Many of us do not like to think of ourselves as powerless. When I was younger this word seemed to evoke something akin to an existential crisis in me, but as time has gone on I have grown more and more fond of it and would even go so far as to say that these days I find a deep comfort in the concept. It honours one of the inescapable truths of existence, describing my relationship with an inordinate amount of life and phenomena. Over other people, places and things I have no power. I cannot control how they are, what they do or what happens to them. That is the domain of far more complex, powerful and mysterious forces than I, and believing otherwise is a type of madness all of its own, a madness that much of the human race seems to suffer from. Many of us frequently enter the illusion of omnipotence, a very slippery and seductive illusion indeed, one that is at best frustrating, exhausting and self-defeating, and at worst, catastrophic.
When we love someone who is in the throes of an addiction or other mental health crisis, this illusion becomes particularly seductive. Entering the illusion that we have the power to save our loved one or arrest what is happening for them can help us avoid the very difficult emotions which necessarily go along with the experience of loving them in their struggle…..fear, pain, grief, anger, loneliness, despair. When we deny how small and helpless we actually feel in the face of that struggle, and enter the illusion that we can control the outcomes for somebody else’s life, we falsely empower ourselves into an over-adequate, over-responsible position. We can become the boss, judge, controller or warden in relation to our loved one, telling them what they need to do and how to do it, when and in what way. We intrude into their life space and their business and try to do their thinking and make their decisions for them. In this way, we unwittingly disempower them, exactly the opposite of what is needed and what we are really trying to achieve.
The illusion of power on the part of the helper or caretaker can become a significant part of the addict’s problem and fuel the fire of their addiction. Similarly, when someone is suffering from an eating disorder or other mood disorder, interference, criticism and control are like kerosene being poured on the mental health fire, and are the most natural but the least helpful interventions in this type of crisis. These interventions often have a high degree of anxiety and fear flowing through them and both anxiety and fear can be contagious when they are un-contained. That anxious and fearful emotional flavour often flows straight to the struggling loved one, further overwhelming and paralysing them. What family and friends are so often communicating, unconsciously, subtly or very directly, is….”If you aren’t okay, we can’t be okay. You NEED to be okay, otherwise we won’t be”. To be on the receiving end of this kind of ‘care’ or ‘help’ feels anything but caring or helpful. It feels like an immense burden,…a pressure that the person who is already struggling is ill-equipped to shoulder.
If there is one thing that I hear time and time again from substance abusers, and people with other mood disorders, it is how incredibly suffocating it is underneath all their loved ones’ anxious monitoring, advice-giving and checking in. The constant anxiety about them and intrusion into their lives leads to a feeling of ‘this is not my life’ and actually invites more collapse, less ownership and responsibility, and a feeling of there being no space to even breathe, let alone work out their struggle. Whilst an intense over-focus on the person is a natural and instinctual response invited by the struggling person’s helplessness and self-destructive behaviour, it is not a helpful one. There is a profound difference between what I have described above and the more helpful alternatives. Staying meaningfully connected is helpful. Presence, compassion, understanding and holding space are helpful. Calming down and setting clear limits are helpful. Panic, control, anxious monitoring, disallowing space, violating privacy, believing we have the answers for someone else’s life, are not.
I have come to believe that what it takes to really love someone affected by these conditions is a courage that many struggle to find. Because it involves letting go. Not cutting off, (though sometimes we do cut off because this is also instinctual at a certain level of perceived relationship threat), but allowing our loved one to determine their own life path, what quality of life they will have, and what their solutions will be. Because the truth is that we have no power whatsoever to change others, and when our change effort is directed at changing others, we are wasting valuable time, energy and resources spinning around on a fairly futile merry-go-round. If we can risk feeling our despair at this truth, we can also rest in our powerlessness, and allow others to change themselves if they are willing. We can know that there are larger forces at play than us, and that a larger solution than us will be required for the person to get well.
Another reason to be mindful about how we ‘care’ for others is that we often think we can see what is going on for another person but often we don’t know as much as we think we do. For example,…what might be going on at a soul level in someone’s addiction or mental health crisis? In the west we treat addiction and mental health struggles as pathology, whereas in some parts of the world these are viewed as spiritual gateways or invitations into healing. In light of this, how far does our knowledge about addiction and mental health crises actually extend? What is happening for the person at deeper, more inaccessible levels? What do we truely know of these things? People have their own wisdom and their own journey to walk and when we can step aside and bow down to the other’s journey, we contribute something profoundly strengthening, comforting and valuable. This requires daily acts of trust and bravery, but as with much of life, if we are willing to take the risk of letting go, our courage is richly rewarded because life begins to flow with more grace and serenity, and we can choose to be truley alive and live well, even if someone we love is choosing otherwise.
Perhaps the greatest gift of embracing our powerlessness, and surrendering to what is, is that we can clarify where our power actually lies. It is over ourselves that we have some power. We can direct our time, energy and resources into our own self-care and our own change process, a beautiful by-product of which being that our own wellness has the potential to also inspire and motivate those we love by example,…if they are open and ready to change. It is paradoxically true that when we can accept our own powerlessness over others, and can truly surrender, we can become immensely vital and empowered in our own lives, and this is also contagious, but in all the right ways.
Anna Lloyd is a Family Therapist at Byron Private Treatment Centre and a Clinical Psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney. Anna is interested in people, mind-body healing, relationships, families and communities, and has a deep respect for the way life and our connection to each other express themselves in these. Initially managing crisis refuges for adolescents, Anna became interested in understanding mental health issues in the context of the relationship systems in which they arose. Anna holds a Bachelor of Communication and completed her core training in Gestalt Psychotherapy, continuing on to train in Bowen Family Systems Theory and Systemic Family Constellation work. Passionate about family systems and the power of systemic approaches to wellness, Anna brings 15 years of experience living and practicing the work and has experienced firsthand the incredible changes that can occur in a person’s life when they commit to recovery and wellness.