“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” – Step One of the 12 Steps

The concept of powerlessness can be hard to grasp. Powerlessness is often mistaken for weakness, but this is actually a step of strength. In a highly individualistic culture, we often believe that we should be able to take control of our lives, fix our problems, and overcome our struggles alone, but admitting powerlessness involves leaning into others, trusting a community, and surrendering the things we can’t control.

Waking up to what is

When we admit that we are powerless over alcohol or drugs, we admit that we are living with a disease that alters the chemical makeup of the brain. It is not because of weakness or lack of willpower. Someone suffering from this disease did not make a choice to go too far and lose control, and they are not inherently lacking in values or good character.

Admitting powerlessness means admitting that no amount of trying or practicing or self-control is going to change the way that drugs or alcohol affect your brain, thus this is the first step in a lifelong journey of recovery. When you are 2 or 10 or 20 years sober, you are still going to be powerless over alcohol.

Step One is about accepting what is and what is not. It is a gateway to freedom and a proclamation of progress. As we go through the process of Step One, we are moving from a lack of awareness into an awareness of the reality of this disease and the possibility of change. We are beginning to believe that we are capable of living in a different way.

Most addicts and alcoholics do not walk into their first day of treatment believing that they are truly powerless and that their lives are unmanageable. Sometimes they deny that they even have a problem, to begin with. “It’s only a few drinks. I could stop if I wanted to.” Others may minimize or justify their addiction. “It could be worse. You don’t understand. If you had my life, you would use too.”

This is a journey in itself. We have to wrestle with the idea of powerlessness, which includes acknowledging the many reasons why this is hard to admit, doing the work to see how powerlessness seeps into every crevice and corner, taking the time to figure out what this really means for the future, and continually returning to this step throughout our recovery journey.

Listen to “Moments of Surrender”, a podcast episode featuring a MARR alumni:

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Oddly, counterintuitively, in our culture of individualism and self-centered valor, it is by surrendering that we can begin to succeed. It is by ‘admitting that we have no power’ that we can begin the process of accessing all the power we will ever need.” – Russell Brand

The paradox of powerlessness

Powerless does not mean helpless. The First Step does not say that you are powerless over your actions, your decisions, or your relationships; it says that you are powerless over alcohol/drugs. That is a massively important distinction. This is not an excuse for continuing down the same destructive path. It is not about laying down and giving up. It is about complete and wholehearted surrender.

Powerlessness defines the problem: if you put drugs/alcohol in your body, you are powerless over them. The second part of the step, “our lives had become unmanageable,” describes the effect that the problem has had on your life. This can look like affecting family, work, finances, or health. We realize that we are unable to manage the many details of our lives, and we become more accepting of the world around us.

As a part of treatment at MARR, our clients complete a First Step Inventory, which includes examples of powerlessness and unmanageability from various areas of life. This assignment starts to create awareness of how this disease damages one’s life. When you lay it all out, you will see that you did not have control in those moments.

We integrate the community into this exercise as well. Clients get feedback from their community members, which allows them to be both challenged and supported.

The first step towards change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.”

Nathaniel Branden

The Serenity Prayer is a central mantra of many recovery communities. It demonstrates the paradox of powerlessness and the role of surrender.

“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.”

The list of things I cannot change is long: other people’s actions, other people’s emotions, the reality of the disease of addiction, the past, and the list goes on. The list of things I can change is pretty short: my attitudes, my actions. Meditate on these words today. Regardless of what your journey looks like, serenity creates positive change. This is what powerlessness is really about, accepting what is and believing in what could be.