Empowered is a word we hear frequently. It suggests strength. Although its connotations are appealing, it often times feels out of reach. It is like an exquisite diamond ring casting its sparkle through the glass casings of a high-priced jewelry boutique. Its magnificence catches our eye, and for a moment, we wonder what it would feel like to try it on. How would it transform us? Who could we become? We pause, allowing ourselves time to think about it. We may even give ourselves permission to believe a transformation could happen. Then, just as the brilliant vision of a different way of being begins to descend upon us, it quickly dissipates.
Why is it that becoming empowered seems to elude us?
Is it really out of reach or is it a question of knowing where to find it and how to try it on?
Is it really out of reach?
The word empowered begins with a very important prefix – em – which means within and through. Thus, becoming empowered is not something that we obtain from external sources nor is it something which can be bestowed upon us. Also, it is not a process which takes us on a never-ending quest for reaching an elusive state of being. On the contrary, becoming empowered requires that we refrain from searching outside ourselves and remain still. It demands we turn inward where we will find our power, within and through us.
Over the years working with individuals who entered therapy because their pain and its accompanying manifestations were no longer tolerable, I witnessed how their sources of power were drained and depleted, or they were camouflaged by layers of injury and injustice. And yes, I would provide therapeutic tools and empathic strategies for assessing and intervening with their brokenness. However, it was the clients who chose to turn inward, unearthing their truths and acknowledging their sources of power. For many, this was a belief in a higher power or a connection with Nature. For others, their source was embedded within the recollection of a meaningful passage or proverb. For some, it was in the replaying of soulful music or spirit-filled words. Regardless of its genesis, without exception, it was the process of claiming each source which brought to life the promise of becoming empowered. Each time clients chose to trust in themselves and invest into their sources, their flames of resilience strengthened and took hold.
Far from being out of reach, becoming empowered means courageously reaching for what lies within us.
How do we try it on?
Trying on something new can be tricky. Most of us are our own worst critics. Trying on something unusual or unfamiliar adds another layer of uncertainty to the mix. Trying on something we’ve never imagined seeing ourselves in or believed we deserved complicates matters even further. Becoming empowered is no different. Thus, becoming empowered requires we try it on, step by step, embracing three truths.
As we begin discovering and tapping into our power within, a shift starts to take place. We feel stronger. We feel hopeful. We feel energized. And, because the newness of it all feels a bit awkward, we begin to doubt ourselves. Old tapes enter our minds and play their messages. “I’m not good enough. I can’t do this. I feel selfish. I just need to be a better person.” We continue to diminish our potential for empowerment and dash out the flame within us by caving into a formidable opponent – shame. Our destructive tapes intensify. “Who am I kidding? I don’t deserve this! I’m not a leader…just a follower. I’ll never amount to anything.”
With negative thoughts dousing our potential for power, we have a choice. We can walk by the glass window showcasing the sparkling diamond, resenting its presence and releasing its promises. Or, we can pause and give ourselves permission to try on our first truth.
Becoming empowered means believing we are worthy of it.
In my career as a middle and high school teacher, I had the pleasure of connecting with hundreds of students. In the early 90’s, I was teaching English at a middle school in a challenging neighborhood where students struggled getting their basic needs met. One female student, Violet, was extremely gifted in her writing; however, her image and worth were tied to her gang affiliation. After acknowledging her writing abilities on several assignments, I approached Violet, offering her mentoring sessions before school several mornings each week. Although reluctant at first, Violet agreed to attend. She didn’t miss a session, diligently honing and perfecting her gift. Over time, we entered several of her writing pieces into our school publication. As months passed and she continued progressing, Violet started to change in several ways. Her dark heavy clothing became a lighter, more feminine style. Her hair and make-up softened. Her prior protective demeanor turned into a warm gentle aura. Believing she was worthy of it, Violet not only tried on her power, she claimed it for herself.
One of the mistakes we make when trying on something new is dismissing it too quickly when it feels uncomfortable or strange. Our fear of failure or not being able to make it work also feeds our doubts and justifies our giving up. Again, we must refrain from playing negative tapes and patiently try on our next truth.
Becoming empowered means giving ourselves time to fit into it.
Just as was true for Violet, other students with whom I had the honor of teaching and who chose to begin believing in themselves and their worth were quite wary of difficult choices and changes which they would need to confront. Often times, many students quickly fell back into old patterns or caved in under pressure from others. However, there were countless students, like Violet, who gave themselves time to try on their power, a little a time. They grew with it and made adjustments along the way. Although it was quite dangerous, eventually Violet made the difficult decision to be “jumped out” of her gang. Following this life change, Violet found herself navigating through foreign territory; however, she kept her expectations realistic and learned how to move forward in healthy ways. Most importantly, she gave herself the time to ease into her new power and to fit comfortably into it.
Lastly, another misjudgment we make when trying on something new is that we often tether the legitimacy of its presence to external sources of validation. With our digital social world pressing us from every angle to produce, perform, and post at an ever-increasing rate, it feels like our power is measured solely by the traction it receives. If we are not displaying our power 24/7 in the cyber lanes and drowning out the voices of others, our power feels false and fleeting. However, authentic power need not reveal itself through a barrage of boasts. Becoming empowered is not legitimized by artificial numbers or fake friends or followers. Therefore, after finding our source within and then giving ourselves time to fit into it, it is essential that we try on one more truth.
Becoming empowered means allowing its presence to speak for itself.
As the vortex of social networks pulls us outward and the noise of messaging reaches peak levels fighting for recognition, we must remain still. We must continue turning inward, formulating and fortifying our truths and renewing and refining our power. We must give ourselves ample time to allow for our power’s authentic integration into our being – to take hold within us and through us. If we do so, it will stand strong, with or without external support. If we do so, it will speak for itself.
At the end of 8th grade, Violet participated in the school’s Promotional Ceremony. Although there were a number of students who received awards and honors, Violet quietly sat in attendance. When her name was called, Violet walked confidently across the stage to receive her Certificate. Aside from a soft cheer from a single mom proud of her daughter for being the first in the family to graduate 8th grade, the room was quiet. Violet shook the principal’s hand and descended the stairs. Returning to her assigned seat, Violet looked up and our eyes met. Bearing witness to the strength behind them, I knew her self-respect and self-worth were rooted firmly within her and running fully through her. Violet’s beaming smile showcased their sparkling authenticity. Her empowered presence spoke for itself.
Publishers Notes: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children”