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Center for Action and Contemplation

Letting Go of Control 

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Dominican sister and counselor Catherine Chapman describes why so many of us struggle to accept our powerlessness:  

The very idea that we are powerless over people, places and things is an alien concept to many of us, especially men, in our North American culture. We in the United States grew up with the notion that we could do anything we wanted if we put our minds to it…. Being powerless is almost an un-American idea….  

We are powerless to control anyone and anything except ourselves; and there are even things about ourselves we cannot control. If we are an addict we are powerless over drugs and alcohol [DM Team: or anything else we use compulsively]. Those of us in relationships with addicts are powerless over the addict. All of us are powerless to make anyone be, feel, and do exactly what we want. We have very limited control over what happens in the world at large….  

Admitting we are powerless over people, places and things, and that our lives have become unmanageable, can be one of the most difficult, yet one of the most freeing, admissions of our lives. It is usually beyond our comprehension that admitting powerlessness and unmanageability will help us find peace. For many, if not most of us, this admission implies we have given up or we are defeated. However, this is exactly what the First Step is asking us to do: admit defeat. But, we are only admitting defeat in relation to our way of doing things. 

Chapman shares what happens on the other side on our admission of defeat: 

Admitting our powerlessness frees us to allow the One who is Power to become active in our lives. We become more open to new ways of doing things as we allow God to love us and teach us how to give and receive love. We also begin to accept people and situations as they are. As we realize we aren’t in control, but God is in control, we are more able to detach from people and situations that are unhealthy for us, and accept these the way they are. This doesn’t mean we quit caring. We care, but we don’t allow the situation to determine our thoughts, actions and feelings. We will discover, as our detachment and acceptance deepens, that we have more emotional energy to spend on ourselves and the activities we would like to do.  

The emotional component of Step 1 is getting in touch with our powerlessness over people, places and things. The behavioral response to Step 1 is letting go of control. Not controlling means we do not try to manage anyone’s life in any way. Not controlling means we allow other people to be responsible for their lives…. We begin to listen to others and, on occasion, try things their way. No longer are we rigidly wedded to the notion that our way is the only correct way. Not controlling means letting go and going with the flow.   


Catherine Chapman, Step Spirit: The 12 Steps as a Spiritual Program (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 19, 21, 23. 

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Jenna Keiper, Mystic. Jenna Keiper, North Cascades Sunrise. Jenna Keiper, Jonah. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

Regardless of the conditions we find ourselves in, we learn to navigate in the midst of our lack of control. 

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