Feeling powerfully influential is a heady experience and one of our basic minimum human requirements for living a life of meaning. Authentic personal power developed in service to our highest purpose occurs when we know our unconditional goodness, and that our potency is a gift.
When we were toddlers, ironically we keenly sensed our power and our worth. That’s why we so easily identified with superheroes and royalty. Despite this initial optimism and our budding selfhood, our personal power didn’t always appear to receive approval. We began to become confused about this and set out to test it’s acceptance from about 2 years of age, hence the stereotype “terrible twos”. To our amazement and surprise, our personal power usually fell flat, was seriously frowned upon and was something others attempted to block, usually through pain.
What a dilemma to find ourselves in. Here we were, aware of our immense importance and the value of our being and we consistently hit a wall of disapproval from the ones we most trusted. Under the worst of conditions, we encountered brutality. At best, a minority of us had sensitive caregivers who valued and celebrated our power. For most, our emerging autonomy often literally and figuratively took a beating. The general impression we received was one of threat and we quickly learned to hide or subvert our natural tendency to experience ourselves as forceful or persuasive.
At first, many of us chose to stand our ground and this was wondrous and brave indeed! We went to great lengths to exhibit fortitude and heroism, challenging the status quo. We wanted the cookie, the pots and pans, to stay awake. We wanted our voice. We wanted our way. We wanted our influence acknowledged as separate, distinct and worthy. To our continued bafflement, again and again, we met resistance. Adults used their greater strength, size, speed, agility, frightening facial expressions and tone of voice against us.
Sadly, some of us made swift and debilitating decisions to go along, to resist our own initiative, avoid rocking the boat and came to accept, albeit resentfully and with grief, peace at all cost. We became pleasers, deciding that direct use of personal power was too dangerous to prefer and exhibit.
Not only were we acutely aware of these dynamics directly, we also observed that use of power by siblings and peers was often reprimanded, punished, thwarted, and judged; adults responding in fear to us, to themselves, to each other. We saw more: misuse of power through coercion within the immediate family and the extended community, appalling acts in the name of politics, religion, war, economics and more; models depicting the glory of defeating others. All in all, personal power quickly became suspect, synonymous with power over, something to be avoided or something to be used as a weapon.
Due to a dysfunctional civilization process of epidemic proportions, almost all of us came to experience undue self-doubt and retarded emotional intelligence concerning the responsible use of our personal power.
Despite early decisions about personal power, we always use it. The important question about personal power is not whether we use it but rather, in service to what? Do we use it openly and consciously, with maturity and character? Do we use it in flight, fight or protection or in loving and serving our self and others? Do we create greater closeness and cooperation? Do we wield our power with integrity; in other words, are our thoughts, feelings, words and deeds all aligned, reflecting informed and responsible use of our free will and free choice? Do we use it to devise creative solutions to crucial issues? Do we use it to maintain our inner values, our essence and to fulfill our unique purpose on the planet?
So…how do we help a person become civilized and at the same time nurture and cultivate the priceless treasure of their personal power?
Recently, I was speaking with a woman who was very intrigued about this concept and wanted to know how she could encourage personal power in her 18 month old granddaughter while setting limits. She used a simple example, asking me to help her find an alternative to yelling “No! No!” at her granddaughter every time she went to touch breakables this woman did not want to move.
First, I placed an object in front of us, asking her to play her granddaughter and reach for it. As she did, I firmly and kindly placed my hand on top of hers, saying, “With me, with me” guiding her to touch it gently. I explained that she could teach her granddaughter to use her power, even at 18 months, responsibly, without abusing it, imparting sensitivity to the rights and needs of others. I asked her, “Can you see how limiting beliefs and fear about personal power keeps you from seeing creative, honoring solutions and from welcoming and engaging in teachable moments?
One step in helping a person become civilized, while nurturing and cultivating their personal power, requires expecting great things from them. It also requires inviting opportunities for them to strengthen their power, through healthy struggle, and developing competency wherever possible. This means suspending most rescue, exemption, coaxing, advising, and managing, while at the same time nurturing and cultivating personal power in the teachable moments that occur daily.
Someone once said that butterflies need time and opportunity to find their way out of their cocoons because as they do, they strengthen their wings so they can fly. We would cripple a butterfly if we cut open their cocoon. We would also cripple it if we stepped on or broke its wings while they were emerging. To value the sacred gift of personal power in another, to guide it and support its right use and encourage its full development is truly an art.
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We help organizations instill into every person a common language and toolset for how to participate in a responsibility-based workplace. Visit our website at www.lifeworksystems.com, and click the link at the bottom to complete a culture assessment and schedule your first consult to review a report on your feedback, all at no cost. You can also contact Judy Ryan at 314.239.4727 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As published nationally in the Women’s Journals, February 2006