Wright Foundation | May 6, 2020

Love in the Time of Coronavirus: What to Do When You Feel Powerless Over Your Circumstances 

There’s a permeating feeling of powerlessness everywhere around us right now. With the outbreak of Coronavirus, many of us may feel like we have very little control over our circumstances.

There’s a permeating feeling of powerlessness everywhere around us right now. With the outbreak of Coronavirus, many of us may feel like we have very little control over our circumstances.

We may feel uncertain about our jobs, our health, and even when we can leave our homes. Rather than feeling like we are in charge of our lives, we feel like we are on hold, waiting for something to happen, for something to change, or for things to get back to “normal.” It’s like we’re in suspended animation…

This sense of powerlessness is common, but it’s not permanent or even true! Despite the situation or circumstances we are in, each of us has a wellspring of power within us. If we can tap into that sense of personal power, it can help us push past the loss of control and sense of uncertainty about our current situation.

So, if you think you’re powerless over your circumstances, here’s how you can dig a little deeper and discover just how powerful you really are.

Is it Normal to Feel Powerless?

While you may think you “feel” powerless, the truth is that powerlessness isn’t a feeling. It’s not an emotion like fear, hurt, anger, sadness, or joy. Powerlessness is a decision. It’s a conclusion we’ve arrived at—a thought.

When we realize that powerlessness is actually a form of negative—or what we call “stinking”—thinking, we recognize that we always have control over our thoughts. So even those disempowering ideas that creep in or that little voice telling us, “There’s nothing I can do here. I’m out of my depth,” are merely thoughts that we have the power to change.

Powerlessness isn’t a feeling; it’s a state we’ve put ourselves in, and it’s one we can choose to take ourselves out of. This thought alone should give us an immediate sense of empowerment.

We Always Have Power, Even if it Doesn’t Feel that Way 

No matter the situation, even when we feel like a situation has stripped us of our control, we still have power. We have power over our attitude, our actions, and our outlook. It reminds me of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s words on powerlessness—and what he calls The Last Freedom: the freedom to choose our response:

“The experiences of camp life show that a man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even in the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to life.”

We always have power. We may not know what action to take in a given situation, especially right now, when the whole world feels like it’s in upheaval. We may not know how we can have a positive influence on others when we can’t leave our homes. We may be afraid and angry about what’s happening, but we’re never completely powerless. While we can’t always control our circumstances, we can always control our reaction to our circumstances. We can control our outlook, our attitude, and our path.

Finding Empowerment in Trying Circumstances

So, if we’re never truly powerless, then we start to realize, “Okay, there are still things I can do right now. There are still ways I can have a positive effect on the world around me—even if my world right now consists of only those under my roof.

Even if my world, right now, mostly consists of spending time alone.”

If you’re spending this time of social distancing by yourself, you may wonder how you can network, connect, and bridge the gap with others. There are likely friends you can still reach out to, family members you can call or Facetime with, and colleagues you can chat with.

If your job is on hold, or if you’ve been furloughed, laid off, or let go, you can still connect and have influence. There are many online networking opportunities out there. You can update your resume, polish up your LinkedIn profile, and update your skills. You can reach out to friends from high school and college to tap into your network and ask them to spread the word or help. You could take a course online (check out our courses on Wright Now!) and look into coaching or other personal growth opportunities to prepare yourself for your next phase. You could take a college class or decide to further your career now by getting a graduate certificate or degree.

Home with your kids or spouse? You still have power over your situation. You can help your kids set their intentions for the day and plan their schoolwork. You can integrate activities into your schedule that allow you to connect with your spouse and nurture each other through this difficult time. You can find opportunities to play together as a family and see this as a chance to enjoy your time with those you love.

Moving past the idea that you’re powerless in your circumstances doesn’t mean you should dismiss your feelings.

We all experience a wide range of emotions (especially right now). Your feelings of sadness, hurt, anger, and even joy are valid. While we don’t have control over the situation and we can’t “fix it” (a painful realization for some of us) or make it go away, we can find an action to take in the moment, right now.

So, we can’t predict the future. What we do know is what we can control in this moment right now. Ask yourself:

“What can I control?”

Well, I can control my reactions right now. How am I scaring myself or panicking? How could I look at this situation differently?

 “What can I do?”

I can seek comfort right now. I can talk to a friend about what I’m feeling. I can meditate. I can go for a walk. I can take a time out. I can take action toward something that has meaning for me.

“What can I do about my work situation?”

I can brush up my resume. I can touch base with my boss to see what else I could be doing to be of the most value to my company, so if there are cutbacks, I’m less likely to get cut. I can learn additional skills. I can reach out for support.

Instead of focusing on the ways that you’re missing out, look at the actions you can take and the situations in your control. You still have a great deal of power and influence, even during this unusual situation.

Ask What We CAN Do

We can’t go to the movies with a friend. Concerts have been canceled. Conferences are canceled for months out. There are no sports right now. We can’t even go shopping at our favorite store or meet a pal for coffee. In times of stress and uncertainty, it’s natural to look at all we can’t do.

But we can shift our thinking by looking at what we CAN do. There’s always action we can take. There are still ways we can exercise that power and our influence. We can’t control the circumstances, but we can control our reaction. No matter the situation, we can find meaning and value.

When we find ourselves looking at the news and feeling the weight of each fresh horror, we may want to take a step back. We all want to stay informed, but there’s a line between staying informed and simply scaring ourselves by watching the train wreck.

When we feel panicked by the news, we can turn it off. We don’t need to know everything all the time, and there are ways we can control our input while still keeping ourselves up to date. For example, we can limit ourselves to reading the news in the morning and then leaving it off for the day. We can choose what we consume.

As humans, we all struggle with “not knowing.” Many of us have a difficult time with uncertainty and ambiguity. It speaks to our yearnings for safety and security because we want to know the future. But the truth is, we never know the future. None of us know what may happen tomorrow.

While this uncertainty is uncomfortable, it’s not something we should avoid or ignore. We can try to get a little more comfortable with feeling this discomfort. I often turn to the serenity prayer in times of uncertainty: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It helps me realize that I have the strength to change things in my life.

Another quote that brings me comfort comes from Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”

There is no real security in life like she says, it’s an illusion. Life, by its very nature, is ambiguous and unpredictable. Instead of fighting it, what if we reframe it as a chance to discover each day anew? What if we see tomorrow as an adventure and opportunity to explore and grow, instead of something fearful or worrisome?

I know that when we’re feeling stuck, inadequate, or out of control. With our stinking thinking bringing us down, it may seem hard to implement these tips. Remember, it may seem difficult, but it’s not impossible. And it doesn’t take that much time or energy. A subtle shift in our attitude, a willingness to look at things differently for a moment, a reminder that we are powerful—regardless of how we feel—can make a big difference. We always have a choice over our attitude and our reaction to situations.

Building Blocks for Hope and Possibility

Right now, we’re experiencing a type of fast. Not from food, but our regular activities. We’re taking a break from our routine and our busy days before this all started. At some point, we’ll go back—never to what it was before—but to rebuilding our lives and sorting through what really matters to us.

This time, this great pause, has given us a gift to explore what matters to our hearts. We can look at our lives and find what really matters to us—the contact we have with one another, our moments of communing with nature, our health, breaths of fresh air, the resilience of the human spirit, creativity, and much more. Rather than longing for the way things were, or fearing the way things may turn out, what if we look forward with hope and excitement for the way things could become?

Every time we act in the service of what we value is an act of power. Every moment we steep in the beauty of nature, savor the love of our loved ones, reach out in care and compassion to our friends or neighbors, celebrate the triumph of the human spirit—is an act of power.

Shifting our attitude and reactions to our circumstances, focusing on what is important to us, concentrating on what we truly value, and choosing to learn and grow through this time are all acts of power. The more we practice, the more we are creating the building blocks of a powerful, exciting future—a future full of what matters most to us, a future of hope and possibility. 

Wright Living is a division of the Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential, a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.