The #1 Reason Why You Are Feeling Stuck and Powerless
Published on 18th August, 2017 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
We have all experienced it- a struggle or a life challenge that seems too much for us to handle. It could be a mental health crisis, a situation at work, or a bitter marital issue. At times, these problems keep on getting bigger despite ours attempt to handle them, leading us to feel even more frustrated. We may even feel like giving up.
As a clinical psychologist, comments such as, “I am stuck”, “I am already at my wit’s end", and even, “I have tried everything, and don’t know what to do anymore” are heard in my office from time to time. All these statements are indications of someone feeling powerless and limited in terms of their ability to manage a challenge that they are facing.
In this article, I’d like to discuss a key element, which is often missing in our attempt to resolve the issue, leaving us helpless and clueless on how to move forward. This missing key element is also critical factor in whether you adopt effective strategies to manage the situation, or if you continue to engage in ineffective behaviours to overcome your problems. What is this missing link that I am talking about? Taking personal responsibility.
Personal Responsibility: Owning your game
Personal responsibility can be defined as “authorship in creating life, emotions and suffering, and a willingness to control personal control over one’s situation” (Overholser, 2005). Individuals who take personal responsibility own their game; They acknowledge the role(s) that they play in the process and thus, are able to find ways to overcome the challenges they face.
An important picture that I seek to gather during my first session with a new client is who (or what) they attribute as the cause of the situation that they are in. Statements like “It’s not my fault” and “He needs to change” indicate that the client is looking at others as being responsible for the trouble (a.k.a. playing the blame game). When they attribute their situation to their selfish partner, their irresponsible teenage child or their unreasonable boss (and the list can go on), they are externalizing blame and not taking personal responsibility. The less ready these clients are in taking personal responsibility, the bigger the challenge in working with them.
The promotion of personal responsibility as an agent of change is often highlighted by prominent therapists as key for success in therapy, and as a first step to be taken in effectively managing the situation. (Overholser, 2005; Yalom, 2005). This is because no change can really happen until the client is aware of how he got himself in the situation, directly or indirectly, and take personal responsibility in managing the situation.
Research has consistently shown that lower levels of personal responsibility is related to poorer mental health outcomes and a sense of powerlessness, and lower relationship quality in couples (Fincham, Harold & Gano-Phillips, 2000). For instance, Karney et al. (1994) reported have found that spouses who attribute external responsibility for their partner’s negative behaviour or for their challenging life circumstances score significantly higher on the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and reported lower levels of marital satisfaction compared to spouses who assume personal responsibility.
How does denying personal responsibility leave you in a rut and feeling powerless? When you blame your circumstances on others, you will address the issue by trying to change the behaviour of those that you are putting the blame on. This is very likely to fail, leading you to further disappointments and frustrations. As highlighted by Glasser (2010), the only person that you can change is yourself. Furthermore, when you tell yourself that someone else needs to change for the situation to improve, you give the power to take control of the situation to the other person. On the other hand, accepting personal responsibility will be accompanied by a sense of freedom. You will be empowered to choose the decisions you feel is best, and how you respond to any situations.
Personal responsibility is not equal to excessive responsibility
Some of you may be thinking, “Hey! You are being unfair to say I am trying to shirk from responsibility to my situation. How can I be responsible for the situation if my subordinate is the one slacking at work, or if I got into a quarrel with my partner for forgetting my birthday?”
Take note: I am not asking you to bear excessive responsibility. In fact, individuals who attribute excessive blame to themselves are more likely to be diagnosed with a depressive disorder. What I am highlighting instead is the importance of developing a logical and accurate attribution with regard to causality. Compared to taking excessive responsibility, attributing 100% of the blame to the other party is a much more common response, and is usually the reason for our unhappiness and powerlessness.
When your subordinates are not performing at work, ask yourself, “What part did I play in this situation?” Perhaps, doing so may enable you to realize that you have not provided him with the support and motivation that he needs in order to perform. Maybe, you will realize that your tendency to favour another co-worker has led him to feel unappreciated. Although you are not totally responsible, recognizing your part and taking personal responsibility provides you with an avenue of what you can do or change, and not leave you powerless.
Even if it’s your partner had forgotten your birthday, you are responsible for how you respond to the situation. Not regulating your thoughts (e.g. catastrophizing that he no longer loves you), actions (e.g. shouting at him and bringing up his past mistakes) or emotions (e.g. focusing on your anger and blame it all on him), aggravates the situation instead of improving it. The quarrel will keep escalating and the relationship deteriorating until at least one person takes personal responsibility (e.g. either when you say “I’m sorry for letting my anger take over me” or he sincerely apologizes for forgetting). Only then will the stance of the other half soften, and each of you can work on being a better partner.
Obstacles to assuming personal responsibility
I’d also like to point out that there are occasions where we may fail to assume personal responsibility despite our best efforts. Here are some reasoms why it’s sometimes challenging for us to accurately perceive our role in the development of a situation and what we can do to manage it:
1) Fundamental Attribution Error
Imagine making your way home on a busy expressway in Singapore. Someone cuts into your lane. You blast your horn multiple times and brand him as a reckless driver. You have committed what social psychologists call a “fundamental attribution error”, the tendency to overestimate the role of personality and dispositional factors in one’s behaviour and underestimate the impact of situational factors (Harvey, Town & Yarkin, 1981). What you did not know was that perhaps he was on his way to fetch his wife who is about to deliver their first child. Maybe he was avoiding another car who was driving dangerously himself.
While this is an extreme instance of FAE, it seeks to explain the concept that we automatically attribute a person’s actions to the person and not the situation that the person is in. In doing so, we place the complete blame on the other person, and cognitively narrow the options that we to improve the situation (Because we fail to realize that the person can behave differently in a different situation!)
So, how does FAE prevent us from assuming personal responsibility? FAE leads us to pin the blame entirely without taking in consideration the situation that the person is in. And sometimes, the biggest player in the situation is yourself!
2) Defense Mechanisms
When your body perceives a threat, defense mechanisms may be deployed to protect us from unpleasant emotions, thoughts and behaviours. A large number of defense mechanisms exist, and they operate at a fairly unconscious level. We are not even aware when we are using them! For example, Ben is addicted to gambling and has a huge debt as a result of his habit. Ben claims that he does not have a problem, saying that he is gambling in an effort to pay off his debts when he wins big. This is a very common defense mechanism, called Denial. When a person is in denial, he is unable to recognize obvious reasons and implications of his actions.
Another example of a defense mechanism is Projection, where we attribute an undesirable thought or behaviour onto another person. Given the same scenario above, Ben may respond to his family members telling him to spend his money wisely by accusing his wife as the one who is spending money unnecessarily when she goes shopping. To bring it closer to home, ever been accused of not listening when the other party is the one not listening, anyone?
Thus, defense mechanisms reduce our awareness and ability to assess a situation in a rational way, blinding us from our role in a certain situation.
3) Our blind selves
Here’s another fact: You don’t know about yourself as much as you think you do.
You are the best person for assessing and understanding your own internal processes, such as your thoughts and feelings. However, you probably do not know yourself as well in areas which can be evaluated as desirable or undesirable, such as attractiveness, intelligence, and friendliness. For example, Vazire and Carlson (2011) highlighted that individuals are better in predicting the intelligence of their peer than their own, based on their performance on an IQ test. A meta-analysis by Zell and Krizan (2014) also found that people tend to overestimate their abilities in various areas, such as language competency, sports abilities and vocational skills.
Why is this so? Our self-awareness is obstructed by our need to feel good about ourselves. No one likes to think of themselves as less intelligent and attractive than others. Dunning, Health and Suls (2004) pointed out that motorcyclists believe that they are safer riders compared to the typical biker, and that 94% of college professors rated themselves as producing better work than then their peers. As a result, our understanding is restricted by our blind spots, created by underlying fears, wishes, and unconscious motives. Thus, the way we perceive ourselves may be clouded, and we do not see ourselves how others see us.
Starting to take personal responsibility
To move away from feeling stuck and powerless, avoid taking emotional shortcuts by blaming other people unfairly. Learn to admit your own mistakes, and obtain honest feedback from your close friends and family to gain an accurate picture of how you are responding to the situation. You will realize yourself moving from a position of being the ‘victim’ to one of empowerment.
If you still find it challenging to assume personal responsibility, talk to your therapist about it. You may also need help seeing why your attempts to manage a situation continue to be ineffective. Your therapist will be able to provide a safe environment to evaluate your decisions, emotions and thoughts, while working with you on any blind spots or defense mechanisms that might be in your way.
Dunning, D., Heath, C., & Suls, J. M. (2004). Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace. Psychological science in the public interest, 5(3), 69-106.
Fincham, F. D., Harold, G. T., & Gano-Phillips, S. (2000). The longitudinal association between attributions and marital satisfaction: Direction of effects and role of efficacy expectations. Journal of family psychology, 14(2), 267-285.
Harvey, J. H., Town, J. P., & Yarkin, K. L. (1981). How fundamental is" the fundamental attribution error"?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 40(2), 346.
Glasser, W. (2010). Choice theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. Harper Collins.
Luft, J., & Ingham, H. (1961). The Johari Window: a graphic model of awareness in interpersonal relations. Human relations training news, 5(9), 6-7.
Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (1995). The longitudinal course of marital quality and stability: A review of theory, methods, and research. Psychological bulletin, 118(1), 3.
Overholser, J. C. (2005). Contemporary psychotherapy: Promoting personal responsibility for therapeutic change. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 35(4), 369-376.
Vazire, S., & Carlson, E. N. (2011). Others sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(2), 104-108.
Yalom, I. D. (2003). The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients: Reflections on Being a Therapist. London: Piatkus.
Zell, E., & Krizan, Z. (2014). Do people have insight into their abilities? A metasynthesis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(2), 111-125.