12/27/2012 05:26 pm ET | Updated Feb 26, 2013

From Hurricane Sandy to Sandy Hook: Are We Totally Powerless?

As I watched from my window in October as the Manhattan East River crept over Avenue C, turning cars into boats, I felt it. As I rushed my young son to the emergency room early Thanksgiving morning with a 106-degree fever, I felt it. When I read that children, who reportedly represent 65 percent of the 32,000 Syrians in refugee camps in Jordan, are dying in the cold, I felt it. And when I heard that 20 children and their caring protectors had been shot to death in their Connecticut school, I felt it.

If you've ever had a newborn baby, you have felt it ever since.


For me, the powerlessness of late can slide into feeling much despair, giving up, or being totally self-centered.

The dictionary's first definition of the word says "devoid of strength or resources." The second meaning says "lacking the authority or capacity to act." When I read this definition today, I felt not so powerless after all.

The truth is: I have strength and resources. I have a capacity to act. Yes, it's important to humble myself and acknowledge, "Oh yes, lady, you don't control the big computer in the sky. You're not in charge of everything, everyone, or even your own thoughts at times (uh, most of the time). You can't change everyone's minds this instant no matter how many impassioned status updates you post on Facebook (and besides, you're preaching to the converted, usually!)."

Yet, in times when we feel great powerlessness -- in our daily lives or while orbiting great tragedy -- we can regain some steady ground under our feet and some momentary peace. And power. Here's how:

Step 1: Meet your basic needs. Want to change the world today? Eat. Preferably something wholesome. Then go to bed early. Walking down the street or sitting behind the wheel while feeling powerless and hungry and tired? Well someone could lose an eye. It could be you. I have, more times than I care to admit, genuinely felt like punching someone in the face -- hard! -- as a result of him or her simply texting while walking in front of me. I was usually hungry and tired. Did I mention I'm president of something called The Respect Institute? So eat and sleep well. These simple acts are brain-changing, perspective-changing, and life-saving.

Step 2: Take quiet action first. Yes, I've found myself at times wanting to know everything about the Sandy Hook Elementary School murderer. There is a part of me who can say "I want to learn," so I can be a part of the solution. Really? No, I'm basically rubbernecking. To feel less powerless, our time is better spent in quiet contemplation when disaster or unspeakable violence strikes. Instead of reading every feed on Facebook, or trolling news sites for details about the killer, quietly say their names every day. Say the names of the victims out loud. Do it for 30 days. See how your "capacity to act" evolves. See what is revealed to you about what to do next to use your strength and resources to help others heal or prevent future acts of violence like this one. I have been doing this, and each time, I feel my heart be with and for these children deeper every day. Or during Hurricane Sandy, it helped our family to read quietly by flashlight and not fixate about when our lives would get back to normal. We slept a lot. When the power came on a week and half later, we were able to slowly regroup and be of service to our friend who lost his home. Be still before reacting.

Step 3: Change the things you can. You know the prayer I'm stealing from here. But this works. Self-respect, we've found in our research, is so powerful because you can build it, nurture it, and have it despite your circumstances. At these times, operate from a place of: I matter. You matter. Behaving from this belief, can ignite your best self-care and you will be more helpful to others. If your life is a an out-of-control hurricane, what is one thing you can do to still the waters? If you're in fear about protecting our children, how can you make your mind or home safe today, first?

Step 4: Sit in circles and "Tell Your Truth." Live or online, create a daily circle for sharing the following: What you are powerless over and what you are grateful for today. We do this practice at The Respect Institute via email. The threads are kept private (no commenting ever, no using content in other settings). By Telling Your Truth (it's a Respect Basic), you can tap into what can keeps you going to be of service to yourself or others. At the very least, when we do it we feel less frantic inside.

Feeling powerlessness is real. Being powerless is real. And acknowledging it can grow us. But let it lead you not to despair or destruction, but toward honoring yourself. Channel your powerlessness to bolster your strength, resources, authority, and capacity to act. And teach your children these same lessons. In the face of powerlessness, remember: You are here. You are needed. And, I say this with love, you need to eat.

For more by Courtney Macavinta, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here