We are meant to be powerful. I really believe that. We are born with an innate power over our decisions, power over our bodies and personal space, power over our circumstances and power to organize our surroundings the way we want them to be. We are not all-powerful but we are incredibly powerful.
Yet many of us are living powerless.
Powerlessness usually starts because of injustice.
Martin Seligman talks about what he calls “Learned Helplessness” a trait many people acquire in their lives in response to trauma.
When you teach a person they are helpless, over time they begin to believe they are.
This is how it was for me. My first experience with a loss of power was when someone I trusted took advantage of me when I was very young. At the time, I was a child. I didn’t have power to change my circumstances. I didn’t have the voice to speak up about what I wanted. I didn’t even have enough of a consciousness about what was happening to make sense of it.
But, here’s the crazy part.
Even when the injustice stopped, I didn’t suddenly begin to feel more powerful. It was as if I had gotten so used to living without my own power, I didn’t want it or need it anymore. If I’d had it, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Even the idea of having power over my life and circumstances was foreign to me.
I was not a victim anymore.
Powerlessness is learned.
But it can be unlearned, too.
This is what I’ve been trying to focus on lately. The powerlessness I have learned for so many years—which led to depression, anxiety, frustration and persistent hopelessness—can be unlearned if I’m willing to change the way I think about power.
Although powerlessness began with an injustice, the only injustice now is that I’m still living powerless, by my own choosing.
For me, powerlessness shows up most often in these four ways:
- Striving for acceptance
- Disengaging or numbing
Are you living powerless?
I’ll never forget the first time someone suggested I might be giving away my own power. Clearly, this person had no idea what I had been through. If they had, they would understand what I was up against.
It wasn’t until I ran out of energy to be angry that I realized she was right.
It’s horrifying to stand up, turn around, and realize the oppression that once controlled your whole life isn’t there anymore. When did it leave? You wonder. How long have I been living as if I were oppressed, when I really wasn’t?
In order to reclaim my power, I’ve had to focus on the four behaviors I listed above.
It hasn’t been easy. They are deeply ingrained habits that are hard to change. I don’t have it totally figured out. But the more I lean into the learning process, the happier I feel.
I struggle less often with depression. My anxiety is slowly shifting. I feel more centered and peaceful.
Here’s a little about how that has looked for me:
- Rather than complaining about being too busy or stressed, I choose to organize my time differently.
- When there is a miscommunication, I choose to assume I didn’t communicate well, rather than that the other person didn’t listen.
- Rather than complaining about how certain people treat me, I try to set better boundaries and expectations.
- Rather than looking for someone to blame when things don’t go how I want them to, I look for ways I can accept responsibility, even if it’s small.
- Rather than always deferring to the advice of others, I’m learning to listen to myself
- Rather than worrying about my reputation, I focus on my character
- When conflict or discomfort comes comes, I work to stay engaged and open—being as honest as I can about how I feel.
Like I said, this isn’t easy. I don’t get it right every time. But I keep working at it because I believe it is my obligation.
With power comes responsibility.
Maybe this is the reason so many of us avoid grabbing hold of the power we deserve—because we recognize that when we take the reigns of our circumstances, we have to own those circumstances.
We can’t pass the blame anymore. We can’t complain. Our choices create our reality.
This isn’t about controlling everything that happens to us. But it is about trying—it’s about failing gloriously, being willing to make a fool of myself, about not taking myself too seriously—and about using the small amount of power I’ve been given and using it well so that power can multiply.