Powerlessness in Addiction

Powerlessness is a predominant concept in almost all types of addiction.

It is often associated with the loss of control over substance use or a particular behaviour (such as gambling or gaming) despite negative consequences or adverse effects.

An individual who feels powerless may believe they are unable to stop or change their addictive behaviours or patterns even though they have made many genuine attempts to do so. 

This sense of inadequacy can fuel the cycle of addiction by undermining an individual’s sense of self, confidence, and motivation for change and recovery. 

Treatment usually involves addressing and acknowledging feelings of powerlessness and incompetence while empowering those in recovery from addiction to regain control and balance over their lives.

This article explores the concept of powerlessness in addiction.

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Powerlessness in addiction

Woman holding a glass with alcohol

Facing the reality of powerlessness in addiction means acknowledging the lack of discipline, self-control or agency an individual has when it comes to stopping addictive behaviours independently. 

Whether crossing personal boundaries or delving deeper into addiction than anticipated, the ineffectiveness of self-imposed restrictions becomes apparent, leading to chaos and devastation in an individual’s life.

Admitting powerlessness demands honesty about your circumstances as well as rejecting delusion and denial, which often perpetuate or fuel the addiction cycle. 

Accepting that self-control attempts haven’t worked or have fallen short highlights the need for external support to cultivate discipline and lasting recovery from addiction.

While it may seem like giving up or surrendering, acknowledging powerlessness fosters empowerment, resilience, and hope. 

It opens doors to seeking help and support from others, a higher power, and established recovery methods and treatments.

Personal powerlessness can manifest subtly through specific phrases, beliefs, or thought patterns, some of which you may be familiar with.

These thought patterns may include the following:

  • “I’ve got this. I don’t need help from other people.”
  • “I can stop drinking (or taking drugs) at any time.”
  • “Perhaps other people need help, but I’m different.”

Other more subtle phrases or beliefs that continue to feed the cycle of denial and addiction include:

  • “I’ll never get better. There’s no hope for me.”
  • “If I skip a therapy session, meeting, or sponsor call, it doesn’t make much difference; I’ll just make it up next week.”

These statements are a combination of covert and overt refusals of powerlessness where an individual may convince themselves they have control or agency over their addiction when, in reality, they don’t.

For example, when an individual acknowledges that others may need help for an addiction but has developed the belief that they don’t need assistance or support, this assumption of uniqueness dismisses the impact of their active addiction on themselves and others.

On the other hand, when a person convinces themselves they can quit a substance or behaviour at any time, it denies the reality of all the other unsuccessful efforts they’ve made to stop despite the harm their addiction has caused in the past.

Researchers refer to the above statements as “subtle denials of powerlessness”, which involve patterns of thinking that perpetuate addiction, preventing people from seeking the help and support they need to recover.

Other ways powerlessness can manifest 

Serious young man using laptop while young people having fun with beer

An individual grappling with addiction may exhibit other symptoms of powerlessness, including:

  • Loss of control – despite repeated attempts to cut down or stop, an individual may be unable to regulate their substance use or addictive behaviour, leading to a loss of control and a sense of powerlessness.
  • Preoccupation – a person may spend a significant amount of time thinking about their addictive behaviour, whether it be video gaming, shopping, drinking, or taking drugs. This level of preoccupation can interfere with a person’s daily activities and responsibilities, making them feel disempowered and helpless.
  • Denial – a person who feels powerless may minimise the severity of their addiction and its consequences by engaging in denial. For example, they may rationalise their behaviour or refuse to acknowledge they need help for an addiction.
  • Continued use despite adverse risks or consequences – powerlessness can also manifest as an inability to stop a substance despite the harm it causes the individual and others. 

Other ways that powerlessness can show up in addiction include:

  • Isolation and withdrawal from others
  • Mood changes
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies you once enjoyed
  • Tolerance to a substance or particular behaviour. For instance, you may need larger quantities of alcohol to experience its impacts or spend more time gambling or gaming to achieve the same euphoria you once got when you first began.

Acknowledging our powerlessness

Clinical social worker and therapist Jim LaPierre explains that by acknowledging our powerlessness, we effectively stop trying to do the impossible.

“To admit or even be mindful of powerlessness is a rarity outside of recovery. Our culture is so entrenched in competing for success that we’re uncomfortable acknowledging the limits of what we can and cannot do individually.” (Understanding “Powerlessness” and Why Acceptance Liberates You, Choose Help, Jim LaPierre.)

LaPierre also explains that simplicity is crucial to addiction recovery. For example, accepting what we can control and what we cannot can help cultivate acceptance, allowing us to recognise the fear-based responses that are often at the core of addiction, such as the need for power and control.

According to LaPierre, when we choose vulnerability instead of control, we open ourselves up to possibilities and move more fully toward the person we want to be. (Understanding “Powerlessness” and Why Acceptance Liberates You, Choose Help, Jim LaPierre.)

Spiritual growth

In addiction recovery, spiritual growth plays a pivotal role, offering a sense of purpose and direction for those in treatment.

Research shows that individuals with a strong sense of purpose experience better treatment outcomes than those without similar goals or intentions.

In addition, understanding your “why” is pivotal in addiction recovery. 

For instance, it can be helpful to ask yourself the following:

  • Why do I want to break free from alcohol and drugs?
  • Why do I want to cultivate a sober lifestyle? 

Spiritual growth provides a pathway to uncovering these motivations and truths, enabling you to form a more profound connection with yourself while detaching from other peoples’ expectations and pressures.

A sense of purpose 

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Cultivating a sense of purpose in recovery extends beyond your personal goals; it embraces a sense of service to others and gratitude toward various aspects of your life.

Some people find meaning in being a source of inspiration and hope for others who are struggling with addiction or other mental health challenges.

In contrast, others find encouragement by being present and intentional as parents or caregivers.

Your “why” can be a powerful anchor during the more challenging moments, reminding you of your commitment to long-term recovery and wellness.

It offers perspective and resilience, helping you stay grounded and focused amidst difficulties and challenges.

Cultivating a sense of purpose through spiritual growth fuels personal transformation, a deeper connection to others, and a greater appreciation for life’s blessings.

Embracing spiritual growth as part of addiction recovery, among many things, encourages you not to take responsibility for the feelings, behaviours and actions of others.

Accepting the things you cannot change creates more balance and harmony in your life.

It allows you to connect with yourself in a more compassionate, loving way, eventually leading to a more profound sense of empowerment and self-control as you move toward lasting wellness and recovery from the grip of addiction.

Addiction treatment at Camino Recovery

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Camino Recovery provides personalised, comprehensive residential addiction treatment to clients in Spain and surrounding areas.

We offer a holistic approach to healing that addresses all aspects of recovery, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

From evidence-based therapies and counselling to creative therapy and peer support groups, we provide a safe space for people to confidently begin their sobriety journey.

Our dedicated team is committed to guiding and empowering everyone who walks through our doors.

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health or addiction problems, please get in touch with us today for a confidential conversation about how we can help. 

You are not alone.

Our team is here and ready to support you as you navigate your transformative journey to lasting wellness and recovery from addiction.

Additional resources

  1. Understanding “Powerlessness” and Why Acceptance Liberates You, Choose Help, Jim LaPierre
  2. Power, Powerlessness and Addiction, Jim Orford, Cambridge University Press
Don Lavender

Don specialized in addiction studies, earning an MDiv and a master's in Management, Administration, and Counseling. As a priest, he supported Step 5s in local treatment centers for nearly 40 years, excelling in "family systems work" in the addiction field.

Additionally, Don pioneered equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) in the US and UK during the 1990s. He authored "Equine Utilized Psychotherapy: Dance with those that run with laughter" and gained media recognition, including appearances on 'the Trisha Show' and features in The Daily Telegraph.

In the early 2000s, Don and his wife, Meena, founded Camino Recovery in Spain, providing tailored addiction treatment programs aimed at fostering happier lives.

More from Don Lavender

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