Help. Hope. Healing.

The Power of Powerless

Leveraging Limitations

By Rex Goode


A few years ago, I worked in a facility for adolescent sex offenders as an intern and candidate for my Bachelors degree in Social Work. I had been chosen for the position because I already had many years experience working developmentally disabled people.

In that facility was a developmentally disabled inmate that the staff was not having any success with when it came to cooperation and behavior problems. As a student, I had almost no official power when it came to treatment and custody issues. I was not qualified to offer therapy and not trained to guard.During my time there, I was given the opportunity to work with other clients who were not developmentally disabled. I was allowed to be a listening ear for any young man in the unit who was having trouble that wanted someone he could just talk to. I had no decision-making powers when it came to policies on the unit. I worked without pay. In a way, because the school was charging me tuition for the time I spent on the unit, I was paying for the honor of working there.

Now, I don’t mean “honor” entirely sarcastically. I found it to be an honor to work with such troubled youths. I’ve never been one to think of sex offenders as anything other than human beings and I have always been optimistic about the ability of people to change.

Many times, a client would ask if he could talk to me. I would take the client to some private place, which were rare in the small area. I usually had to be where I could be seen by the custody staff, in case a client got upset at me. I don’t remember ever feeling unsafe and I never provoked a client to be the least aggressive with me.

During these sessions, I really had no psychological theoretical model to follow. I had been trained in active listening techniques, which I employed liberally. I had to be careful to never come across as offering advice or rendering treatment.

The custody staff and the therapists had all of the power in that place. Yet, I managed to accomplish some things I feel I can be proud of, not the least of which was to support my main client to where he earned his GED. It would be wrong of me to claim it as my accomplishment and I certainly wasn’t alone. There were others who helped him and he certainly deserves the real credit for his work. On the other hand, until I showed up and applied my limited training and skills, it was questionable whether he would make it.

So often, we work at success as if we can only make it if we have whatever power we can grab. We think that it is in gaining power that we overcome the things we struggle with. I learned in my internship that sometimes, having no power is more of an advantage than being the top dog.

One of the main advantages was that without any power on the unit, there was no reason for highly manipulative clients to manipulate me. Even if I had been gullible, it would have gained them nothing. Everyone knew that I was just Rex the intern, that I couldn’t help anyone get their way about anything. Despite that, everyone wanted to talk to me. There was a freedom in it, a relaxation for the clients to be able to talk without an agenda.

On my side of the equation, it was an advantage for me that I didn’t feel any pressure to solve anyone’s problems. My sole task was to listen, empathize, and let them know that I cared. Without that pressure, I felt amazingly free to just be a good listener.

There I was, caught between the hard-case custody staff on the one side, impenetrable and immovable guardians of the security of the unit, and the therapists on the other side with their diplomas, licenses, and volumes of knowledge about psychology. I was just the little river flowing between them, not really in control of its own direction. That which moves is always more powerful than that which doesn’t.

We Latter-day Saints are often so goal-oriented that we don’t know how to just find the flow of powerlessness. Getting through addiction is not a matter of climbing to the top of the wall, grabbing for power, and forcing ourselves to obey. Healing from addiction is a matter of finding the stream that flows between the cliffs of power and just ride the current to the harbor. The Grand Canyon was no match for the Colorado River.


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4 Responses to “The Power of Powerless”

  1. Tim B said:

    Power is such an illusion. Not that it isn’t real — there really is power — but using it always puts it at risk of losing its effectiveness. D&C 121 lays it out pretty well there at the end — if no power or influence can be held by virtue of the priesthood, then nothing really has claim to power at all. So the alternatives presented there really do work better.

    But it’s so hard to have that understood by people who believe that powerlessness means complete vulnerability. Acknowledging limits of power scares the hell out of them, but, once they get through that, life gets a lot more peaceful.

  2. Rex Goode said:

    Yes. In the Church, powerlessness is such a bugaboo. People think that admitting it nullifies the doctrine of free agency or moral agency. We always have a choice. I don’t think of it that way. I think it does limit our ability to choose, just like every choice has a consequence. You can choose the behavior, but you can’t choose the consequence. For some behaviors, the consequence is that you can lose your ability to not choose it later. The more you do it, the less choice you have.

  3. Tim B said:

    Well, yes. Free Agency is always an important and touchy topic (but I understand that the full phrase is coming out of political prison, along side “Mormon Church.”).

    But, yeah, choices can reduce your ability to resist the choice in the future. But our ability to choose is never unfettered — there are limitations of what options are open to us, and the consequences can be manipulated to make one more attractive than it would otherwise be.

  4. Rex Goode said:

    Quite right!

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