Those of us who are attracted to the caring professions tend to be fixers. Most of us will have played a caring, responsible kind of role with our families and friends, so becoming a doctor, nurse, therapist etc feels like simply an extension of what we've always done. Needless to say, the word 'powerless' is anathema to us. It is not in our vocabulary. There is no problem, big or small, that cannot be fixed - if we have so far failed to fix a problem, it is only because we have not yet found the right approach.
If you're ready to discover that you might be deluded about this, read on!
It's little wonder that we have a bit of a reaction to the word 'powerless' - look at the definition:
'Lacking strength or power; helpless and totally ineffectual.'
And look at the synonyms:
failure, frailty, impotence, inadequacy, inaptitude, incapability, incapacitation, incapacity, incompetence, ineffectiveness, inefficacy, inefficiency, ineptitude, insufficiency, inutility, lack, shortcoming, unfitness, weakness.
It's enough to make any self-respecting professional run and hide.
And it is precisely the combination of being faced both with difficult problems and feelings of inadequacy that first turned us into fixers as children. Because assuming responsibility for fixing things, however ill-equipped we are to do so, feels so much better than powerlessness.
It's interesting, if not unsurprising, that my searches on the internet have produced little in the way of positive quotes about powerlessness. We are, it seems, at one on this. It sucks.
But does it?
To answer that question it helps to look not just at the advantages of being a fixer, but also at the disadvantages. On the plus side, resolving a problem feels absolutely great, especially if other people have already tried and failed. You see this in action when you go to the hairdresser and they say, while frowning at your tousled mop, 'So, who cut your hair last?'
'But do not despair,' the unspoken bit goes, 'because I am going to put this sorry mess to rights and you are going to look great!.'
If it feels good to give someone a great haircut, imagine the pleasure of saving someone's life, resolving their emotional problems, relieving their pain. No wonder so many of us want to do this kind of thing for a living.
So far so good, but what if you can't fix a problem? And what if there are just too many problems for one person to fix? Where does that leave you?
And here we get to the disadvantages. Thinking it's your job to solve everything can be very tiring. It is often disheartening and frustrating because not all problems are fixable. Not all people who have problems want to be fixed - even the ones who ask to be fixed! While fixers are very good at giving advice, most people don't like receiving it unless they've asked for it, and sometimes not even then. Relationships can be damaged if one person keeps trying to fix the other. Often what a person wants when they are having difficulties is for someone to listen and empathise, not for someone to solve the problem.
Taking responsibility for other people's problems, or problems way outside your jurisdiction, also involves a regular sense of failure. People not listening to your good advice, not conforming to your excellent rules for their behaviour, not getting better despite your best efforts. And taking responsibility for the ailments of organisations can make you feel especially inadequate.
A while back a junior doctor came to see me. A trainee in surgery, she was very stressed by the busyness of her job, the fact that she felt under-skilled for what she was doing, and that as soon as she felt competent in one area she was moved on to a new one. She worried that the patients were not getting the service they deserved and that she was unable to support her juniors as well as she would like. This was all taking its toll - she was not sleeping at all well, she felt tired and stressed all day and her performance was affected. A patient had complained about her manner last week, and this was the straw. She felt unable to cope any more and took sick leave.
The NHS attracts caring people who like to solve problems and solve them well. However, the NHS is chaotic, underfunded, and constantly being restructured. It is the politician's favourite football and the press's favourite target of criticism. Patients and their relatives have high expectations. Patients aren't always diagnosable, let alone curable.
This doctor was powerless over all this.
'Sometimes,' I said to her, 'we need to be realistic about our powerlessness.' She looked at me aghast. There is a word in Turkish,'yok', that means no. It's not just any kind of no, it's a 'I have no idea what you're talking about,' 'this is not even on my radar', 'I would not agree to this if I was starving and this was the very last morsel of food on the planet,' kind of no. That was the expression on her face when I used the word 'powerlessness'.
She told me how she couldn't bear feeling powerless.
I asked her to think of something she was powerless over. She thought and thought but she couldn't think of anything. Once you're in the 'must fix' mode it is amazing how your sense of reality becomes distorted.
'How about the weather?' I suggested. She looked confused for a moment, then visibly relaxed.
'Oh well, yes, of course,' she said.
How is it to realise that you don't control the weather?
'Well of course I don't control the weather!' she said.
Yes, but how does it feel? She paused.
A few moments later she said, 'it feels relaxing actually, it feels good to know that there's nothing I can do about the weather. At least there's one thing I don't have to take responsibility for!'
She paused again.
'In fact,' she said, 'it makes me feel quite powerful.'
'It's hard to explain,' she said, 'it's so unexpected, but it's as though I can have myself back. When I'm over there trying to fix things I forget myself, it's like there's nothing here,' she said, pointing to herself. 'When I realise I can't fix the weather, suddenly I'm myself again and I feel, yes, powerful. How weird is that?'
It seems that powerlessness is not a dirty word when it is simply a fact. We don't have to feel bad about ourselves if we can't control the weather, all we need to do is have a plan B for the barbecue we've got planned for the weekend. It's interestesting to find that we only feel powerless when we judge that we should have power over something or someone that we don't.
Its helpful to remember, in the course of our busy and responsible lives, that in the grand scheme of things we are very very small, and we live a very very short time. We have power over what we do, and we may have a little influence over what some other people do, but all this pales into insignificance when compared with what we are powerless over. Without underestimating what we are all capable of contributing to the world it might sometimes be helpful to remember Kurt Vonnegut's words:
'I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.'
If those words annoy you with their flippancy, or make you suddenly smile and relax, the chances are that you have some power issues....
1. What or whom are you concerned about at the moment?
2. How driven do you feel to fix it or them? How much of your time is spent working out what you or someone else should do about it? Score out of ten.
3. How much control do you have over this situation, as a score out of ten? Tip: if the solution requires someone else to do something, or stop doing something, score your control as 0 or1.
4. If your control score is below 5, but your responsibility or drive to fix score is above 5, allow yourself to imagine what it would be like if you accepted your powerlessness over this situation?
Enjoy your powerless this week, and when you are wanting to help someone, or be a friend to yourself, remember these words:
'When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.'
Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest and writer.