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Understanding Powerlessness

Oct 12, 2020

By Bart Ross — Recovery & Alumni Services Coordinator

Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” (Big Book, Page 59)

What does “powerless” mean when it comes to alcoholism/addiction? The dictionary defines powerless as being without the power to do something or prevent something from happening. Let’s think about this definition as it relates to alcoholism/addiction.

“There is the obsession that somehow, someday, they will beat the game.” (Big Book, Page 23)

Have you ever gone to the beach during a storm and tried to stop a wave from coming ashore? I doubt it! Why? Because we’re sane enough to know that we don’t have the power to do it. No matter how hard we could try, we know we would never accomplish such a foolish idea. There is no way we could prevent the wave from rolling over us and onto the shore. Some of those waves would probably knock us down, and some would cause us physical harm or even death as the storm got worse. Yet how many of us just tried to stop or control our drinking. Isn’t that just as insane if we understood powerless?

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When we make a choice not to pick up the first one, we are assuming at the moment that we have the power to do that. How many times have we done this, and how did that work out? Isn’t that a contradiction to being powerless and having no choice! Why would we choose to do something or try to prevent something from happening if we understood we were powerless? We wouldn’t!

“Our sound reasoning failed to hold us in check. The insane idea won out.” (Big Book, Page 37)

We’ve had good reasons to quit for good, and we continued drinking or using drugs anyway. This understanding of the word obsession explains why we keep going back to pick up the first drink or drug. It makes so much sense when we look back at our behaviors—the threat of relationships ending, poor health, work-life, bad decisions, legal trouble, etc. We have had at least one good reason, probably more. Yet we tip the scale in the wrong direction. We’re powerless when our mind is obsessing, so it’s nearly impossible to make the right decision.

“The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker.” (Big Book, Page 30)

Obsession is defined as a fact or state of being obsessed with an idea, desire, emotion, etc. such a persistent idea, desire, emotion, etc., especially one that cannot be gotten rid of by reasoning.

I’ll just have one or maybe two; I can drink just one more day then stop, I’ll just smoke marijuana that’s not that bad, or I’ll only drink on the weekends, etc. How many times have we had these kinds of thoughts and believed them? Has it worked out well every time? Probably not! Why? Because we are unable to produce these desired effects. Let’s face it when we control it, we’re not enjoying it, and when we’re enjoying it, we’re not controlling it. But still, we kept trying.

“Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.” (Big Book, Page 30)

Feeling powerless makes us believe that there is nothing we can do. This is a half-truth. We don’t have the power over the obsession to drink, nor do we have the power to control how much we drink once we start. What we can do is turn to a Power greater than ourselves for help. We let this Power do what we are unable to do for ourselves.

We sometimes feel as if we are the victim and point fingers at other people or situations. This kind of thinking prevents us from looking at our powerlessness. Accepting our powerlessness opens us up to the willingness for a Higher Power’s help. We then offer the problem over to a Higher Power. We let this Power remove the problem by practicing the rest of the steps as a way of life. Until we can accept powerlessness, we will not fully seek Power. Accepting our powerlessness (complete defeat) is the bottom that an alcoholic and addict must hit.

“Society was about to lock him up. Like myself, he had admitted complete defeat. Then he had, been raised from the dead, suddenly taken from the scrap heap to a level of life better than the best he had ever known!” (Big Book, Page 11)

Understanding powerless, that I had no choice, changed my life. It wasn’t until I had a full understanding of this word that my spiritual journey really was able to begin. It also made me realize that I’m not a bad person or a weak person. I finally understood what an alcoholic and addict really is. This was bittersweet. I saw that I was worse than I knew, but understanding the problem helped me accept the solution. At one time, our number one priority was to stay sober. Today with the understanding of powerless, our number one priority is our relationship with our creator and how we can best serve.


Hanley Center is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting recovery.

For information on our programs, call us today: 561-841-1033.

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