Sunday, May 12, 2013

Facing our Powerlessness

The other day I was in a vicarious trauma workshop. I have not discussed this topic in quite some time, but I have been thinking about it almost nonstop. This seems like the perfect time to bring it up again. The presenter gave us an option to ask some questions / make some comments at the beginning. Someone said she had been talking to a colleague who said, “This work is amazing because it allows us to face our powerlessness every single day.”

Wow . . . just stop and think about that. Facing our powerlessness is a gift, not a problem.

Lawyers are not very good at dealing with being powerless. We face crises, but we also like to fix them. We like to have problems and find solutions. My guess is that doctors are similar. Actually, most people I know feel that way. Feeling powerless is difficult.

But the truth is that sometimes we are powerless, especially when it comes to other people. And how we respond to that is something profound for each and every one of us. There are some things in the world we cannot change. And one of the most important of those to realize is that we cannot change the people sitting right in front of us.

People deal with this in all sorts of relationships in life – romantic, family, friends, co-workers, etc. We can try to influence people and situations, but at the end of the day, we cannot change them. We cannot make situations different than they are. But how can we see that as a blessing and not a curse?

A lot of spiritual traditions, including the more spiritual/philosophical side of yoga, teach that our greatest teachers are those people who are most difficult for us to be around. Our greatest lessons come from that which is most difficult for us. Powerlessness may be at the top of that list, particularly in this “do” culture.

But even though we may be powerless to change an entire situation, we may be able to be a party in it. For example, we can simply offer compassionate listening. We can let people know we care enough to hear their stories. We can offer suggestions and not get caught up in whether people heed our suggestions. It is, after all, their choice in the matter.

And then we can accept their choices. That may be the hardest part. Even though our culture is one where we hope to be able to change circumstances and do something, more often than not, we are simply powerless. And we learn over and over again to accept that sense of powerlessness.

So, why did this come up in a vicarious trauma workshop? Well, it was not actually from the instructor, but it fit perfectly. People in helping professions have to face trauma on a daily basis. And powerlessness in the face of that trauma is sometimes the most difficult. If we could make the trauma better, perhaps it would not cause so much damage to the healing professionals. But when we cannot do anything about it, that trauma comes into our lives more and more.

But the gift is that it forces us to always be vigilant about taking care of ourselves. And the irony, or the greater gift perhaps, is that the more we take care of ourselves, the more we can help others. Only now, with the gift of facing our powerlessness every single day, we are able to move forward when our attempts to help go unheeded.

This post is not to make it sound easy. While facing our powerlessness is certainly a gift, it may also be the most difficult aspect of our work, both professionally and personally. It can be frustrating and overwhelming at times, probably even most of the time. But the more we can come back to noticing that we are powerless despite our best efforts, the more we can let go of outcomes and focus instead on simply offering the best version of ourselves day in and day out. And really, that is all we can ever ask of ourselves in life generally.

How do you have to face your own powerlessness?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, “Facing Our Powerlessness” first appeared on Is Yoga Legal


  1. i love this post. you're right, helping professions definitely find the trauma and feelings of powerlessness to be difficult.

    But you're also right- sometimes just listening is helping- so in fact we aren't completely powerless after all :)

    1. And I know you feel it in your profession as well. Although I understand SLPs a bit, it's not an easy thing to throw in a blog post - doctors and lawyers are more well known to most people. And thanks for the reminder that we are not completely powerless. Many thanks.

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