"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances."
-- Victor Frankl
When you feel powerless, you feel afraid to express your needs because you fear (often rightly) that what little you have will be taken from you. You may have learned powerlessness if you were kept in powerless positions repeatedly and/or over long periods of time (possibly during childhood) by those who used external forces (money, physical strength, legal status, and/or military force) to control you. You may have been abused as a child, a partner or spouse, an employee, a soldier, or you may have been the victim of racial or ethnic attacks. Such prolonged abuse can cause you to become afraid to feel even your own needs, i.e., to admit to yourself that you need something. You become immobilized. And in certain critical ways you stop growing, you cease to thrive.
Distinguishing Externally Imposed Powerlessness from Learned Powerlessnesss
When powerlessness is "learned", it becomes self-perpetuating, even if the external forces are no longer there. An abused child may grow up to feel permanently powerless as an adult, even though his/her parents no longer have physical or economic power over him/her. One may then enter into a situation that repeats childhood experiences (e.g., living with or marrying an abusive partner), and therefore keeping oneself in externally imposed danger. Or one may keep oneself down through self-abuse, compulsive behaviors, and/or depression...because the powerlessness has become internalized.
This is different from the externally imposed powerlessness of racial, class, and gender oppression, which may be enforced through economic, legal, physical, or military, might. The secretary who is being sexually harassed, the single mother who cannot get a promotion due to sex discrimination, the homeless family that cannot afford housing: these are victims that require collective power and direct action to overcome their powerlessness. Collective power may take the form of a union, or a "network" of friends, supporters and professional helpers. Direct action might involve a lawsuit, going to the media, or organizing a strike or protest. Collective power and direct action together make an even more powerful combination.
Even more insidious than this is when--as is often the case--externally imposed powerlessness is combined with learned powerlessness. When this is the case, the above methods are not possible because the person is emotionally incapable of asserting her/his rights.
Overcoming Learned Powerlessness
The first step to overcoming learned powerlessness is to learn to feel entitled to your personal rights. You have the right to live a life free from physical, emotional, sexual, and financial mistreatment. You have the right to be treated with respect, to earn a livable income, to be informed of matters that affect you, and to express yourself freely (without harming others). Most importantly, you have the right to ask for what you need (even though you may be turned down) and to fight for what you need and want (even if you are turned down!). This list of "legitimate entitlements" is easier to read than to experience. Most people who have learned powerlessness barely feel entitled to speak, let alone to speak freely. Often professional psychotherapy is necessary to overcome the ingrained patterns. Never the less, to overcome learned powerlessness, you must gradually, haltingly, but persistently lay claim to each and every human right, one after the other.