Let me ask you: How often do you feel powerless in just one day—overwhelmed by obligations and unrealistic expectations, stuck in situations that feel impossible to change, or victimized by people or emotions you can’t control?
Yet, we’re born with unlimited potential to grow, adapt, and succeed, making us innately powerful. Just the fact that we learned how to crawl and then walk, that we figured out how to use our mouths and vocal cords to form words others can understand, and that we developed skills to relate to the world around us proves that we are innately powerful. So, when and how do we end up losing our power?
Despite (or maybe due to) the enormous technological advancements of the last few decades, the demands of modern day life have become increasingly challenging. As we push through our busy weeks, driven by intense pressure to gain job security, maintain a certain lifestyle, or just make ends meet, there remains very little time to relax, reflect, and recuperate. Add unprecedented global challenges, such as climate change, gun violence, COVID-19, inflation, and war, and it is no wonder that stress, anxiety, and depression have been called “the epidemic of the 21st century.”
The Role of Our Inner Protector
Because of this level of overwhelm, our inner protector, the subconscious mind, is left rushing to the rescue. To help us cope with life’s challenges, this deeper part of our mind employs two survival modes: avoiding and pleasing. Both strategies aim to protect us from what the subconscious considers dangerous threats, such as criticism, failure, and abandonment.
The survival modes of avoiding and pleasing consist of six distinct survival patterns: the victim, the invisibility, the procrastinator, the chameleon, the helper, and the lover. Our subconscious mind developed these survival patterns early in our lives when we depended entirely on the adults around us.
It doesn’t take significant trauma, neglect, or abuse for the inner protector to doubt our safety. We may have had a completely ordinary upbringing on paper, and our siblings may still reminisce about the good old days. Still—perhaps because some of us are more sensitive—relentless teasing, disappointed looks when we didn’t get straight A’s, or a friend ditching us signified that life is scary, and we need to watch out to avoid getting hurt.
Our subconscious uses these emotionally charged memories as reference points for the future by condensing them into beliefs that define our perspective of ourselves and the world around us. The most common ones are “I am not safe”; “I am not good enough”; “I don’t belong”; “I am not lovable”; and “the world isn’t a good/safe place.”
How Our Subconscious Mind Sabotages Us
Due to the chronic stress we are living with, our subconscious is on continuous high alert, scanning for any potential danger similar to what we’ve experienced in the past. Once a threat is detected, our subconscious cross-references the current experiences with memories of similar events and launches us into survival mode by pulling out old limiting beliefs to convince us we’re about to be abandoned or shamed.
Caught in this survival loop, we shift from being competent adults to behaving like we did when we were children. We shrink like kids when we feel criticized, overextend ourselves to get approval, and hide under a blanket to avoid uncomfortable tasks. Even though we may rationally understand how we should handle challenges, our subconscious survival patterns continue to override any logic or reasoning.
In the short term, falling back on old patterns can give us a sense of safety or belonging. But when survival patterns become our default ways of being and make us approach life in constant self-defense, we face two significant downsides:
We become even more powerless because we believe our safety and wellbeing depend on others instead of finding peace, strength, and validation from within.
Since we don’t slow down to listen to our thoughts, face our emotions, or ask deep questions, such as “What do I really want?” “What is my purpose?” or “What is the meaning of life?” we never develop strong self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-worth. We eventually become more than powerless—we become disconnected from ourselves.
Depression and hopelessness set in when we realize that no matter how many people or situations we avoid and how much approval we receive, we still end up stuck, powerless, and unsure of who we are and whether we matter. This is why survival patterns, in contrast to their intentions, ultimately don’t ease our struggles with stress, anxiety, and low self-esteem but instead intensify and prolong them.
Ways to Escape the “Survival Loop”
Now for the good news: We can switch out of the survival loop for good. We are not powerless, and we actually never give our power away. Let’s take a look at some common examples of how we might feel we give our power away when we are in survival mode:
- We consider outside opinions more seriously than our own.
- We follow others’ advice even though we don’t want to.
- We prefer to stay quiet and unnoticed.
- We let people talk down to us without pushing back.
- We never say no to what others want us to do.
Though these all sound deeply disempowering, we must consider: Are we giving our power away, or are we not asserting our power?
If we believe more in what others say, it’s because we haven’t figured out what we believe in. If we prefer to stay voiceless, it’s because we haven’t fully embraced the gifts that make us unique. And if we don’t respect our own boundaries, it’s because we haven’t become our own source of safety. In none of these everyday examples have we given anything away. We feel powerless because our subconscious keeps relying on familiar survival patterns, assuming we’re still small and helpless. And since our subconscious believes we’re powerless, our conscious self does too.
Before you rush to blame your subconscious, remember that it keeps on treating you like a child because the only reference points it has are the memories and limiting beliefs from your childhood. But, like using a map from 1965 to find your way around New York City, navigating through life with outdated beliefs will not get you to a place of happiness and fulfillment. In addition, these old limiting beliefs usually aren’t based on who you are but on how you’ve been treated by others, which generally says more about them than it does about you.
“…like using a map from 1965 to find your way around New York City, navigating through life with outdated beliefs will not get you to a place of happiness and fulfillment.”
The solution to empowerment isn’t to take our power back, because we can’t give it away. The solution is to make accessing and harnessing our innate power our default way of being. For this, we need to update our belief system so that our subconscious no longer merely reacts in self-defense.
To get out of survival mode and become empowered, we need to learn to know, appreciate, and love what is authentically ours. Once we do, we can create a meaning-filled life by choosing freedom over safety, integrity over invisibility, and purpose over comfort. After all, considering the world’s precarious state, we can’t afford to let anxiety, insecurity, and powerlessness get the best of us.
**By Friedemann Schaub, MD, Ph.D