Powerlessness, an in- and external lack of strength, ability, authority, capacity, or resources to change, rectify, improve, or escape from a person or circumstance, is a concept that is virtually synonymous with the adult child syndrome. It is, to a degree, the essence that caused its creation.
“Adult children are dependent personalities, who view abuse and inappropriate behavior as normal,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 18). “Or if they complain about the abuse, they feel powerless to do anything about it. Without help, adult children confuse love and pity and pick partners they can pity and rescue. The payoff is a feeling of being needed or avoiding feeling alone for another day. Such relationships create reactors, who feel powerless to change their situation.”
There is a vast difference between those who grew up in a loving, stable home and those who endured a chaotic, dangerous one.
“In a normal home, children… internalize the strength of their parents,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook continues (ibid, p. 89). “They feel securely held by a sense of parental power which gives logic and structure to their lives. With this foundation and strength, they are able to build a self and create loving intimacy through their own sense of power. Children of alcoholics have an overriding feeling of powerlessness for being unable to stop the destructive effects of family alcoholism.”
A strong indicator of such a dynamic is a spiraling, unmanageable life, even in adult years, in which a person is not at mastery over it and instead feels as if he is a victim to it, as he once was in childhood. Unable to feel at cause and become a participant, he skirts the fringes between childhood and adulthood, remaining mired in the protective inner child cocoon he was subconsciously forced to create in order to spiritually escape danger and functioning with the brain’s rewired survival traits to additionally foster a sense of present-time safety.
“When children have been injured by alcoholism and cannot find relief from their pain, they are forced to deny their reality and to withdraw into isolation,” advises the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (ibid, p. 359). “The experience of being powerless to control the events that damage us as children leaves us with a deep feeling of alienation, not only from others, but from our own openness and vulnerability.”
Powerlessness can be subdivided into external and internal aspects. The former include the actions and reactions of others and beyond-control situations and circumstances, such as the home environment into which a person has been born, the alcoholism- and dysfunctional-fueled behavior of his parents or primary caregivers, and any number of natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes. The latter entails either the lack of internal resources to escape, protect, or defend those situations or later-in-life retriggers which return an adult to his helpless, resource-devoid moments, immobilizing him, yet flooding his body with the stress hormones he was unable to harness at the time. Repeated retriggers result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Circuit-tripping aspects can encompass people (parent-reminding authority figures), places (similarities to a person’s home environment), and things (which also rekindle similar circumstances). Although all can subconsciously occur and will most likely continue to do so unless their origins are identified and desensitized, they all create childhood powerlessness in adult years.
Yet the powerlessness of being pitted as a helpless, resource-lacking child against an out-of-control, potentially damaging adult with the disease of alcoholism neither person understands cannot be overemphasized.
“I learned in Al-Anon that I’m bound to fail to make someone else stop drinking because I am powerless over alcoholism,” advises the Al-Anon “Courage to Change” text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.., 1992, p. 14). “… Gradually I learned that nothing I did or did not do would convince my loved one to get sober. I understood intellectually, but it took time before I believed it in my heart.”
Alcoholism quickly severs a child’s connection with his Higher Power, causing the person suffering from it to cross his boundaries, enmesh with him, and graft his sick soul on to the child’s healthy one. It leaves that child abandoned and feeling even more powerless.
However, there are many reasons why a child could not understand this concept and consequently exerted considerable, although futile, efforts, to fix or cure his diseased parent.
First and foremost, as a child, he believed that the reason for his caregiver’s neglectful, blaming, and abusive behavior was his own-namely, that he was flawed, unworthy, unlovable, and that he needed to be appropriately “disciplined” for his deficiencies. He did not have the psychological, neurological, emotional, or intellectual development to have assessed otherwise.
Desperately in need of parental love, nurture, and support for his own development as a person, he secondly employed any strategy his young mind could devise to obtain it.
Thirdly, seeking to minimize his exposure to his caregiver’s physically and psychically damaging blame, belittlement, hatred, and shame, he tried to reduce the detriment to which he was exposed.
Finally, he attempted to stabilize the parent who created the dangerous, chaotic, and unpredictable environment in which he was forced to live to increase his own safety and sanity.
While all of these motivations were logical and laudatory, especially for a powerless child who tried to exert whatever correcting influence he could, they were futile.
“One of the first Al-Anon sayings I remember hearing, known as ‘the three C’s,’ embodies the concept of powerlessness over alcoholism,” according to “Hope for Today” (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002, p. 7). “‘I didn’t cause it’ relieves me of any lingering guilt I may feel. If only I had been a better son, worked harder at school, done more chores around the house, or not fought so much with my siblings, my parents may not have become alcoholics. In reality, their suffering from the disease had nothing to do with me.
“‘I can’t control it’ gives me permission to live my life and take better care of myself. No longer do I have to spend my energy trying to manipulate people and situations so that the alcoholics will drink less.
“(And finally), “I can’t cure it” reminds me that I don’t have to repeat my insane behavior over and over again, hoping for different results. I don’t have to keep giving one last exhausted effort to stop the drinking, hoping that this time it will work.”
Yet, releasing an adult child’s defenses and false sense of control is like falling from the sky without a parachute and proclaiming it to the world as he plummets groundward. It only intensifies his fear and prepares him for the catastrophic outcome. These pseudo-solutions were all he had and admitting his powerlessness now is nothing short of a return to vulnerable victimhood.
While physical distance and time separation, as occurs when an adult child moves away from his home-of-origin, may minimize his retriggers and provide a temporary increase in stability, they will continue to exert their effects until his disease has been dissolved through recovery-in other words, wherever he goeth, so followeth his upbringing.
“When I was a young daughter of an alcoholic father, I was powerless,” according to a testimonial in “Hope for Today” (ibid, p. 59). “I was powerless over every criticism that came from his mouth and I was powerless over every blow he struck against me. To survive such an upbringing, I developed many defenses. When no longer needed, these defenses became character defects. As an adult, I was still powerless over the effects of my father’s abuse!”
Paradoxically, the moment a person identifies his powerlessness is the moment he regains his first grain of strength, because he crosses the line from victim to victor, provided he does so with the support of a Higher Power, as occurs with the very first step of any recovery program, which states, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Standing on the threshold of help and healing, the adult child rekindles his first, perhaps still-tenuous connection with his Source, who lifts, dissolves, fortifies, and restores, breathing the life of true power and light the disease of alcoholism and dysfunction he was exposed to during his upbringing doused and darkened.
Powerlessness thus ends where the reconnection with a person’s Higher Power begins.
“Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Torrance, California: Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, 2006.
“Courage to Change.” Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992.
“Hope for Today.” Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002.