Stop Giving Away Your Power!

Last week, I spoke to two people who felt overwhelmed—crushed—by circumstances outside of their control.

The first was an old friend who moved to the US several years before we did. She was struggling with the weight of all-things-political. Events over the last years had started to overwhelm her to the point where she felt hopeless and helpless. More recent events brought her to a tipping point.

The other was a client who came to me (in my role as a public speaking coach) to work on their interview technique. In his current job, he is deluged with work, overburdened with responsibility, and feels powerless to change any of it.

Now, I am no psychotherapist, but in both instances, I felt I could provide a few tips. I asked if they wanted to hear my take on it. Having lived in South Africa and now in the USA (for over 20 years), I have had my share of political angst. Although I am fortunate never to have had a job I hated, I have been in situations where I, too, felt overburdened with responsibility and powerless to change the underlying issue.

Both my friend and my client were eager to hear my advice. I thought I’d share it here too.

When we give in to fear and anxiety, we give away our power to change the situation. We hand our power to the thing that’s crushing us. For my friend, she allowed the political situation to drive her emotions. In the case of my client, he had given his job full permission to beat him up.

The first thing I said was—take back your power!

Here are some of the approaches I suggested, although I adapted them for each person.

Choose wisely. Make intentional decisions. For my friend, I suggested she limit her time watching TV and scrolling through her news/social media feed. This takes discipline, but it is a crucial step in taking back some control. She would determine what she saw, read, and heard rather than be an open vessel waiting for the toxicity to pour into her. She had the power to decide where she put her attention.

Set boundaries. For my client, I suggested he set clear boundaries for the demands made on him. Unless he spoke up, his boss would continue to demand an unreasonable amount of his time, emailing on weekends and texting late into the night. Had he ever told the boss that he found the volume of work too much and the deadlines impossible to achieve? The boss wasn’t going to change, so it was up to my client to set limits. He could be crystal clear about the times he would step away from his laptop on weekdays. He could reclaim his weekends by stating that only genuinely urgent work would be tackled. (The client is in a financial field—lives aren’t at stake.) 

It would take courage, but the mere act of speaking up for oneself is empowering. My client could approach this boundary-setting in small steps while still working on his goal to find new employment. He was very quiet after I said this, and I thought I had overstepped. Then, he laughed and responded that he had become so beaten down that he forgot he had any power whatsoever. 

Pay attention to the words you use. When my friend and client spoke, I listened to their words. As both a writer and a public speaking coach, words are my bread and butter, and I had heard them use similar words. My friend cried that the political situation made her feel hopeless, filled with anxiety. My client said he had to work all weekend. 

I reminded them they were both adults with agency over their emotions. It wasn’t healthy to allow a person or situation to have so much power over them that it determined how they felt. They had the power to decide how they would respond to their situations.  Instead of “The situation made me feel hopeless,” rephrase it. “I feel annoyed enough to take a stand, take action.” Instead of “I had to work all weekend,” I urged him to rephrase it. “I chose to work all weekend, so next time I will choose not to.” I quietly reminded them that neither of their situations (political and job) was life and death. They weren’t stressing over a desperately ill partner or a broken marriage, so perspective was important.

Don’t dwell on unproductive thoughts. I also gently pointed out that over the many times we had spoken, they kept circling back to negative thoughts. They had ceded the power of their thoughts to the political situation or the job. I suggested that they work on replacing those thoughts with a positive angle. I urged my friend to focus on all she was thankful for. Regardless of who was in power, she still had a safe home, food, a job, healthy children, and loving friends. I reminded my client that he was still young, had great qualifications and many resources to move into a great job. 

Knowing both these people well, I was well aware that nothing I said was a revelation; I merely reminded them of what they already knew. 

Times are difficult right now, but we cannot give in to the fear and anxiety. Take a moment; have you handed your power over to something or someone else?

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Alice Walker.

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