves as survivors not victims. In this way, we assert though we may have been powerless in a moment we are not helpless for a lifetime. As a matter of choice, we are committed to fighting for ourselves. 

Need + Passion = Heart

Inaccurately, we often refer to babies as helpless. Instead, I think babies are powerless, not helpless. In fact, babies are so wired for connection that they are full of passion for it and constantly fighting to get it. Only severely abused babies will give up, loose their passion for themselves, stop fighting and become helpless.

Therefore, it’s plain to see that our original design involves our instinct and passion to fight for ourselves amidst our powerlessness. At the core of our passion for ourselves that fuels this fight is our need for connection, to give ourselves to another who receives us with unconditional, positive regard. Taking that risk—to reveal our need and ask to have it met—requires bringing our whole heart into the process. That can feel scary and dangerous. It can feel powerless.

Risky Business

However, it’s in this way, we preserve our connection to help. And thus, avoid the real risky business of helplessness which is hopelessness. If we think we are helpless and we stay there we become hopeless. Hopelessness is the great thief. It takes everything that is left and tailspins a life into wretched darkness.

To that end, helplessness can undo us. Whereas, powerlessness can reorient us toward connection. As a plethora of research tells us, we are made for connection. For this reason, some of the most courageous work we can do for ourselves is to admit our powerlessness and find life-enriching, perhaps even, life-saving connection.

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