It doesn’t matter how smart or prepared you are–eventually you find yourself facing:
- Bad news
- Mean, angry, or difficult people
- Overwhelming situations
- Conflict you’d been hoping wouldn’t appear
- Illness or tragedy
- In general, things that make us uncomfortable that we cannot control
Talk about triggers for overeating! These things happen to all of us.
“What do I do when there is very little that I can do?” can be one of the most difficult questions to sit with. The feelings of ineffectiveness can lead to unhelpful attempts to bury, avoid, or transform what you are feeling—overeating and emotional eating, drinking, procrastination, getting upset or overly focused on something else, obsessing about the details in another area of your life, wasting massive amounts of time online or in some other activity that doesn’t require much thought or emotion.
“What do I do when there is very little that I can do?” is actually a question that gets asked when we want desperately to feel effective.
Unfortunately it’s a given. You will face circumstances, relationships, and situations that you can’t change. You will feel powerless sometimes. It doesn’t feel good. And there are ways to cope with feeling powerless and ineffective that are better solutions than overeating.
Start by honoring and respecting the way that you are feeling. You may feel tempted to avoid your feelings because they are so uncomfortable. You may feel tempted to try to change how you feel or talk yourself out of it. Here’s the thing. Even if it is possible to take charge of whatever situation you are experiencing (and it might not be), that’s not the first step. Denying your own reality never did anyone any good—at least I can’t think of an example where this was the case. Start by respecting your own reality—
“I feel scared.”
“I feel sad.”
“I feel angry.”
“I feel exquisitely uncomfortable/confused/tangled up/out of control.”
You get the idea. Start where you are. Take a deep breath and know what you know about how you feel. Be respectful of your current state. You are probably feeling vulnerable or off balance, or not at your best. Acknowledge this and be gentle with yourself.
Give yourself some safe time and space just to feel. Cry. Shake. Rant into your pillow. Say out loud that you are scared or angry or lost. Give yourself permission to be and be there with yourself.
Reach out to others. Feeling powerless and ineffective is hardest when you also feel alone in the dark. Find a way of connecting that feels do-able and safe. Reach out to friends and loved ones. If that isn’t an option, look for support online or in your community, with peers, or when it’s appropriate, with a professional. Never underestimate the power of putting your feelings and your situation into words instead of dealing with it in isolation, in your head.
When you are ready, think about what you can do. You may not be able to fix or change a situation and you certainly can’t change other people, so don’t get stuck in all-or-nothing thinking that keeps you feeling powerless. Brainstorm a list of everything you could do, no matter how ridiculous or outrageous it sounds. Write it all down and remember that the situation includes not only what is actually happening, but also the feelings and the people who are in it. You may not be able to change an unpleasant person in your life, but you can probably do some things to take care of yourself or to feel better. Remember too, that when you don’t have a clue what you can do, something you can do is learn, find more tools, or ask for advice. Maybe you want to read a book about dealing with bullies and mean people or maybe you could ask the friend who is suffering what she needs. Don’t let your feelings of ineffectiveness shut you down. Acknowledge that you feel ineffective and keep brainstorming.
If it’s possible, create small instances of effectiveness when you can. Don’t underestimate or devalue the worth of small acts. If this is a situation that you can’t fix or change, do your best to stay aware of what you have control over and what you don’t. Focus on that first list and don’t beat yourself up over the second. Instead, know that this is hard stuff. One warning: constant action or “keeping busy” can also be a tempting way to try to escape uncomfortable feelings. This rarely works for long and usually burns people out. Beware of getting stuck in cycles of frantic activity because you are trying to be numb or avoid what is really going on. If you notice this happening, it’s time to go back to caring for yourself and your emotions.
Finally, know that when it comes to tough times, all you can do is your best. You’ll rarely if ever get it perfect, you may not feel confident about what you are doing, and some things will only become clear after the fact. That’s just how it is. Sometimes life is a step-at-a-time affair. Be kind to yourself.
Take good care