Finding Power in Powerless Situations
When I became a parent for the first time, I quickly sensed that I was no longer in control of anything. Keeping this new, tiny human alive was my paramount responsibility, therefore I made that my number one priority. It took me a few more years to realize that I was not doing a great job at managing priorities. In order to keep a tiny human alive and rear it to be a good, big human, I needed to take care of myself, my marriage, my friendships, and my career. It was a juggling act for which I felt ill-prepared and did not handle well. At all. I found destructive coping mechanisms. I hated my body. I hated myself. I hated my daily perceived failures. I hated parenting. I hated life.
Not a stranger to finding the bottom of the pit of despair, I recognized where I was and set out to pull myself out. I reached everywhere for help and followed any lead I could grasp out of the darkness that I had allowed myself into. I had finally found a rope with which I could hoist myself out of the well of self-loathing. It included a difficult task of eliminating toxic behavior and replacing it with the commitment to handle life better. The commitment ultimately began with the humbling admission that I was buried in shame and that I would need God to pull me back to life.
It wasn’t until I had another life-altering event that I began to understand the delicate balance of simultaneously embracing the things I could not control and taking ownership over my situation. I had experienced plenty of difficult situations in life, but I could never seem to handle any of them with grace. I met them all head-on with anger to fuel my teeth-gritting approach to fight through hard times. Or, I simply cried in a corner and quit. Fight or flight when we feel pushed up against a wall or threatened.
The problem with allowing anger or fear to fuel your drive in a difficult situation is that you will never end up in a better place. Behind both of these emotions is implied blame, a focus on the obstacle instead of accepting the obstacle as part of the journey. I found no comfort or inspiration from the hollow truisms I found in motivational groups. “Let go and let God” is so commonly spoken when we resist releasing control over a situation. That’s simply not enough. We do not stand back and let life happen. We are all ultimately sovereign beings who are called to think and act creatively, not like an automaton.
When I sense myself growing angry and frustrated at my impotence in a situation, I can go one of three ways. I can allow survival instincts to take over to either fight or flee the perceived threat, or I can embrace it and look for ways the situation can help me grow.
In a stressful situation, you can fight, flee, or grow.
At the age of 17 years old, when I received my diagnosis, Crohn’s disease rendered me powerless over my body, always on edge waiting for the next flare, which would inevitably lead to steroids, liquid diets, and restricted activities. It also bred fear of hospitalization, of surgery, of colon cancer, of difficult pregnancy, and early death.
At the age of 28, when I found out I was BRCA 2 positive, I became even more powerless over my body. I felt pressed on time to reproduce, and to decide whether or not to keep my breasts and ovaries before cancer could have a shot at me. Fear of death and disease lingered regularly.
At the age of 32, my Crohn’s disease, which had been in remission for 10 years became active again. Right after my wedding and before my first pregnancy. It would pose as an extra level of difficulty in my new marriage, as a new parent, and new business owner. Food became functional.
At the age of 33, when I had my first child, I became powerless over my time and my daily life. My priorities changed and I sacrificed my career in order to parent at the level I thought I needed to parent. I grew resentful of everyone around me as I felt utterly powerless. When my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, it only helped me explain the difficulty I was having parenting him to myself; others didn’t get it. And, I had little ways to make parenting any easier. Isolation and anxiety began to set in.
At the age of 37, I was diagnosed with Lobular Carcinoma in Situ, arguably an early stage of breast cancer in my case, thus leaving me with the best possible option to remove both breasts and my ovaries without delay, forcing me into menopause. I lost a huge part of my feminism and sexual identity and I had to sit out on life for a good 6 months. The breast cancer surgeries led to a Crohn’s flare-up, thus adding a layer of difficulty to my recovery. Depression and anxiety have crept in on multiple occasions.
Those are simply the low-lights of a life also lived, so far, with relationship problems, heartache, death, disappointment, financial difficulty, and failure. I’m not unique in my struggles, though, and I no longer take pity on myself. Pity is a pit that leads to loneliness. I’ve had plenty of beautiful highlights as well, but I grew tired of the ebb and flow of feel-good emotions, as the low times seemed relentless. I wanted to ebb less and flow more. It was simply a matter of changing my mindset. Instead of praying for my circumstances to turn around, I began praying for my own eyes, heart, and mind to change. And that made all the difference.
Now, at the age of 38, I can look back and see that struggle is part of my story. I no longer ask myself, “Why me?” Instead, I take each challenge and say, “It’s because I’m strong.” Sure, there’s a little exasperation at the start of a new battle, but that attitude does not serve me, so I let it pass quickly. Life or other people are not forcing you to be angry, sad, or anxious. The challenges are there to strengthen you, to find what is inside yourself that will hurtle you into greatness.
Next time you are faced with a situation that makes you anxious, mad, or scared, I challenge you to choose the third option over our survival instincts of fight or flight: Grow. I couldn’t grow until I stopped shutting the door on my spirituality every time things got hard. That led to a severe spiritual bankruptcy that took some years to restore. I’m still working on it and it’s part of my daily maintenance. We so often look for a way to escape from our troubling situation. We seek the opinions of experts, doctors, pastors, and motivators. We seek supplements, medicine, hobbies, people, distractions, and other things to fix what we think is broken. Brokenness is essential to who we are and inescapable. Accepting brokenness and imperfection is the first step to finding your power.