If you are around children any amount of time, you’ll probably hear a familiar phrase during disagreements: “It’s not my fault.” From a very early age, we naturally learn to shift blame from ourselves to other people. If our parents and other influential people don’t teach us to be powerful and responsible for our choices, we will carry this powerless, responsibility-shifting behavior into adulthood. If your parents taught you to be responsible for your choices, then you should go home and thank them. It’s a rare gift.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of powerless adults running around out there. As much as they would like to be able to say they have learned to be powerful people, this is often not the case. They have simply disguised their powerlessness in other ways.
So how do we recognize a powerless mindset in ourselves and others? Here are 6 classic behaviors and experiences rooted in powerless thinking:
1. Powerless language
The first thing that reveals a powerless mindset is powerless language. Frequent use of phrases “I can’t” and “I have to” is a hallmark of a powerless person. “I can’t do that. It’s too hard. I have to clean the kitchen. I have to go to work. I have to spend time with so-and-so.” All of these statements say, “I feel powerless to take responsibility for my actions, so I will say that someone or something else is making me do it.” Powerless people also throw in “I’ll try” to absolve them if they do not come through on a commitment or a promise.
2. Fear-driven manipulation and control in relationships
Powerless people have a deep need to suppress and assuage their abiding fear--fear of loss, pain, death, abandonment, and more. But because they do not have the power to deal with their fear, their only hope is to persuade other people to do it for them. They need other people to share their power with them, because they don’t have any of their own. They need other people to protect them, make them happy, and take responsibility for their lives. And the only way they believe they can get people to do this is to try to control and manipulate them.
3. Belief that relationships are about receiving rather than giving
Powerless people approach relationships as consumers. They are always looking for other people who have resources of love, happiness, joy, and comfort to offer in a relationship to share with them, because they don’t have any. A powerless person will consume whatever another person will offer up.
Powerless people often blame the messes they make on other people. The reason their life, marriage, child, finances, job, or whatever is the way it is has nothing to do with their own choices. Someone else--their parents, their spouse, their teachers, society--created the life they’re living. They don’t have the power to create their own lives.
5. Anxiety-driven environments
Powerless people create an anxiety-driven environment wherever they go. At best, these environments have a thin veneer of safety and calm, which uncover underlying currents of control and intimidation. Those who enter their atmosphere quickly learn to shape up and go with the program--until it dawns on them that they will never be safe to “just be themselves” around that person or group. Then they have a choice. Will they stay in the anxiety and submit to the control of the powerless people, or go looking for a different environment?
6. Walls instead of healthy boundaries
Those who choose to stay in and attempt to survive in anxiety-filled environments usually develop a shield they believe is safe and impenetrable. The problem with this is what they think is shielding them from “scary” people is also preventing them from developing intimate connections with safe people. Their self-protection is not helping them become powerful; it is only keeping them from facing their fear of relationship. Often times, this self-protection shows up as a negative reaction to anything that feels or looks like confrontation, vulnerability, or intimacy. As a result, relationships are filled with anxiety. No one experiences the love, intimacy, vulnerability, or truth they need. Though some might call this having healthy boundaries, in actuality it is a wall preventing intimacy in relationships, and is an expression of powerlessness.
Breaking the cycle of a powerless mindset starts with the ability to see it, then taking action to change it. Repentance means to change the way you think. In order to repent from a life of powerlessness, you will need to identify the lies you believe and the influence those lies have in your life. Often lies become deeply rooted in a person’s core, requiring consistent work to dig them out and replace them with the truth.
Wherever you are at on the journey of becoming a powerful person, whether you have experienced success or temporary disappointment, set your sights on the goal--to offer your whole heart to create strong, lasting relationships. There is no greater joy than the fruit of a life lived with power, responsibility, and freedom.
PS) Are you looking for more tools to help build and maintain healthy relationships? We offer a wide variety of free resources, including a podcast. You can access that here.
PSS) Have you identified some areas in your life that might require a shift from a powerless to a powerful mindset? Check out Relational Intelligence: 8 Traits of Powerful People.