You have as much power as you are willing to take.
~ Bill T. Jones
I’ve had more than my fair share of experiences that have left me feeling vulnerable and powerless. I’ve experienced discrimination, been harassed and treated unfairly at work, lost out on opportunities I deserved due to politics and more. In many of these situations I couldn’t fight back. I didn’t have the power to win against people in powerful positions, institutions or systems that were exploitative. And in some situations fighting back would have taken more energy than I had to give.
It’s horrible to feel unsafe, devalued or oppressed without the means to protect or defend yourself. I’m sure many of us have felt that way in our lives at some point. And currently in the black community we’re being constantly exposed to and upset by horrendous acts of injustice across the country that have left many of us feeling powerless. So how do we deal with it? How do we navigate feeling disenfranchised? And how do we get our power back? I wanted to offer a few things I’ve learned that have helped me feel more self-empowered even if I felt the world didn’t treat me with value.
Focus on your self-worth
Though we are capable of overcoming many of life’s circumstances that are unfair, we won’t always win the fight against injustice systems like racist workplaces or other organizations, groups and institutions. But we can win the fight within ourselves.
If your self-worth is intact, events still may sting, but you’re more likely to refrain from internalizing them. When you feel solid in who you are and fully appreciate yourself, you are less inclined to take on the actions and opinions of others that can otherwise upset you and make you feel vulnerable. Being able to self-validate can significantly decrease the need for external validation. Learning not to take most events personally is one of the most life-changing practices one can begin. It’s helped me a lot when don’t feel appreciated. I still get hurt, but I can bounce back a lot easier. The classic book, The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz offers a great take on this concept.
Doing the work to increase your self-worth can be tough, but being able to hold on to yourself when the world can’t catch you is an invaluable tool that will help you feel personally empowered.
Ask for help
I’m used to having to deal with situations alone, to the point I thought I had to. But I’m trying to remind myself that it’s okay to ask for help. I have the right to do that.
I remember a weird and potentially frightening experience with someone experiencing road rage…
I asked a security guard at Target to help me with an enraged woman who followed me into the parking lot, verbally abused me and threatened me, claiming I’d cut her off. He kept her from coming in the store. She waited for me and I wound up having to call the police–who hadn’t shown up by the time I had to leave. But she finally gave up and drove off.
Previously I would have felt as if I had to navigate this lunatic on my own. But I thought enough of myself and my safety to realize that it’s not my job to deal with this. This is why companies have security. It felt good to realize I deserved help.
Another time I had a publisher try to back out of paying me for an article I’d written. I was dealing with a host of other stressful things in my life and had absolutely no mental or emotional space for this. I ran into my mentor from my entrepreneur program, the exact person I wanted to talk to. He said, “How are you?” I began to cry. He asked me what was wrong and I told him. I didn’t hold it in and act like everything was fine. I told him I needed help.
He stepped in with kind counsel, even referring me to his friend, an attorney who graciously agreed to meet with me. She advised me and squelched my anxiety. And, I got my money.
You don’t have to deal with everything alone. Be willing to ask for help. People may fail you and you may not always receive the assistance you need, but know that you deserve to ask.
Use your personal power
The world may often feel like an unfair place, particularly for people of color, but you can exert your own power in your own life. There was a time when when I felt I’d walked away from too many situations wishing I’d said something, or stood my ground and defended myself, my feelings or my position. To be fair, sometimes it wasn’t safe to speak up. I would have jeopardized my job, or other opportunity. But I’ve gotten to a place where I’m much less afraid.
It’s always a good idea to pick our battles but egregious attempts to undermine you, disrespect you or jeopardize your safety must be addressed. A few ways to use your personal power are:
Speak up for yourself at work. Don’t be afraid to assert your value, protect your reputation or ensure your right to be respected and feel safe at work.
Don’t accept toxic and abusive relationships or dynamics. Your feelings matter. Life is long, but it’s too short to tolerate people who don’t treat you with value.
Speak up for yourself against systems and injustices you may face. Even if you know you can’t win the battle, you win the fight of keeping your self-respect intact.
Know when to let go – Sometimes we just won’t get what we want. Knowing when to let go or walk away from a fight to save our sanity is a form of winning.
Hire yourself – If you’re feeling undervalued at work or having trouble finding the kind of work you want, hire yourself. I really wanted to be a writer so nearly ten years ago I created my own blog and used it as a portfolio to get freelance work. Seeking freelance or contract work in your field can help you beef up your resume, gain more references and make yourself more marketable in the event you decide to move on from your current job.
Life is full of ups and downs, win and losses. And sometimes we go through periods or “seasons” where we feel like we’re racking up losses left and right. But that’s ok. There’s always a way to win, even if it’s a personal victory. Find your power, and in the words of Earth, Wind and Fire, “Keep your head to the sky.”