Core issues of abuse: powerlessness

What Powerlessness Is

Think of a station or an airport. When a train or plane is unexpectedly cancelled it often produces extreme reactions in the passengers – why is this? It is because they are powerless in their situation and they know it! There is absolutely nothing they can do. They have no other way of getting to their destination, they are in the hands of others and they have no control over their current predicament. They are powerless.

Being sexual abused is to experience an act of powerlessness – and because of the powerlessness often the child splits herself/himself away from the situation burying the abuse in denial and repression.

However, sadly, the actual occurrence of sexual abuse is usually not the only experience of powerlessness the abused child experiences. The home of an abused child is often fearful, controlling and emotionally neglecting. The child is in a position where she/he is without power, strength, control and hope. This sets up conditions for abuse to occur either in or out of the home.


Damage Of Powerlessness

Children who are abused suffer in three main ways during the abuse:

  • They are helpless – they cannot speak out about the abuse and be understood
  • They are powerless – they cannot leave the family/abusive situation
  • They are in dreadful pain – they cannot be relieved from their internal pain

This causes internal damage at the time and leads to extreme difficulty in trusting in relationships as an adult.

Adult child abuse victims often seek to cope with the internal pain of the powerless situation they experienced when they were a child by controlling behaviour in relationships as an adult.


Seeking To Control

The experience of powerlessness can lead to an extreme fear of being vulnerable or controlled in anyway and can result in controlling behaviour patterns. Controlling people are often the most hurting people in our community but because they are so hard to engage with they often end up the loneliest.

We may seek to hold onto our control by:

  • Controlling relationships – never really letting go into a relationship and trying to hold onto the power balance
  • Controlling and obsessive rituals e.g. perfectionism, workaholism, excessive washing
  • Addiction and Co-Dependency – trying to control inner feelings by outer things


Remaining A Victim

The helplessness of the situation often results in not being able to take charge of life in an adult way. The lack of boundaries means that people victimised as children sometimes go onto be victimised in adult life. They accept treatment that healthier people would not tolerate.

This could be by:

  • Remaining as a victim and repeating abusive/destructive patterns again and again
  • Remaining child like – not adult in relationships
  • Attraction to people who are controlling
  • Not being able to take any control or power in relationships or life.


No Self Confidence

Along with the lack of boundaries, the powerlessness and helplessness of the situation often results in the child internalizing the negative feelings and being full of self doubt and even self hate – and as an adult with a tremendous loss of self judgement.

This could look like:

  • Being unable to trust your own instincts
  • Leaving yourself open to re-abuse
  • Repetition of damaging relationships
  • Re-enforces self hate – “What is wrong with me”
  • People are abusive towards us and we cannot see it or accept it as normal


Emotional Emptiness

The side effect of continually being in a place of fear and powerlessness is that eventually you are numb to it. This leads to a gradual deadening inside – a sense of giving up on life and people. Pain is forfeited and in its place there is emotional emptiness.

This can result in:

  • Denial and memory loss – pretending abuse isn’t happening or has not happened
  • Splitting off – going into fantasy – spacing out and not being presen
  • Deadening inside – give up engaging in relationships in a deep way
  • Emotional Emptiness – separating mind from the heart – so you don’t feel anything.


Living with Fear and Terror:

When the terror is undealt with it may manifest itself as anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, fearfulness. People often develop post traumatic stress syndrome wherever they feel stuck emotionally in the situation and cannot move out of it. Talking about your experiences and rooting it in the past will help shift the fear and help you to live confidently in the present.


Boundaries And Re-Empowerment

One critical way of gaining a healthy sense of power is by looking at your boundaries.

Powerlessness leads to victims being unable to set appropriate boundaries in their lives.

Boundaries let the good in and keep the bad out. Boundaries that were never established clearly as a child mean that as an adult they will often be impaired.

Learning new boundaries is a difficult task but the first step is to try to recognise where your boundaries are. Try to assess your relationships – do people respect your opinions and wishes or do you find yourself backing down to the demands and desires of others most of the time? On the other hand how much do you listen to the thoughts and feelings of others?

Ways out of feeling powerlessness is to look at our patterns of relating and trying to root our fears in the past and see how they are affecting us today. We can with support, also by learn new healthier ways of relating and behaving and recognize that just as we have rights in relationships – others also have rights in their relationship with us.


Things to think about:
  • What sort of choices do you make when you feel powerless?
  • Can you think of any ways you seek to control your life or relationships?
  • Do you feel you hold back in relationships for fear of the other person taking over?
  • Have you found yourself in situations where you have felt that something is wrong but felt unable to confront the situation?
  • Do you find it difficult to trust your own judgements about situations?
  • When pain comes up do you use any mechanisms to close down?
  • How could you build better boundaries in your relationships?