“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
– Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
We often feel like we are stuck and have no choices. But we always have a choice. Finding the choice in the situation can help us to tap into our power and get the most of out of even the most difficult situations. It can also help to counter that victim mentality-the belief that things happen to us without our having any control. With empowerment comes responsibility but it also brings opportunities for healing, growth, and to realize our dreams.
For example, consider my client Rona.* Her mother insisted that she go to sleep away camp this summer even though Rona knew she would hate it. In the days leading up to camp trip she was filled with dread, anger and frustration about being forced to endure this terrible ordeal. She was afraid that she wouldn’t make friends. She was afraid that the counselors would force her to participate in new activities with which she wasn’t comfortable. She was even afraid that she’d miss her mom, her cat and her brother. When she came to my office she was fuming. “My mom is a tyrant,” she told me. “She never listens and she doesn’t understand. She’s always forcing me to do things that she thinks are ‘good ideas.’ And now she’s forcing me into this miserable situation where I know I will have a miserable time.”
Rona’s story highlights how difficult it can be when we perceive that we don’t have choices. That sense of powerlessness and frustration can be even worse when, as in Rona’s case, they are compounded with other emotions like fear (“what if I don’t make friends?”) and anger (“it’s not fair that my mom is making me do this!”).
Part of my work with Rona was to help her to see that she wasn’t completely powerless in this situation. Once she vented her fears and frustrations and accepted the inevitability of going to camp, we began to examine the choices she did have. For instance, she could go into the experience with a negative attitude and the intention of proving that her mother was wrong, or she could try and make the best of a bad situation. Just understanding that she had these options helped to take some of the pressure off. Although Rona was really mad at her mom, there were a few things about the camp that interested her, and she decided she would feel more comfortable if she focused on those things rather than her fears and anger. We were also able to problem solve about how she would handle potential issues like making friends and homesickness. In the end the camp experience turned out not to be as bad as she thought. She made some new friends and even considered going back for another summer.
The point is, we are never truly stuck. We may not like the choices we have (Rona certainly didn’t). But we always have choices. Focusing in on the choices we do have can not only help us to feel more empowered, but can also reveal new opportunities and coping strategies that might otherwise have missed. We can begin to understand the subtle nuances of the situation at hand, and avoid the rut of all or nothing thinking (e.g., “either I stay home and feel good or go to camp and feel miserable”).
Follow these steps to overcome powerlessness and find the best course of action whenever you feel stuck:
- Accept the situation. There’s no value in fighting with reality. The harder we resist what is, the more miserable we will feel and harder it will be to move forward. If surrender is difficult for you, find a copy of the serenity prayer to use for inspiration.
- Mourn any losses. Anger, sadness, frustration, fear are all natural reactions when things don’t go our way. It’s important that you allow yourself to experience the full range of feelings that arise. Feel those feelings but don’t get stuck in them.
- Identify the choices you do have. Sometimes the only choice we have is a change in attitude. Viktor Frankl could not change the hard reality of life in the concentration camp, but he could choose to search for meaning in his suffering and that is ultimately what sustained him.
* The name and details of this case have been changed to protect client confidentiality.
For information about Viktor E. Frankl, visit these websites: