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November 27, 2010 1:09 AM   Subscribe

Why and how did you stop believing in a story of powerlessness, specifically your own?

Every story does not end well. I know this. I also know that people transform themselves, and it is highly idiosyncratic, mysterious, and—most importantly—possible.

Stories of powerlessness sometimes exist within us. I am seeking inspiration and asking how and why you stopped believing in a story of powerlessness in your own life, and what changed for you, why you believe this shift happened.

The ability to renew, change, and realize capacities that were unknown and hidden, or forgotten, these are the stories I'm hoping to hear. Thank you, AskMetaFilter members, for any insights you share.
posted by simulacra to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
There was a lot of spadework first -- learning about impostor syndrome, learning that friends I admired also admired me, years and years of trying to learn to do things for my own reason and follow them through, accomplishing things and trying (usually failing) not to immediately discount them.

A few months ago, my father died. I broke plans and went to India for a month to try to help my mom. Then I came back to my home in the States for a breather, and then to WorldCon in Australia and had a great time, and then back to the States where I sort of babysat my mom for a month. I had no idea how I'd do it, as I'd never done that before for any length of time, but we survived. Then just before leaving for India again, I cooked, for the first time in years really. I made succotash for a potluck. Things went wrong but it turned out fine.

Now I feel like my defaults got switched. Instead of automatically feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I think I can take things on, and "muddle through" as the Brits say. Part of it is social proof -- lots of other people do [whatever] so I can too, it can't be that hard. Part of it is having gone through something hard and emerged on the other side with the knowledge that it's bearable. Part of it was making something again. Part of it was time, just the duration of time that I'd been slowly chipping away at my neuroses, and a relaxing vacation where I made friends and moved around easily.

Change of perspective is a kind of alchemy and grace, and I don't even know whether this is permanent, but it's mine right now.
posted by brainwane at 2:48 AM on November 27, 2010 [9 favorites]

Reading Viktor Frankl could illuminate this topic.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:59 AM on November 27, 2010

I can share a couple of stories I have told on MetaFilter before. There is the time I spent in alcohol rehab. The process began my recovery from alcoholism and the inherent powerlessness. I, like so many, also suffered from depression during that recovery. This is the story of the steps I took to take back my life.
posted by netbros at 5:26 AM on November 27, 2010

Personally, I learned SOME of it by succeeding at things I tried. I learned some of it by failing at things I tried.

I use a maxim: "Do something, even if it's wrong" to motivate me.

I also learned that the two reliable companions who appear each time a new project starts are Ignorance and Knowledge. I learned to stop fearing Ignorance and to view Knowledge with skepticism.

I also learned that clocks keep running. If you wait long enough, the present situation will pass. Patience and persistence, willingness to repeat work over, over, over, over until it gets to be acceptable without throwing in the towel is the key to power.

Few problems I ever really wanted solved have won out over me. Those that did, I accept. For now! I may take them up again at some point and win. That option always exists. Things are over when I SAY THEY ARE DONE. (And I can change my mind!)

Your power, if it exists, exists in free will. My late first wife was a flower girl at a wedding when she was three. Her mom told her "Now Jane... you are going to do this, then this, then this...". Three-year-old Jane looked at her and eventually said "You don't know what I'm going to do." And this is the ultimate source of our personal power, IMO. We can do whatever the hell we want. Folks who tell you otherwise underestimate this at their own peril.
posted by FauxScot at 5:38 AM on November 27, 2010 [13 favorites]

You might like to check out Martin Seligman's books on Learned Helplessness. That might give you some explanation as to why you feel the way you do. I very much liked the earlier suggestions of reading Viktor Frankl and Joseph Campbell. You might find that cognitive behavioral therapy helpful since it can help deal with distortions in how you think about things. I think you would find Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by D M Burns a real help. At least it will give you a clue what CBT is all about and the theory behind it.
A few sessions with a therapist might be of use in finding out exactly where you are: are you depressed?; are you paralyzed?; do you feel stuck? and so on.
If you find that CBT is of use, you can find online resources. Just google it on the metafilter domain. The UK and Australia have free online resources.

Good Luck.
posted by PickeringPete at 6:09 AM on November 27, 2010

Best answer: Little things.

Learning new skills. Skills give you power. Whether it's driving or putting up a shelf or changing a tyre or making a good meal out of something cheap, having skills makes you less at the mercy of fate.

Being prepared. In my house I have spare bulbs, spare fuses, basic tools. I had a shovel and some salt for this morning when the steps were icy. I have what I need to survive in a power cut or if I am sick for days and can't reach a shop. I have savings.

I know you're talking about mental feelings of powerlessness, but a lot of what makes me feel agency in my own life is that I actually have real agency in the form of screwdrivers and shovels.

Another thing that made a difference to me was just starting to make changes in my own life. Seeing that I could make a difference in a small way made me more confident that I could make differences in a bigger way. It's a learning process. It takes a little bit of bravery to try something when I worry that it might not work out. So I say to myself - what's the worst that can happen? Usually nothing much! If something really bad might happen, I can always ask someone to supervise me, mentor me, help me, but never just to fix it for me.

A lot of the positive influences on my life are other people who have taken charge of things and done what they wanted to do. A lot of my friends are self-employed, or otherwise hoeing their own row, and I find such people inspirational. Contrariwise, I think it helps to not spend too much time with people who really are trapped in a box of their own making, commiserating over things they don't intend to change.

Finally, there are phrases that are not allowed in my life. "I can't X" has to be replaced with either "I can X" or "I choose to Y instead".
posted by emilyw at 6:17 AM on November 27, 2010 [11 favorites]

I was thinking to myself about how frustrated I was that members of my family didn't take me seriously. A little light went off, and I asked myself "Do I take myself seriously?" It changed my attitude, and attitude is critical.
posted by theora55 at 7:24 AM on November 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, it is possible, yes, it's hard work. For me, it took time and energy with a lot of personal care. I withdrew/eliminated a lot of 'noise' in my personal system, spent a lot of time and energy figuring out what really deeply fed who I needed to be, and actively spent time and energy building those things into my life.

I learned how to write in a way that was reflective and analytical to figure out why things were the way they were in my life and why I felt the way I did. I re-read and edited and re-wrote what I had written until it was clear. I had a very deep close friend who helped me through, accepted me and challenged me enough to keep me moving, without whom I don't know if I would have made it.

I learned that there was a lot more positive in my life than I was acknowledging, than in fact I was able to actually feel because of the barriers I had put up around myself. I had to create an environment where I felt I was safe from those negative forces, and then to learn to open my heart, mind, body and spirit.

I learned to meditate, I started exercising, I changed how I ate, I helped others, I started playing music again. I paid attention to listening and hearing and feeling. In helping someone else with similar issues, I wrote the following, but it's something that in telling her, I have learned to try to listen for myself: “What you may view as weakness, vulnerability and failure in yourself may actually be viewed by others as strength, courage and success. The personal challenge is how to see that they’re right.”
posted by kch at 10:03 AM on November 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by Roach at 10:44 AM on November 27, 2010

Response by poster: I appreciate the responses thus far. Responses like this are fairly unhelpful and irrelevant, since I'm asking a metaphysical, philosophical question rather than seeking to solicit a query response requiring words like, "you" or, "therapy". This is, in the deepest sense, not a question about me.

Thank you to the people who have shared so far. What you've shared is very meaningful and rings sincere.
posted by simulacra at 10:45 AM on November 27, 2010

Best answer: One more saying that has helped me through: "Uncertainty is a thing I can choose to manage. It is not a space into which I will allow my fears to fill and dominate, even though I may have done so in the past".
posted by kch at 11:28 AM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

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