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What is Personal Empowerment, and How Can You Live It?

by Val Oscar

These days it’s hard to talk about personal empowerment without sliding into the “casual sex as empowerment” narrative that has negatively affected so many young men and women. So let’s get that out of the way first.

Sociologist Lisa Wade has found that college students want three things from sex:

  1. Pleasure
  2. Meaning
  3. Empowerment

They recognize that pleasure alone does not produce empowerment or a satisfying sexual experience. Pretending to be cool with casual sex as a means to stop having it by nailing down a relationship lacks all the characteristics of personal power, because you’re making choices that fulfill someone else’s desires even when they are in conflict with your own.

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The Characteristics of Personal Empowerment

Personal empowerment is simply taking control of your life, giving yourself the power and authority to make choices without allowing others to decide for you.

Self-Knowledge

Empowerment requires knowing what we want and then taking action to get it. In order to know what we truly want, we need to be honest with ourselves, even when that means we’re out of step with popular culture or what we believe all the cool people are doing.

If you’re not sure what you want, the best way of figuring it out is to pay attention to how different experiences make you feel. In particular, experiences that make you feel crappy exemplify what you don’t want. If you stop doing those things, the first thing you may feel is relief, which feels fantastic by comparison. When this happens, you’ll know you’re headed in the right direction.

Have you ever been hung up on a guy who didn’t treat you well? And then when he fizzled it or disappeared you felt devastated? But also – if you’re being honest with yourself – a little bit relieved? I’ve seen people who were distraught over a breakup, but soon seemed more at peace than I’d seen them in a long time. We know when we’re not truly loved or valued, and being cut loose from those dysfunctional ties can actually make us feel a thousand times better.

No one can tell you what to want or how to feel. This is something you have to decide, and once you do, you’re a lot closer to having control of your future. Vision leads to setting appropriate goals, and empowerment comes from achieving those goals.

Self-Discipline

“The greater distance between who you truly believe you are, who you want to be, and who you are in public—that’s what puts you at risk.”

Donna Freitas, author of Sex and the Soul

Once you discover or acknowledge what you want, it’s your responsibility to set realistic goals and behave in a way that gets you closer to them. This empowers you, because it sets you on a path of progress.

There are two aspects to this:

  • Taking positive action that moves you forward.
  • Avoiding behaviors that keep you stagnant or set you back.

Aligning your actions with your values and goals is a question of authenticity and integrity. It requires considerable self-discipline. The evolution of the human brain dovetailed with our species’ ability to defer gratification, which requires higher order thinking. Impulsive behavior is correlated to all sorts of bad outcomes, and is never empowering in the long-term.

At the same time, it’s important that we risk failure in order to grow and change – which is itself a form of personal empowerment.

Positive Attitude

In the study Settling for Less out of Fear of Being Single psychotherapist Marcy Cole conducted extensive interviews with never-married women in their thirties who desired marriage and a family. Cole found significant variation in the lived experiences of singlehood. She noted that in terms of emotional responses to being single, participants tended to fall into one of three distinct groups:

  • Those who felt ambivalent about being single. Women in this group had fluctuating emotional responses to singlehood, acknowledging the positive features such as autonomy and independence, but also noting the frequent bouts of loneliness and judgment from others.
  • Those who approached singlehood with empowerment, maintaining a positive sense of self regardless of their relationship status.
  • Those who experienced chronic and intense anxiety, despair, and self-doubt in response to being single. Thus, qualitative research suggests individual differences in the fear of being single that may have meaningful implications for relationship choices.

Which group do you believe had the best chance of attracting and keeping a quality mate? Those who feared judgment, complained of loneliness, or radiated despair and self-doubt? These women have difficulty even maintaining friendships due to their negativity and hopelessness, which prevents them from taking any constructive action.

Yet the women who maintain a positive sense of self have purpose in life regardless of whether they have a man in their lives. They are practicing “outcome independence,” living their lives to the fullest with what they have today. And that makes them far more likely to get what they want in future.

Self-Esteem

In their book The Confidence Code,  authors Kay and Shipman say “Confidence is life’s enabler—it is the quality that turns thoughts into action.” That’s the definition of empowerment, which makes self-esteem a prerequisite for taking control of your own life. You’re not going to cede control to anyone you don’t consider competent, so shoring up self-confidence is very important.

According to Kay and Shipman, self-confident people practice six habits:

1. They push themselves out of their comfort zone. 

Confident people start small and continue to take action until they become more comfortable with the risk.

2. They view failure as information.

It’s not the strongest species that survives, say Kay and Shipman, it’s the one that’s most adaptable.

3. They watch their language.

Confident people don’t speak badly about themselves. Instead, they question their self-doubts.

4. They take responsibility.

They don’t blame their parents or others, they take responsibility and change the things that are getting in the way of their goals.

Writing at HuffPo, Bahar Ozdemir said this about how self-defeating blame is:

“I feel the resentment or anger towards people or circumstances when I think about it.
The more awareness I give to this pattern, the more I am realizing that it is a disempowering thing to do.

…I give my power to this memory of the past. And what does that do? It keeps me small. It brings me out of alignment and I am feeling off when something triggers the memory.

…Every time we blame we give our power away…when it is somebody else’s fault then you can’t do anything about it to change it.”

5. They seek out inspiration and advice.

Insecure people stay where they are because they’re afraid of admitting their weaknesses.

6. They  use power positions.

The coauthors suggest keeping your abs in and chin up, which they call “astonishingly simple yet woefully infrequent.”

Living a life where you are calling the shots for yourself brings you closer to what you want. Your energy, your positivity and your commitment to creating your own future all feel great. They also increase self-knowledge and inspire self-development – which makes you a more attractive person.

We are all capable of empowering ourselves in this way, but many of us don’t believe it or recognize our potential to make our lives better.

You can decide what your future will look like. If you want a fulfilling relationship, you can have one. If you want a spouse and family, you can have that. All it requires is a commitment not to let life happen while you watch.

What do you find the most difficult? Do you find yourself getting in your own way? Is there someone you know who does a great job at this?

Let’s discuss, support and learn from each other. Let’s go out there and get what we want!