A Key to Resilience: The Difference Between Powerless & Helpless, Debra L. Smith, PsyD, CMMT

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Resilience refers to the strength of our coping skills when faced with difficulties in our lives, how well we manage stress and stressful situations without losing our health and well-being. Another word for resilience is elasticity, how quickly and easily we stretch during and bounce back from physical, emotional, and psychological challenges.

Our resilience is like a rubber band, stretching without breaking when pulled and returning to its original shape when released. Paying attention to what stretches our resilience, lessens our elasticity, and returns us to our original capacity, keeps us healthier and happier.

How we think about the events in our lives has a direct impact on our resilience and elasticity. Take two words we use interchangeably to describe what happens to us–powerless and helpless. We use these words when we find ourselves in situations where we believe and feel like we have no control.

Changing our perception of these words and how we use them shifts our experience, ability to cope, and ability to bounce back. Using the word “powerless” to represent the situation and characteristics of the event, and the word “helpless” to represent our internal and external reaction to an event can be one way of maintaining resilience.

Recognizing, acknowledging, and accepting what is—finding oneself in a powerless situation—reduces the length to which we stretch our resilience. Changing our self-talk from angry, sad, and helpless language to more compassionate and soothing statements allows our resilience to return to its original capacity more quickly.

For instance, getting a flat tire while out running errands can really mess with our day.

It is a powerless event. We cannot change what has happened—the tire is flat. Standing by the side of the road cursing, kicking the tire, and yelling at the sky about “bad luck” or “the world is out to get me” really stretches our rubber band of resilience by keeping us agitated and aggravated.

A more resilience-saving response would be to pause and take deep breaths. We stay calm and keep the stretch minimal. Recognizing we are in a powerless situation, accepting the moment, moves us more quickly out of anger or immobilization to taking effective action. Next, to address feelings of helplessness, we can change our internal self-talk to a more compassionate response.

For instance, instead of “Only bad things happen to me. I have the worst luck! This is going to ruin everything,” we might try, “Wow, this is unfortunate and challenging. Flat tires happen to all of us. There are other people dealing with this same problem. I can deal with this. Although it isn’t desirable, it is manageable.” The second set of phrases keeps us calmer, not stretching the band so tight, and returns us to calm and balance more quickly.

Bullying and insensitive personality traits of bosses and coworkers is another example of powerless situations.

None of us are successful changing someone else’s personalities. Instead, we find ourselves feeling helpless and hopeless. We become aware that we are telling ourselves things like, “What did I do to deserve this? What’s wrong with me that he is picking on me? There’s nothing I can do here so I just have to take it.”

Instead of these stories, tackle our feelings of helplessness with compassionate self-talk such as, “This is really difficult, and it hurts to be the target of unkind behavior. Anyone in my situation would feel the way I do. Many have difficult bosses and need to find a way to cope. I’m capable and able to find a way to take care of myself in this situation.” This self-compassionate shift brings relief, a lessening of self-blame, and healthier action and behavior.

Once we move out of our helpless state, we can be ready with assertive statements such as, “Please don’t raise your voice to me when discussing my work. It makes it very difficult to listen to the content of what you are saying. If you are willing to lower your voice, I am happy to discuss what I need to change to meet your needs.”

Anticipating and preparing for events that have a greater likelihood of happening can cut through our immediate sense of powerlessness and helplessness and lead us to take positive action sooner.

Traveling by air is a perfect example of a powerless event we too often find ourselves facing. Unexpected changes, delays or cancellations of flights leave us in a powerless situation. As individuals we cannot make the airline have more staff, more planes, less mechanical failure, and be invulnerable to weather patterns. Standing at the gate yelling at the customer service representative never results in the power to change those things.

Yet, we do not need to be helpless.

Using our breath to calm down, engaging self-compassionate statements, and being ready with rebooking and hotel apps to act immediately keeps our resilience intact.

Weather is another expected and sometimes unexpected, powerless situation. None of us have learned to turn tornados into soft spring breezes. Preparation works here, too, and is something that many of us use. Everything from carrying a raincoat and umbrella and closing windows before a rainstorm to having a NOAA weather radio, safe location to retreat to, and plan for reconnecting with loved ones after a natural disaster is preparation used to build and maintain resilience and confidence and lessen feelings of helplessness in the face of a powerless situation.

Lastly, making sure we take care of ourselves after powerless events is critical to regaining the elasticity of our resilience. Connecting with others who are going through or have been through similar situations reduces the sense of aloneness and isolation we feel after such events. Reaching out to others and combining resources for recovery efforts after natural disasters builds strength and community. Using self-help groups and psychotherapy to recover keeps us from staying stuck in a powerless situation with helpless feelings.

Taking time to mentally separate powerless situations from helpless feelings and thoughts improves our resilience capacity. Accepting what is right in front of us in the moment cuts through anger and resistance to what is happening and moves us to action more quickly. Tuning into our feelings and thoughts alerts us to the helpless state we find ourselves in, and compassionate self-talk moves us out of that state and into healthier and more effective action. Using these strategies keeps the elastic band of resilience from breaking.

Debra Smith resides in Marquette as a licensed clinical psychologist (PsyD, CMU) and certified mindfulness meditation teacher (UC Berkley Good Science Center). She is currently teaching mindfulness mediation, self-compassion, resilience for health care professionals, and worksite health to many populations, groups, and organizations. dls40@aol.com

Excerpted from the Spring 2022 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2022, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.

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