Am I Powerless or Powerful?

Posted on August 17, 2015

by Jean Greer McCarthy

Jean Greer McCarthy is a blogger, podcast host and recovery advocate from Alberta, Canada. She is the author of, a regular contributor to, and co-host of The Bubble Hour podcast.The concept of powerlessness was perplexing as I contemplated life without alcohol. I was in the awful back and forth of failed attempts, beginning each morning with a vow that “this would be the day” and deciding firmly in late afternoon that due to circumstances x, y or z, it was essential to continue drinking.

The online evaluations I frequented assured me that my drinking pattern was problematic, yet the only solution I knew of seemed to disqualify me with it’s first “step” of declaring powerlessness. I felt there was still a glimmer of empowerment in the decision I made each day, even though it was a decision to drink.

At the time I used this confusion as an excuse to continue my pattern, reasoning that my power of choice negated all other indicators of addiction. If I wasn’t powerless, I must be okay. Still, I could not deny that as time went on things were getting slowly worse.

Eventually, I accepted that I was gradually descending towards an unwanted destination. Continuing to drink to a point of catastrophe seemed suddenly ridiculous to me, like insisting that one could not lose weight before hitting 350 lbs. or refusing to quit smoking before a pack-a-day habit developed. I needed to quit drinking and the sooner the better!

At this point, I looked beyond the best-known option and discovered there were other recovery pathways to consider. I began reading blogs, ordering books, downloading recovery podcasts and writing about my experiences. I connected with others online and found that I was not an anomaly. I was able to successfully change my life and live alcohol-free without steps or meetings, but my confusion over the concept of powerlessness remained.

It is funny how the mind holds onto moments of great clarity. Around 8 months into recovery, my family and I visited relatives in Palm Springs. I’d downloaded numerous podcasts for the trip, including several from SMART Recovery.  Out for a morning walk alone, I first heard Dr. Edelstein’s explanation of the internal vs external locus of control. EUREKA! I was so excited I started skipping a little. Even now, several years later, I remember the exact street, the breeze, the palm trees, my grin.

Dr Edelstein had explained my experience in a way I could never pinpoint before. The internal/external concept explained my aversion to the other pathway that had served many well, but clearly was not for me. It explained that my lack of powerlessness did not make me a defective alcoholic, and allowed me to feel more authentic and connected to my instincts.

When asked to recommend a recovery pathway, I encourage people to investigate all options before deciding for themselves, explaining that the concept of internal or external locus of control is one of the key areas to consider. Understanding the difference between the internal and external empowerment is beneficial to those who are in early recovery.

Now I have transitioned into managing my life in long-term recovery, I value the internal locus of control even more so as I tend and cultivate motivation and balance from within.

Jean Greer McCarthy is a blogger, podcast host and recovery advocate from Alberta, Canada. She is the author of, a regular contributor to, and co-host of The Bubble Hour podcast.

11 thoughts on “Am I Powerless or Powerful?

  1. Doug M.

    My dilemma is this.

    AA doesn’t serve me well, but I’m loath to discourage others from trying *something* (versus nothing, which I sense they’ll do otherwise).

    I’ve condensed what I think distinguishes me — and people like me — from someone who might benefit from AA, and it has to do with *locus of control*.

    There are things about life that are out of one’s control, yet one controls responses to those events. It’s a false dichotomy to say one is either “powerless” (absolute external locus of control) versus pure control over what happens in one’s life (internal).

    That said, here’s another dichotomy, created only for the purpose of illustration.

    There are people who are confident they are good, but are surprised they repeatedly do things they consider bad when they drink (fight, rob, cheat, drive drunk, etc.).

    There are other people who *fear* they are not just bad, but HORRIBLE, to the core, and drink to reduce the resultant unremitting self-loathing.

    The former group has an *overdeveloped sense of internal control*. If they were children, they’d be called “willful”. Their chief struggle is accepting that it’s not always best for them to do whatever the hell they want at any moment. (Many people I’ve met in AA have said exactly that, in almost exactly those words.)

    Anyone who’s been arrested has faced the fact that there are limits to one’s power of self-determination. We are a society, and the challenge for some is learning how to be comfortable living in it.

    Of course, in reality no one is at either of these extremes, but I think everyone lies along the spectrum between.

    I am more like the latter group. I have an *underdeveloped sense of inner control*. To the extent my drinking is destructive, it is borne of impulse to destroy myself — because I’ve often felt that’s the only way within my power to be proactive.

    I’ve not felt the world is out to get me, or that others have kept me from getting what I want. It’s that getting what I wanted has felt beyond my ability to achieve.

    For much of my life, my motto has been “If you don’t try, you can’t fail.”

    Approaches like SMART’s help me realize that neither myself nor others are “to blame for me” — because there *is no blame*. Instead, with help, I am slowly accepting that *I am me and there’s nothing wrong with that*.

    With that realization, I have ever more courage to believe (1) I can do what I want, and (2) I have nothing to fear in doing so.

    1. Alison F.

      I found your input extremely helpful, Doug, and I identify with it completely. Having now been to FOUR rehabilitation facilities, I simply could just NOT subscribe to even the 1st step of the 11 that followed (that I was told I’d be doomed to fail should I not wholeheartedly believe in them, which I never could). I am NOT powerless – and it is only in truly realizing and harnessing one’s true inner strength that perhaps defeating this beast is possible. I haven’t yet won my battle and am still searching for alternatives but the SMART approach resonates with me SO much more than any other ever has, so thanks for validating what I’ve been feeling too.

  2. Maria

    I would like to have information about how to help my teenager son. I am a single mother of a marijuana addict.

  3. Erin M

    Really appreciate this! Is there any way someone can share the link to Dr. Edelstein’s podcast that discusses the internal/external locus of control? Thank you again for sharing your experience!

  4. Mike Tollefson

    I know I am not powerless and that the only way I will get drunk or high is if I choose to get the drugs or alcohol and then choose to take them those choices are completely in my control. I am living free of addiction and thank SMART Recovery for helping me get and stay that way.

  5. HughK

    Loved it Jean!!

    I’ll re-listen to the podcasts – they helped me a lot early on.

    “I value the internal locus of control even more so as I tend and cultivate motivation and balance from within” – wonderful 🙂

  6. Robin S.

    Just now starting, trying, am so confused but know that AA is not for me. Went to one Smart Recovery meeting and liked it but didn’t feel a strong will to change. But was happy about the positive feelings of sobriety among many there. Will continue with meetings but don’t really know how to quit alcohol.

  7. Jean B.

    Everything I read about others experiences is helpful. If you can do it then maybe I can do it also. In early steps of recovery so I have a lot to learn. Thank you.

Comments are closed.