I have spent most of my life trying to teach women to own and be in their power.
Being in our power means we allow ourselves to be who we truly are and be in that truth, give voice to that truth, at all times. It means having our voices, taking up space, having full access to our dreams, desires and imaginations, knowing how to constructively advocate for ourselves and others.
Now I understand that as important as it is for women to find their way back to their true power, it is equally important for women to learn how to share that power once they get it. Let’s train ourselves to value sharing power even as we acquire power, rather than slipping back into patterns and behaviors that are encouraged in our present culture: those of dominance and power hoarding.
Dacher Keltner is a UC Berkeley psychologist who studies the dynamics of power. His book The Power Paradox reveals fascinating discoveries about how humans acquire and keep or lose power. Dr. Keltner’s findings can help us understand power and powerlessness and help us effectively engage with both.
Dr. Keltner’s study and others show that power does not need to be the Machiavellian nightmare we have been led to believe. We do not need to kill, deceive and manipulate in order to get it and keep it. Rather, studies show that we attain power through values most of us believe in and support. Displays of “enthusiasm, kindness, focus, calmness and openness” (48) lead others in a community to give us power because they believe our actions will be for the greater good. This is how we rise to a position of power. The paradox is that once we attain power, we tend to lose these capacities. Power often leads to: “empathy deficits, self-serving impulsivity, incivility and disrespect and narratives of exceptionalism”(101). This ends up with a destructive fall from power or worse, wanton abuse of that power.
If we take these findings to heart, we can learn to avoid this pitfall and hold our power with respect, maintaining the values we would like to see in our leaders. As women, it is important for us to bear all this in mind as we claim and reclaim our power in this culture.
Challenges to Sharing Power—some of the ways we have internalized and act out of our powerlessness
We live in a patriarchal culture where women do not share equal rights. As women in this culture we are victims of persistent abuse and sexism, do not receive equal pay, do not have complete control and access over our reproductive rights; we experience the conditions of powerlessness within the power paradox. This adds another layer of complexity around our acquisitions of power and how we behave toward one another once we have acquired it.
In the patriarchal, mechanistic worldview we currently inhabit and have learned to survive in, women, long in positions of powerlessness, have developed certain coping mechanisms that are no longer useful once we allow ourselves access to power. As we begin to reclaim our power, we must be mindful of how we hold it, use it and share it, actively changing the destructive patterns we worked to free ourselves from.
As women, we have been trained to hide, disguise and give our power away. These are coping mechanisms that have, in many ways, served us because throughout history women have been in actual physical danger, most especially upon the expression of that power. We have literally been unsafe and many women on the planet remain terribly unsafe today.
The lack of safety women have experienced and continue to endure is not to be underestimated. It has left us traumatized, fearful and lacking trust in one another.
For those of us who are in a position to begin to rid ourselves of some of these patterns, it is time to look at the destructive coping mechanisms we are still inflicting upon each other.
Many of the destructive coping mechanisms we continue to perpetuate pit us against each other, encourage jealousy and playing out that jealousy in competitive and mean spirited ways such as: gossip, back stabbing, divisive talk and exclusionary behavior. Women have a habit of betraying themselves and each other. This is something we want to stop.
We want to examine our behaviors and motives. When we encounter these feelings about other women, we want to be honest with ourselves and examine the root belief that is encouraging these negative emotions. We want to strive to not engage them. We want to learn how to address them together once they arise between us.
We want to understand that all women suffer from powerlessness and that even as we attain power we must attend to this powerlessness, especially in how it plays out in intersectional ways. Meaning if she is black, a woman has two ways she suffers from powerlessness and those are different from how a white woman experiences her powerlessness, and if she is a lesbian or a gender fluid person, they have other ways they are experiencing powerlessness. If you add in poverty, immigrant status or disabled to these above combinations, certain women have more than two or three ways they experience powerlessness. We want to remain sensitive to all of this, lest we fall into the pitfalls of the power paradox.
Just because we are all women does not mean we all have the same challenges or experiences. And we must strive to be vigilant about the power differentials that can play out between women as a demographic by staying aware of and sensitive to one another.
Our Fear of Our Own Power
Fearing our own power is a deep, multileveled and multilayered subject. To most of us, it is more than fear. It is terror. Often women fail to support one another because we have a deep rooted fear of our own power: it’s a projection.
However, it is not enough to know and understand our projections. We must work to root them out at the core of our beings, over and over and over again. My book, Welcoming Lilith: Awakening and Welcoming Pure Female Power, offers exercises to interact with the projection and internalization of the negative archetype of a powerful woman. You may want to look into it and perform the exercises as a way to work with this subject at a core level.
Powerlessness creates a “chronic sensitivity to threat” (146). We want to examine these sensitivities and make sure we are not projecting onto our sisters.
We want to embrace our difference rather than compare ourselves to one another and think that if one woman expresses her power in a certain way, that means we have to do the same or feel threatened by that.
Power is not a Finite Resource
Another core belief to examine is that power is a finite resource; meaning if one accesses their power, it takes from another. Women’s power is not a finite resource. Sure, power in the form of fossil fuels and other technologies that use a finite resource to generate energy to keep a machine or a system running is indeed finite. But that is mechanistic power and a mechanistic way of thinking about power. Women’s power is not that. There is plenty to go around and being in our power and sharing power actually creates and generates more power for everyone.
A feeling of powerlessness makes us more likely to face threat, experience chronic stress and it undermines our “purposeful activity and negatively affects the body” (142). We must understand that our position of chronic powerlessness creates in us a feeling of “lack” and “not-enoughness” that is not the truth of reality, just the truth of our experience. We must actively strive to change this belief and generate a new experience.
Power is not Hierarchical
We want to stop seeing power as one person on top telling others “below” them what to do or thinking we have permission to act that way once we acquire power. Let’s encourage the understanding of power as cooperative, collaborative and decentralized. Let’s model that. Let’s learn what that truly means. It certainly does not mean there will not be conflict. It does mean we will interact with conflict differently.
“Power is about making a difference in the world, altering the states of others, and comes from empowering others in social networks”(23).
Understanding Our Vastness
In order to allow others their power while enjoying our own, we want to give each other a lot of space. We, women, have crowded ourselves into small corners (the ones allotted to us) and then fought for a place in that corner.
Newsflash! We don’t have to stay in those corners.
We can take up all the space we need and want. And so can the other women around us because there is enough to go around.
In doing this, we want to understand our own vastness and extend that vastness out to others as well. If someone feels big, back up and give them more space and work on filling your own space with yourself. We do not have to shrink in the presence of another’s vastness. We can all be vast together.
Can we allow ourselves to be vast and allow others to be vast and not believe that their vastness somehow infringes on, reduces or inhibits our own? There is no limit to our power and no location to our space.
The good news about the power paradox and learning how power itself can affect us once we have attained it is that if we consciously engage the information Keltner offers we can make deep and lasting changes within our culture. It will help us cease to perpetuate more of the same dynamics and patterns around power that women have suffered from.
Keltner urges us to consider and remember the following 5 precepts:
- Be aware of your feelings of power — Feelings of power are great and they propel you forward but also be conscious when you are in the “spell” of the power and realize that is what is happening. This is how it feels.
- Practice Humility — remember, power is given, not grabbed. People trust you. Earn and remain worthy of that trust.
- Stay focused on others and give — this reminds you of what is truly important.
- Practice Respect — respect and empower others. Listen, praise, thank and appreciate.
- Change the psychological context of powerlessness — be aware of the inequity around you and what creates powerlessness in and for others. Work toward righting these wrongs and restoring balance to the whole.
This is an extremely important teaching and great way toward creating and living in the world we all want.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2018
Dacher Keltner, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. Penguin Books, 2017.