The Emotion of Powerlessness

We are marinated in a sense of immense power when we are in the womb.  The baby can effortlessly strip mother of nutrients so he is born robust, at the expense of her health.  The baby can ignore clocks, schedules and cultural niceties, sucking his thumb with impunity.  He can hit mom without being spanked in return.

That world of immense power gets splintered with the birthing process where a child experiences a wide variety of powerlessness.  That powerlessness is reinforced through childhood, school, religion and the land-mine-loaded world of relationships.

Then comes adulthood and you face employment, interfacing with the government and that ultimate factory of powerlessness – marriage.

So by midlife, just about everyone except the most pampered primrose has a file in their brain of the emotion of powerlessness.  Few have “resolved” the past issues.  We just push through, breathe a sigh of relief when we have restored some sense of dominion, and we go on with life.

Meanwhile, there is one more episode of that debilitating emotion of powerlessness filed away in our emotional data base.

When we hit a new patch of powerlessness, someone races to the cage where all those little gremlins have been locked up for a while, throws open the door and they come tumbling out, bursting with energy and race around your brain reliving each past experience with powerlessness, thereby magnifying your current bad situation.


Dealing with powerlessness is a lot like dealing with a migraine.  Most people learn to recognize the early warning signals, and they pounce on it with meds.  If they don’t address the issue quickly, and just let it “run its course” it often reaches a point where they can no longer power through.  It is overwhelming.

So what DO you do to contain the emotions of the current powerlessness, and avoid letting all the gremlins out of the cage?

Here are some tools that work for me, since I don’t have a cage – I have a whole “nature reserve” just slightly smaller than Kruger National Park with more varied life forms of powerlessness than Darwin could imagine.

First, I try to identify an end point or a pause in the current drama.  If I am on the phone with a useless “Customer Support” person, I can realistically say that in five or ten minutes I will be off the phone and will deal with my problem a different way.  If I am in a long term relationship, I know that as soon as I send this email, I have a pause in the action.  I can avoid the problem until their next email back, and when it comes, I can reasonably ignore it until near the end of the day, before having to embrace the powerlessness again.

Second, I look for some way to engage different parts of my brain, other than the thoroughly inflamed powerlessness file.  My first choice is physical activity just because it is available right now.  I have a chin up bar and can quite swiftly generate enough physical pain that it overrides the emotional sector of my brain with sheer volume.

I can go into the warehouse and unpack the most recent order, then stock the shelves.  Or assemble a few CD albums.  Or wash the dishes in the sink.  I would prefer more intense physical activity, but it is not easily available at work, nor is it my strong suit.

But for some, going for a jog, or playing a rousing number on your air guitar will serve the purpose if you have strong positive emotions attached to that activity.

A second area of the brain that can be quickly stimulated is taste.  Hence, “comfort food.”  Fortunately my mango juice is highly comforting and non-fattening.  Often just the act of moving toward the refrigerator releases some anticipatory good feelings, before I actually chow down.

Sometimes I blend the two and chew my ice after the drink.  I am so very gratefully that there is not a 12 step program for all the ice chewers in the world because it certainly helps keep the gremlins in the reserve, at times.

The third part of the brain that is useful for diversionary techniques is your whole reading apparatus.  If there is an enjoyable book already underway – usually biography or history for me – a quick immersion into a chapter will pull me into a different place in my brain.

This is why hurting people get sucked into Facebook and web surfing – looking, looking, looking for SOMETHING that is interesting enough to pull them into a better part of their brain than where the negative emotions are.

Any of these areas can be addictive and damaging, but they can also be useful tools for damage control when life has mugged us and the gremlins are threatening to swarm.

Third, I check to see if I have emotional energy available to fight.  Anger and depression are closely related.  Both can come from the perception of being trapped.  Depression robs us of energy.  Anger gives us a brief high energy jolt.

If I can find my anger in the place of powerlessness, I will move toward some activity where I KNOW I can perform well, with power.  For example, I will scan my emails to see if someone asked me a question that is right absolutely in the center of my strike zone so I can blast a ball into the second deck in center field.

Some of you who have received a long email back from me answering some question in tremendous detail were actually just being used by me to get my emotional equilibrium back.  That happened today.  A lady asked a leadership question right after I had experienced a familiar powerless moment, so she got the long version of my answer – immediately – not the pungent two sentence kernel that she would have had to chew on for a while, and now I feel much better about life!

It doesn’t have to be sophisticated.  I am VERY efficient with housecleaning.  There is an ability to think out ahead and an economy of motion that is quite impressive.  The search-and-destroy mode for errant dust puppies is something to behold.

So at times I will blast through cleaning a room, primarily to re-establish dominion over something, and tamp down the pending revolt at the reserve.

Fourth, and dead last on my list, if I don’t have the emotional energy to fight back, I will talk to someone who I have reason to believe is on their game today.  I will hitchhike on their momentum.  They don’t have to know I am having a shabby day.  Many know intuitively, but we are not going to discuss my pain.  I want to hear what they are doing, what God is doing in and through them, where they are weaving principles together in a new way, where they are reaping fruit, etc.

After five minutes of drafting on their emotionally upbeat day, I can get back into my game with some degree of equanimity restored.

* * *

There are levels of powerlessness that this won’t work for.  When you are in a long, long rut, like being a battered wife or abused employee, these tools won’t do much.

When there is a serious demonic component such as with SRA, it will take more than this.

And when there has been so little dominion in life that a person simply does not have many neurological pathways for dominion, you will need to do some serious repair work there, first, over time.

But for the mythical Average Joe who has a stare down with powerlessness every week, some of these might help you bounce back more quickly.

Copyright August 2017 by Arthur Burk





  1. Becky Dymond says!! Just wow!! Great job putting into words what so often flies just under the radar!! I am hanging on to this one… And creating a file for so many I meet & work with who just keep getting mugged and losing ground… Thanks for sharing!! And yeah, I might have gotten one or two of those emails! : >


  2. says word picture of the whole nature reserve was priceless. Priceless as a piece of good writing, but grim as a reality. Sure wish that wasn’t the case! Thank you for your vulnerability and for collecting your tools and sharing them with us. I just came through a period where some old powerlessness was in my face in a monumental fashion. As I look back, I can see how I could have used these tools. This will be so useful for the future. I think it is one of those cases where you need to know going into it that these resources are available because hunting for them at the moment is not likely to net very good results. This is getting copied into the file!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. says

    This is like hugs and kisses on the cheek, a hand up, and oh so many other wonderful things. I am a song person…if I can remember to find a song which fits the energy I am in, I can almost immediately be swept back into feeling power (or maybe it’s shalom?).

    I used to think it was bad (wrong) to get back and so would chew and gnaw on the powerlessness thinking I was supposed to be it’s servant! YUCK!

    This is so fun to read through your list and see my own practices bobble up in front of me. Ice chewers unite! I like small ice cubes so I can pummel them and keep my teeth intact.

    Oh, thank you for sharing this and in so doing modeling again that we aren’t all crazy for getting quite uneasy when the powerlessness strikes!!!

    *big sigh of relief*


  4. Cynthia says

    Best line: “Here are some tools that work for me, since I don’t have a cage – I have a whole “nature reserve” just slightly smaller than Kruger National Park with more varied life forms of powerlessness than Darwin could imagine.”

    Me too!

    And what is it about all those life forms coming at you that basically paralyzes one so you can’t even fight? “If I can find my anger in the place of powerlessness . . . .” what a great key.

    I was so interested in your mention of ice chewing as a way to release relief. Several of my little piano students come with chewing gum sometimes, and even though mostly I have a rule against it, I have learned that for some, it REALLY helps to release the frustration/kinetic energy, so they can focus and play. I had never thought of that set of feelings in them as powerlessness, but that makes perfect sense. If they have little brain gremlins coming at them with botched math tests, spelling bees, what have you, then of course they are sitting squarely in the powerless seat. Maybe I should have crushed ice available for them to chomp during their lessons! 😀

    By the way, today’s Healing Podcast on the Brain & Reading was just like this, a beautifully ordered list of ways to use our resources to move into a place of strength and out of the old shutting down into powerlessness. Two great treasures that I will use relentlessly! (After listening to the podcast, I’m having my husband build me a swing!) 🙂

    Thanks, Arthur.


  5. Noeleen says

    I’m thankful for your timing in sharing this. I think feeling powerless can be really debilitating and paralysing. Thank you for how practical your ideas are.

    I feel powerless today. I have similar things that I do when I feel like this and it’s always good to not feel alone.

    Your opening paragraph has prompted me to think maybe about the difference between vulnerability and powerlessness. I think that it isn’t a universal truth that if a baby in the womb kicks his mother he isn’t punished or cursed. Having the right nutrients to take from his mother isn’t always the case. If you were a baby in the womb in Iceland, say, and happened to have Downs Syndrome, you wouldn’t have a great chance of survival. But you may be right. In the womb maybe the baby may not be aware of these vulnerabilities and therefore may not experience the feeling of powerlessness. They can feel fear and pain but possibly not powerlessness.


  6. Jenny says

    I have deeper understanding as to why I had a brush with anorexia in my late teens. I was in boarding school feeling a whole lot of powerlessness, without knowing it! I had no control over my daily routine, who my roommates were, or what was served at meal times. But I could control how much (or how little) I ate. So I did. And I remember feeling tremendously good about it. I guess it was the sense of being powerful again.


    • says

      I know one therapist who claims all anorexia is simply a rebellion against powerlessness. I think that might be a bit broad, but yes, in some cases, it is the last line of individuality.


  7. Bart De Wilde says deep sigh came out of me ….good to read !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    thanks and …..Always welcome with some emails to my adress in such a situation !!!!😁😁😁
    have a blessed creative day !
    Van: SLG Coaching
    Verzonden: maandag 28 augustus 2017 22:28
    Onderwerp: [New post] The Emotion of Powerlessness
    SLG posted: “We are marinated in a sense of immense power when we are in the womb. The baby can effortlessly strip mother of nutrients so he is born robust, at the expense of her health. The baby can ignore clocks, schedules and cultural niceties, sucking his thumb “


  8. says

    I read this a few hours ago & then let it marinate while I rearranged furniture (only just now realizing this is MY coping mechanism). After LOTS of work at overcoming powerlessness as an identity issue, I never considered it as a temporary emotion. Wow! I knew I was driven/compelled at moments of powerlessness to “regain control” but I never CONSCIOUSLY chose an activity to regain my composure as you are suggesting here. Many thanks for the new perspective. I will say I have also found therapeutic value in the simple choice to submit in moments of powerlessness…. not out of despair or slavery but out of trust in the God who uses the word “recompense”. He sees. (As a ps. Being new to commenting on this site… do you encourage discussion with comments? And thanks for directing us to what you’ve already taught on certain things. I’ll be sure to check out your other insights on this topic.)


    • says

      Yes, we welcome discussion. The only prohibition is discussions of third parties who are exposed. If your comment says, “My youngest son, Joey, has this problem. . . ” it will get deleted. If you have to talk about a third party, give them the gift of privacy. “I saw a kid on the playground the other day who . . .”

      But broadly, it IS a place for discussion, exploration and refining the concepts.


  9. Lisa Kelley says

    My dear brother,I have been tremendously blessed and aided by so much of your work. I am accustomed to being directed to God above and before all other so-called “solutions”. And I am so very grateful to God for you! Perhaps that’s why this essay on powerlessness left me somewhat …. dissatisfied. Uncomfortable. What am I missing here? Am I failing to understand some between the lines nuance you are seeking to communicate? At best, comfort food, work and exercise seem to be rather shallow, “temporary fixes” for the very real pain of perceived powerlessness. Would we not be wiser to take this pain to Father … to seek His perspective…His solution…His strength in our weakness… His power in our powerlessness? My brother, you helped to teach me to go to Him in my need before all others. How did this central counsel seem to be missing from today’s musings? Did I totally misread what you were trying to say? With true respect and appreciation I write…


    • says

      Lisa, we are spirit, soul and body, and it is appropriate to minister to all three. When Elijah unwisely brought himself to adrenal fatigue with his spirit work, God ministered to his body with food and sleep before ministering to his spirit. When Jesus was going to face a spirit crisis in the Garden of Gethsemane, He, the Son of God, took His three closest friends with Him, asking them to provide some soul support for Him, even though they could not touch the spiritual issues.

      I wish we were all such spiritual giants that we could flick aside all physical and emotional bumps in the road. I for one, am not that large in spirit yet. While I do have a significant relationship with God and He does minister to me emotionally, in many situations, I am still at a point in my journey where I use temporary body and soul tools to recover from a bought of powerlessness.

      I look forward to the day when my spiritual authority is so great that I can instantly bring into alignment any situation from an determined mosquito to a deviant federal government. I am not there yet.


  10. jane62 says

    Absolutely brilliant. This is going to be one of my favorites!! I know that already.
    Making sticky word pictures in your inimitable way. Thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. nmdickens says

    I truly appreciate reading this blog and thank you for your diligence at going after the deeper things that lead to restoration. These steps are great coping mechanisms but any thought on how to overcome the sense of powerlessness, altogether? Powerlessness is not in the Trinity and I think, ultimately, its not the goal for us. There are entire people groups (one of which I am a part) that have very little control and influence as they exist within the context of a larger society that, simply put , does not know how to mean us well (even if and when they want to mean us well). I’m an african american women, btw. I am realizing increasingly that I can’t continue to simply cope with that level of powerlessness – it’s going to kill me, ultimately. There are the health statistics that prove it (high rates of heart disease, fibroids, high blood pressure, etc across my people group). And I want to run my race for its entirety. So I’d be happy to hear any thoughts on how to overcome it.


    • says

      Yes, I do have some ideas. And I absolutely agree with the fact that powerlessness is not a gift from the Trinity. Go to our Free Audio and look for “Life, Dominion and Honor” and “The New Spiritual Authority: Intimacy.” Both of those describe some of the healing process that brings us to the place of walking without the recurring emotion of powerlessness.