What is Empowerment?
The term ‘empowerment’ has been trendy in the personal development world for quite some time now but what does it actually mean?
What allows people to claim that they are empowered? What are the fundamentals involved?
Given that more and more people are finding their way to personal growth and claiming to be empowered, it’s important to understand this concept more fully.
Empowerment includes individual (personal empowerment) and societal (collective empowerment). This article will cover the former. According to Cheung and colleagues, personal empowerment refers to the changes to a person’s personal qualities which includes their outlook on life, emotional control, personal ability, knowledge of society which all contribute to more effective decision making and handling of problems.
Empowerment is Based on Action
Empowerment isn’t just a feeling, it’s an interactive process which involves taking empowered actions which improve our social relations. In other words, we can’t just think empowered thoughts, our actions have to align with them. For example, reading a book on assertiveness isn’t enough to become empowered. True empowerment lies in actually in practising assertiveness skills by saying ‘no’ when my boss asks you to work late for the umpteenth time.
It is a way of being in the world in which you take responsibility for yourself and your life. An empowered person makes decisions from wholeness rather than deficiency, from worth rather than unworthiness, from faith rather than fear, even if that decision goes against culture or conventional ‘wisdom’.
Examples of being empowered
Personal empowerment is unique to our own contexts. A cleaner can empower herself through education to build a better life for herself and her family. The wife of a wealthy investor can empower herself to discover a sense of meaning and purpose through volunteering within her privileged life. A people pleaser can empower herself through learning assertiveness skills and actually practising them to stand up for herself and her needs.
When we make decisions which really chime with our authentic selves, we act from a place of honesty and integrity even if that means being judged by others. For example, the decision to leave a well paid and prestigious job (like law or medicine) to become a yoga teacher would be considered foolish or risky by culture which values material success and status over humility and purpose. Nevertheless, empowerment often takes us on a courageous journey away from who we think we are to who we truly are. We leave the job that no longer feeds our soul or the relationship we’ve been pretending we’re happy in but are really just settling for. We ‘level up’ so to speak.
Although we can have singular empowered moments or decisions, a series of empowered actions can add up to a better life. And better is always a subjective term; it means different things to different people.
Elements of Empowered Living
The following are what I consider to be key elements of empowered living. To me, empowered living is when we commit to a life of courage over comfort and growth over stagnancy. This is not an exhaustive list, however, these are what I consider the most obvious and salient components. Not every empowered person will have all of these; you can consider them aspirational.
Self-awareness is one of the most important steps in the change process. You cannot change what you don’t acknowledge. It also means that you know yourself on a deeper level.
Mindfulness is not just a secular spiritual practice to create relaxation or treat stress and anxiety, I believe it is an essential daily skill that lies at the heart of making wise choices that lead to growth. One of the ways that mindfulness can help us on the road to empowerment is by raising our insight into and awareness of our ego which can limit our spiritual development.
Most of the obstacles to achieving the life we want come from within us in the form of limiting beliefs and autonomatic negative thoughts (ANTs). By using the skill of mindfulness to step back observe our thoughts and then challenge them, we ensure that are being accurate, fair and kind towards ourselves. Having psychological flexibility ensures that we are giving ourselves the best chance to be resilient in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.
Thankfully we are beginning to recognise the importance of emotions as important messengers and guides in decision making. An empowered person goes in the direction of what feels light, joyful and expansive within their bodies. Our emotions express themselves within our bodies and so being embodied through mindful awareness is a key skill for the empowered person to develop.
When we are empowered we take full responsibility for our lives, both the good and the bad. When things go wrong, we don’t attack or blame others but rather, look at how our own actions and role could have been altered to bring about a different result. Many people resist empowerment for this very reason: a fear of being fully responsible for the freedom of creating their own lives.
Alignment with Core Values
If you don’t know who you are, its very difficult to develop a sense of worthiness and purpose. Reflecting on and making sure our actions align with what we value most ensures that we are acting with integrity and is one of the hallmarks of empowered living.
Having a warm, compassionate relationship with yourself is a healthy basis for taking action on one’s goals.
Looking after ourselves through self-care is health-giving, sustaining and preventative practice. It implies a positive relationship with self and that our needs are important. Managing our resources (physical and emotional energy) through self-care means that we are operating at an optimal level and that we have the necessary resources to take action.
According to the process model of empowerment, setting and working to achieve personally meaningful goals is an integral part of empowered living.
Choice is one of the most significant elements of an empowered life. Considering and evaluating one’s options and being able to choose the best one lies at the heart of personal empowerment. It requires that we recognise what is and what is not within our control and choose wisely.
How You Can Become Empowered
- Build Self-Awareness. Begin by taking stock of your where you feel you may be giving your power away unnecessarily or what you hope to achieve. This might reveal that you are disempowering yourself in one area of life eg. in your workplace or that there are bigger changes that need to occur eg. applying for a promotion that you’ve been telling yourself you are not worthy of.
- Formulate a plan. Formulate a plan to address these areas. For example, if I have identified people pleasing as a disempowering behaviour, I will need to combine mindset work to overcome people pleasing beliefs with new empowering behaviours (eg. practising healthy boundaries) in order to become empowered. Often this can require support since naturally fear can arise and that is where working with a coah can really help.
- Develop your skills. Learning and knowledge are at the heart of empowerment. The learning required will be dictated by the goals. Sometimes we might need to learn practical skills or get a formal education and at others we might need to develop psychological skills like grit, self-compassion or challenging our thoughts through CBT.
- Anticipate stressors and problems. The road to empowerment is paved with unexpected challenges. Through your engagement with challenge you can develop your strengths. Asking yourself, ‘What problems am I likely to face?’ can be a helpful way to alleviate anxiety and pre-emptively problem solve and build your resilience.
- Take Action. Taking aligned action lies at the heart of personal empowerment. Empowered people are conscious and intentional. They are aware of their choices and they choose what will bring about the best results for them in accordance with their values. If they have a goal or a dream, they work to make it happen. This does not mean that life is easier for them or achievement is effortless; on the contrary, when you choose to step into your personal power, you can expect to be challenged.
Personal empowerment is about the journey from a life based on deficit and lack to wholeness, abundance and flourishing. Among other things, it is based on worthiness, confidence and meaning in life. One of the reasons why I find this concept so compelling is because I believe its central to improving human lives. It is something most of us have access to on some level even within the diversity of our contexts and situations, albeit to different degrees.
It’s important to remember that empowerment is a dynamic and complex process which involves both failures and successes. Progress is rarely if ever linear and isn’t always easy. This is why the path to empowerment can be seen as a learning journey. We learn as much from our failures as we do from our successes. Loving ourselves through the process makes all the difference!
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Cattaneo, L. B. & Chapman, A. R. (2010). The Process of Empowerment: A Model for Use in Research and Practice. American Psychologist. 65, 646-659.
Cheung, Y. W., Mok, B.H. & Cheung, T.S. (2005) Personal empowerment and life satisfaction among self-help group members in Hong Kong, Small Group Research, 36, 3.