A Self-Empowered Approach to "Powerlessness"

By Sam Renwick 07/17/20

Talk to most people who work with people struggling with addictions and the notion of powerlessness comes up with pronounced regularity. If you don’t admit you are powerless then you are in denial and you will not recover. This is the foundational assertion for all 12 Step based programs addressing problems with addictive behavior. Certain medical researchers seem to align around this notion by citing differences in brain structure pertaining to various gray matter and white matter areas in the Default Mode Network (DMN). Addicts just can’t not and they need to acknowledge this so that they can begin to change.

This begs the question of what powerless even means and, even further, it begs the question of what an addiction is. Let’s start with powerlessness.

People can choose to attend a meeting instead of heading to the bar. Does that represent powerlessness or is that a self-empowered approach to change?

Often times I wonder if the notion of powerlessness was really meant to represent acceptance, acceptance that the choices I made, circumstances that happened, trauma and memories experienced, habituated self-talk engaged, social groups choices made (including isolation), and my psychological disposition have all woven together to form a present state of me that hasn’t been working well, not in active addiction certainly and maybe not all that well outside of active addiction too. In a sense, I need to accept the reality that how things have been working hasn’t been working. But in this case, acceptance of what is is not powerlessness. Millions upon millions have proven that a process of change can take hold. Choices can be made to seek help, to go to meetings, to change circumstances, live with a different purpose, etc.

Habits encode into our DMN and are characterized by automaticity. Through practice and repetition what was once choice becomes automatic. This can be both the gift and the curse of life. Habits take up less energy than decisions that require our Task Processing Network (TPN) to make executive decisions and this can make life better when the habits are targeted toward that which connects us to a meaningful purpose. But bad habits become the bane of our existence or perhaps the thorn in one’s side that the apostle Paul laments. Perhaps, what we are powerless over is the fact that we’ve built our habits to their current state of being in our minds. Habituated thinking happens faster than executive thinking which is why so many label their “alcoholic or addict” minds and say that their first thought is wrong. In reality, this has little to do with being an alcoholic or addict but rather simply being a human with a habit-related pattern of thinking.

But are we powerless to change our habits? The evidence is quite clear that the answer is no. We can change our habits. To be clear, it’s not easy, but it is certainly do-able, as anyone who’s ever given up smoking can attest. Great books on the subject are Atomic Habits and Good Habits, Bad habits which are currently out now.

Many industry leaders have said that addiction is an extreme form of habit. Marc Lewis speaks to the nature of the learning process when discussing the Biology of Desire.

So, how do I change my bad habits?

First, I need to become aware of them. Social groups are great places to uncover our bad habits. If I have a habit pattern of picking my nose at home, I might not generate awareness about the habit (43% of our daily activities are out of our awareness). But, if you put me in a work environment around other executives, I’ll become quite aware quickly and there will be a strong social influence towards changing that habit (social influence can be quite powerful). Honestly, I think this is one of the reasons for the success of recovery groups like SMART or 12 Steps. We help each other see when we are picking our noses (hopefully metaphorically).

Second, I need to be aware of my purpose and values. Does this habit align with what I truly value and how I want to live my life? Understanding purpose helps to prioritize habits that are useful vs. those that are detrimental. From this, I identify new habits that I’d like and old habits that I’d like to eliminate.

Third, I build in active practices to wire in a new habit that replaces the old. Neurons that fire together wire together. This means building habits requires repetition as it is the firing together over and over again that strengthens the wiring connection (automaticity). Neurons that fire apart wire apart. This is a gift toward old habits as when they are not used, the strength of the habit decreases. I am self-empowered to actively design and tailor my life to help wire in good habits and wire out bad habits. It’s a never-ending process but one that, when done effectively, snowballs as little habit upon little habit stacks into a life lived with automaticity toward well being. I can’t do them all at once and I can’t do them in one sitting, but they can get better over time and practice.

Last, I am compassionate with myself as this process is not easy and I do not always do it well. It is a learning process and such a process implicitly includes some level of failure. I reorient myself with a growth mindset to know that I am getting better and if I fall, I get back up and acknowledge that the only true failure is staying down.

There are many tools that SMART Recovery provides that address making changes our lives. The Hierarchy of Values tool helps us to prioritize and helps give us our answer to the question of “Why?” when things get tough. In many ways, when we get to the D — dispute portion of the ABC model, what we are really trying to do is change habituated patterns of thinking so that our new B is useful or a good habit of thinking (see https://www.smartrecovery.org/smart-recovery-toolbox/abc-crash-course/). The social component of doing these things together with others helps us to become aware, to have hope, and to push forward.

Mindfulness helps to rewire the brain by creating awareness of habituated thinking and engaging non-judgmental practices to begin the process of rewiring the architecture of the DMN. Attachment focused therapy helps us to rewire insecure attachment patterns and relationship styles which likely became habituated through experience and repetition into our attachment styles (and God knows that relationships have always been a big key to issues/triggers with problematic addictive behavior).

We are powerless if we stay isolated and disconnected and we continue to operate at the level of thinking, feeling, and behaving that got us to the addiction. When here, my sense is that we operate from a base of learned helplessness. But we do not have to stay powerless. Millions have changed before us, we are not helpless, we can create a new and better life, we can develop better relationships, we can choose purpose and meaning and we can transform that which we do automatically from that which hurts us to that which helps us. In short, we can mature.

This is the journey of all humans. It’s not an easy journey but it is a worthwhile one.


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