Martha Beck powerlessness
Illustration: Guy Billout
I'm terrified about my daughter's drinking," Mindy told me during our first session, "but I've asked her to get help, and she just yells at me."

"My boss can be really unethical," said Denise, another client, "but that's the way things work. If I complain, my job is history."

Paula, a third client, is perpetually exhausted: "I know I should take better care of myself," she admitted, "but someone has to be there for my husband and children."

You probably hear statements like these all the time. If you're anything like me, you may make plenty of them yourself. They may not sound dangerous, but they are. They're declarations of powerlessness, one of the most psychologically debilitating conditions human beings can experience. If we believe them, such statements can get us stuck in emotional tar pits ranging from frustration to rage to utter despair. The good news? They're never true.

Never.

I'm not saying we have power over everything in our lives—if that were true, my hair would look so, so different—but I am saying that there's no circumstance in which we are completely powerless. My clients—Mindy, Denise, and Paula—are all being challenged to find their power in a disempowering environment. And whatever your circumstance, so are you.

Allow the Power


The most common reason we stumble into the delusion of powerlessness is that we're afraid of what other people would do or say or feel if we were to act as we wanted. Mindy was terrified of her daughter's angry resistance. Denise's fear of being fired overrode her ethics. And Paula anxiously predicted that her family would disintegrate if she focused less care on them and more on herself. All three felt stymied, but actually they were just "allower-less" (say it out loud: it rhymes). They were waiting for other people and the arrival of circumstances to give them explicit permission to do what felt right, and by doing so, they were rendering themselves powerless.

I sympathize with my clients' plight, but I wasn't impressed by their claims of powerlessness. I've met too many people who have faced far more daunting circumstances yet refused to be disempowered. For example, my friend and fellow life coach Judy Klipin is a polite little slip of a thing, hardly someone you'd expect to challenge an evil empire.

I'd known Judy for months before she told me about a morning years ago when several police officers barged into her bedroom at 5 A.M. They were seeking evidence of antiapartheid activity—and it was there. Sitting in plain sight on Judy's nightstand lay a map to the antiapartheid meeting she'd helped organize. Weirdly, the South African police missed this damning document, but they detained Judy anyway, taking her to the infamous headquarters at John Vorster Square, where many activists were held for long periods of time.

"Didn't you feel awfully powerless?" I asked Judy when she told me the story.

"No," she replied, "though I wasn't thrilled when they encouraged me to picture being raped in prison. But as a white university student, I felt relatively safe. Besides, that's not what was important."

What was important, at least to Judy, was resisting an immoral system. For hours, the police tried to break her. They failed. The only person in police headquarters interested in allowing Judy to follow her moral compass was Judy. But that was enough.

"I was quite cheeky with them," she remembered. "When they asked if I supported Nelson Mandela, I said, 'How would I know? I've never been given an opportunity to hear anything the man has to say!'"

"Had you always stood up for yourself?" I asked.

"Actually, no. I don't know where that behavior came from. I suppose I felt I was protected—not physically, but in a spiritual sense. My parents had always been such strong advocates of equality, as was my childminder, Annie. My first memories are of falling asleep on Annie's back while she sang to me in Setswana. So I'd been raised by three people who were walking testaments that apartheid was insanely wrong. I suppose that gave me permission to stand up for what I believed, no matter what. And because I felt so grounded in that basic sanity, I actually knew that the police were more frightened and powerless than I."

This statement defies all reason—one 95-pound teenage girl more powerful than armed agents of a violent racist regime? But to paraphrase Pascal, there is a reason that reason does not know, and Judy had tapped into that. The way we can allow ourselves to do what we need to, no matter what others may say or do, is to choose love and defy fear.

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