Spring is in the air, vaccinations are rolling out, and the world is starting to feel full of possibilities again—kind of. I’ve recently found myself torn between the desire to throw myself into a sweaty dance pit and absolute, immobilizing social anxiety. I desperately want to be back in the world, and at the same time, I don’t feel "ready." I’m perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop.
This makes sense: From the horrors of COVID-19 itself to the ways in which the pandemic has unveiled and underscored major failures within the structures ostensibly built to support us, every day we witness global pain and we partake in mass grief. On a personal level, many, if not all, of our lives were upended in ways that were both unexpected and long-lasting. In short, I, at least, have spent just over a year feeling completely and totally powerless. And I want that power back. It’s hard to imagine what would help me feel in control again, but I’m determined to try. Searching for answers, I spoke with Anna Clayton, therapist at London-based House of Self.
"Powerlessness stems from feelings of helplessness; when we feel unable to control what is happening in and around us,” says Clayton. She adds that the pandemic contributed to feelings of powerlessness in ways that I hadn’t even considered, including parts of lockdown I felt I should have enjoyed more, like slowing down, taking personal time and learning about myself. She says, “For many, the periods of lockdown may have provided a welcome space for self-discovery, for others, it felt overwhelmingly impossible. With additional stressors such as job and financial uncertainty, a distrust in government and lingering concerns for more strains appearing, our mental, emotional and physical health continues to take a massive hit."
So, how do we cultivate empowerment in the midst of what often feels like total mayhem? My first response to chaos tends to be to detach; why engage with a situation I can’t fix, and a painful one at that? This is an effective coping strategy in the moment, but Clayton notes ultimately, it may be hurting me. “In a bid to cope, we may detach and can accidentally disconnect ourselves. This can lead us to feel further out of control, and when we feel out of control, we experience feelings of disempowerment."
Instead of zoning out to escape and avoid chaotic situations, thoughts, and feelings, Clayton recommends paying attention—without judgement—to examine where those thoughts come from and how, exactly, they contribute to disempowerment. She calls this process Thought Mastery, and even just a short practice session can help you feel more in control: “Paying close attention to how our thoughts are contributing to our feelings of powerlessness is one way we can take back some control. Whilst most of us are aware of our thoughts, the practice of mastering them gives us the opportunity to understand our brain’s counterproductive ways."
As it turns out, mental exercises can have real-world effects. While we often can’t change our circumstances, even just reframing our place in a situation and working on our own thoughts and feelings can lead to a very real shift in how we move through the world. One study on control and powerlessness showed that control beliefs led to resilience, better mental wellness, and even better physical health and longer life. The key here is beliefs—power is relative, so the key to embodying power is to shift your beliefs about your own abilities, as well as beliefs about the obstacles or constraints that might be getting in the way of achieving your goals.
"Cognitive distortions (or faulty thinking) for example, can significantly impact our daily decisions and actions,” says Clayton. “The damaging thoughts that circle our mind can be our downfall. They can lead to a magnitude of mental health difficulties including anxiety and depression." Cognitive distortions include all-or-nothing thinking—failure versus success, good versus bad, love versus hate—and mental filtering, or "when you are unable to see the positive parts of an event," according to Clayton.
"Understanding your cognitive distortions and learning how to interrogate and reframe your thoughts is an essential skill to helping you take back your power and thrive in emotional storms," says Clayton. "Once you have come into the awareness of your thoughts, you now have the opportunity to challenge them." To combat cognitive distortions, she recommends writing them out: "It can be a good idea to grab a pen and paper to get some of your thoughts out, IRL," she says. While it may feel like venting, you’re actually engaging in the important mental healing process called cognitive restructuring. Clayton explains, “Cognitive restructuring (CR) allows you to first identify the distortion and then challenge this through socratic questioning. Is this thought realistic? Is this thought based on fact or feeling? Is there any evidence to support this thought? Could I be misunderstanding the evidence? Am I oversimplifying or generalizing this? By questioning yourself through this self-questioning, you take a step back from the damaging thought. You’re then better able to identify if it has weight."
The Bottom Line
It's certainly not easy to face difficult thoughts head-on, and I know from personal experience that changing oneself is a humbling process. At the same time, it’s important to remember that even small shifts in how we think yield major results, and that we should be kind to ourselves no matter where we are right now. Just wanting to heal and change is progress. As Clayton puts it, "It’s important to remember that your experience of this time is unique and completely valid. Try not to invalidate yourself by comparing your experience to others and practice self-compassion. You matter and so do your experiences."