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The feeling of powerlessness in illness

ADVICE

Giacomo Di Falco, psycho-oncologist

By : Giacomo Di Falco, psycho-oncologist

Posted 14 days ago

The feeling of powerlessness is a bitter companion that chronically ill people know well. This is true for cancer, but also for a lot of other diseases such as psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, COPD... The feeling of powerlessness is directly linked to the inability to control the events occurring in our lives. The diagnosis, the treatments, and the healthcare pathway are sometimes full of obstacles.

What’s important to know is that this feeling of powerlessness is intimately linked to the feeling of loss of control. In chronic illnesses, it often translates into feelings of frustration, anger, or even anxiety. As the philosopher Frédéric Lenoir makes us understand, we feel powerless when we refuse to let go of something beyond our control. And yet! Working to "let go" is real work, and it is also a way of "controlling". It is to stop believing that we can catch something that is constantly slipping through our fingers, like water through a sieve.

We rarely have control over events. Knowing how to distinguish between what is within our power and what is beyond our control can be a far more powerful act than believing in the illusion of control. This is precisely where you can find a solution. The illusion of control is a well-known mechanism in psychology since the psychologist research Ellen Langer in the 1990s. We all have this tendency to overestimate the influence we have on events. For example, you may have been in a hurry to press the call button of an elevator several times, as if you could make it arrive faster.

You know deep down it won't change anything, and yet you do it anyway: it is precisely the illusion of control. A gesture, an action that goes in the direction of what you want, but that will have no other impact on your life than costing you a lot of energy. And yet, you will surely need this energy to feel better.

Don't panic!

There are many ways to work through this illusion of control:

  •  Some people and activities can teach us how to coexist with these things that are out of our control. It is a question of learning a form of control by leaving another described as illusory. Learning to control what we can: our thoughts, rather than events. 
  •  Certain paramedical professionals such as psychologists or sophrologists can teach you to make possible what today seems impossible. If control is an illusion, it means that powerlessness is also an illusion. Meditation professionals can also teach you to develop psychological resources that you might not have imagined.
  •  You can also practice on your own to "become aware" of these things when something big or small happens to you. Ask yourself this simple question:

 

"Can I do anything about it?"

You may not always find an answer, but you will soon understand how helpful it is to ask yourself this question. It's not the answers that matter, but the questions you ask yourself that take you down one path rather than another. That's part of the cerebral work. Because by asking yourself this question, your brain will calibrate itself more and more on a new way for you to avoid getting stuck on things you don't understand and spending energy on nothing.

It's up to you! What are the unanswered questions that make you feel lighter rather than those that weigh you down?

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