It’s 8 AM. So far, you’ve got up early, got your fitness training in, and managed to get out the door on time and prepared for the day ahead. Then, the dreaded merge onto the freeway, the slow crawl of traffic, the one jerk who cut you off. You are listening to the same radio station as always, with the same annoying commercials and soon, the half-hour commute turns into 45 minutes, and you are late to work.
If you live in Seattle, you most likely know the struggle of daily traffic. Seattle is ranked fourth among U.S. cities for overall congestion levels, according to the 2016 Traffic Index. Although traffic can be frustrating, it also serves as a daily reminder of how we might be feeling powerless in our lives overall.
Traffic is a metaphor for a powerless life.
You might be a safe driver. You might routinely attempt to eliminate outside forces that would hinder your journeys such as getting frequent oil changes or tire pressure checks. Even though we can control ourselves, once on the road, we are faced with the opposition of uncontrollable forces such as other drivers, weather conditions, and road construction.
Facing off against oppositional forces is the fundamental nature of power. In his book Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence, Rollo May points to the very nature and desire for power from the beginning moments of our lives. Just as you cried as a baby for recognition, May deduces that, “The cry for attention becomes the central psychological cry: I must be able to say I am, to affirm myself in a world into which, by my capacity to assert myself, I put meaning, I create meaning. And I must do this in the face of nature’s magnificent indifference to my struggles." (p.20)
Traffic is just one daily metaphor we can apply to the over-arching feeling of a powerless life. It is a daunting and persistent force that opposes our ability to control how we assert ourselves in the world and are recognized by others. I think this is one of the core reasons why traffic triggers so many feelings of anger and depression within us. We want to assert ourselves, try to, but are left limited in our ability to assert our freedom. We're stuck. Witch is so counter to the nature of our being as being free.
The jerk you gave the middle finger after he cut you off, is not an illusion of opposition that steals our power, but a living being. A fellow traveller who is also stuck, venting onto us his own resistance to his feelings of powerlessness. Thus, we need to stop surrendering ourselves to these abstract illusions of lost power but rather recognize where the feelings of powerlessness spring from and how we can re-establish power for ourselves within such dynamic spaces.
Feelings of powerlessness manifest in different ways for different people.
There are two types of powerlessness: learned and external. Learned powerlessness might spring from early childhood abuse or trauma, and the feeling of helplessness is perpetuated by the individual in adulthood, though the abusers are no longer present. The other type of powerlessness is external, and these factors, because they are often abstract or deeply embedded in societal structures, are more difficult to overcome.
External forces that oppose an individual’s sense of power can be:
Acknowledging where there is opposition to your power opposed better equips your reaction when attempting to regain that control. Though some factors we cannot overcome alone, there are ways to combat the overall feelings of powerlessness in our lives.
Regaining power in our lives is a daily act.
You cannot magically resolve the significant opposing factors in your life overnight. Regaining a sense of control or power in our life starts with daily acts that you do for yourself. These additions to your life can be as simple as:
- making a “fix-it” list around the house and then set off to fix one item from the list every week.
- learning a vital skill
- becoming informed about politics or news
- checking the traffic updates and weather every morning.
As for myself, and my own sense ways of regaining my power over traffic. Interestingly enough, my therapeutic work with others and between my own therapist and I has always been in Fremont. Though I've lived in two very different places in Seattle, I've choose to take back roads, even if it means a few extra turns, I am still moving. Sometimes it takes longer, but most of the time its actually quicker, but the weight of a few extra minutes verses the frustration of lending others my own power is far worth it on my own mental health and groundedness wherever it is I am headed.
The more you know about the external forces in your life, the less ominous they feel, and the more you'll begin to regain your sense of power and groundedness in life.
There is no way to control every factor of every day. Instead, find small feats that reinforce feelings of independence, accomplishment, and understanding. Daily acts of power help us overcome the illusion that our power can be taken from us.