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Explanations > Power > Powerlessness

Self image | Fear of failure | Internal conflict | The power of powerlessness | So what?


The opposite of having power is powerlessness, which is a remarkably common illusion.


Many people have a self-image of powerlessness, believing that they are not able to achieve anything. This may take the form of needing to ask for approval before taking any action (I am not authorized to decide). It may also come from a self image of being unable to achieve goals (I do not have the skill or knowledge to do anything).

A low self-image can thus have a cripplingly paralyzing on a person, preventing them from even beginning any action.

It has been found that powerless people literally salivate over the things that seem unobtainable. Men who feel powerless, for example, may literally drool over fast cars and attractive women.

Fear of failure

Another root of powerlessness is the fear of failure. This is often based in the fear of persecution and rejection and may be related to the paranoid-schizoid position.

The person typically projects forward into the future, sees themselves failing and then continues to imagine others criticizing and ostracizing them. The illusion may continue into feelings of guilt, shame and loneliness.

Internal conflict

Internal conflict can lead to powerlessness, for example where a manager wants to discipline an employee but also wants to be liked -- the result can be a stasis of inaction.

When equal and opposite forces pull against one another, the net movement is zero. Internal conflict thus can create significant internal tension but no real movement.

The power of powerlessness

Curiously, powerlessness is a form of power. If I feel powerless, then this gives me the power to ask for help. I can be powerless like a child and hence demand help from an adult-figure.

Begging uses powerlessness to persuade. It says 'I am not a threat because I am much lower status than you -- you can confirm this by giving me money'. This is one reason why beggars often sit on the floor and lower themselves.

So what?

Do not get trapped by powerlessness. You always have power. When you are in a powerless state, you can always use it to play from the child state.


Learned Helplessness Theory, Groupthink, Scapegoat Theory, Stereotypes, Vulnerability and Values


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