How many of you can recall situations in which you felt unjustly treated or taken advantage of and you did not stand up for yourself? Or remember finding yourself in a situation where you felt small and insignificant? Or recall generally feeling overwhelmed? For me, it has been too often to count and I always hated that feeling of collapse or of not being able to stand up for myself. I imagine these feelings are common. And then we watch a movie like “Rambo 2 – First Blood” or “Shooter” and a primitive place inside of us is totally rooting for the hero who overcomes impossible odds and takes revenge on all the people who wronged him. What is going on inside of us in these moments?
We all have a deep longing to feel mastery of our life. Because somewhere along the way, most of us lost a sense of personal power. We lost an ability to feel and to trust our own way and to speak out or take action when something didn’t feel right. A client of mine works as a managing director for a small tech company. He feels overwhelmed to the point of having crippling panic attacks because he feels he cannot live up to the demands that are being made on him by his boss whom he finds unreasonably impatient and tyrannical. Furthermore, he can’t imagine setting a limit with his boss because he has tremendous fears that he will be fired and is terrified that if he loses this job, he will not be able to find another. He is so distraught that he is at the point of taking an extended sick leave. But inside, he feels that would be a failure.
Another client of mine feels intimidated by and defensive with her elderly mother. Up until recently, she would call her three or four times a week out of a sense of duty, but always felt uncomfortable on the phone because she can think of nothing to say. She does not want to share anything personal because she feels that her mother “never listens, she either tries to smooth over whatever I say, or just gives me advice.” Now at least, she has stopped calling as often but feels guilty for “abandoning her”. When we explored her past history with her mother, she tells me about one shocking episode of abuse and disrespect after another. But the thought of confronting her mother about what she went through in the past or even with the ways she feels disrespected today brings up feelings of overwhelming terror and horrible guilt.
Our loss of personal power runs very deep. Often, we may not even be aware that we are being disrespected because for so long, we are used to being treated this way. We may even feel we deserve to be treated in this way or it may be that we cannot imagine another way. Furthermore, we may not recognize or feel when we have been disrespected because we are too much in shock at the time it occurred to be aware of what was happening. Then later, we may become aware of the invasion and obsess about “what I should have said.” (I sometimes joke in our workshops that I could have written several books just on “what I would have, should have said.” )
The traumas from the invasions, insensitivities and neglect of childhood had two highly significant impacts on our loss of personal power. It generated profound shock in our nervous system that still causes crippling frozenness and anxiety in our life. The second result of these traumas is that they created a self-identity as a victim. When a child is disrespected or abused, he or she develops a sense of him or herself that “this is how I deserve to be treated.” A profound sense of self develops which is based on being put down, belittled, violated, infantilized or ignored. So, rather than developing a sense of inherent dignity, the child shrinks in self-doubt and self-diminishment.
I grew up with a brother two years older who was an all around “wunderkind”. He super-excelled in everything that seemed important at the time - scholastics, athletics and social stature. Everyone looked up to him, even my parents. I idealized him and imitated him, (as best as I could) but I always felt second rate. My sense of self has based not on my own achievements (which by other standards would be more than satisfactory) but on standards that were compared to his achievements. I was “the younger brother” of this phenomenon. That’s what made me feel important and valuable. I basked in his reflection. When we competed (and we did that a lot – in monopoly, tennis, ping pong and a special hockey board game that we played all the time), he almost always won. (Later, he admitted that he cheated at monopoly by stealing from the bank. I felt totally betrayed because while I might cheat with someone else, never with my older brother.) He would also tease me (that’s what older siblings do, right?) and I took it and believed it. Why? Because he was my older brother and he was god. Since I couldn’t win, I developed an identity as “lovable fuck-up”. My brother used to call me, “the great source of mis-information.”
Later (in therapy) I learned that I developed a powerful sense of self as someone second rate, as someone who expected to lose even if I applied myself and as someone who gained self-esteem by idealizing someone else. I also learned that becoming the “loveable fuck-up” was how I got love and attention from my parents. The problem is, deep inside, I felt irresponsible and incompetent and that inner sense haunted me for a long time. It felt as though that programming was hardwired.
But there is a positive side to this story. (There usually is.) The pain I felt from these experiences forced me to go inside and find myself. It set me on a journey of self-discovery and motivated me to create the work that my partner, Amana, and I do today. I realized at some point that I had a gift and a passion for working as a therapist and as a teacher. Inside, I knew that this was my work and my mission in life. I just knew it. So, I dived into learning it with all my intensity and focus. I paid my dues, got degrees, read countless books and sought out all kinds of teachers to learn from and inspire me.
Although in many ways, I followed the example of my family conditioning in terms of dedication to education and career, I also did something very different. I became involved with Eastern meditation and became a disciple of an Indian enlightened master. Finding the courage and commitment to pursue my truth and my dreams gave me immense self-respect and also a sense of who I am. Slowly, I overcame my negative self-image as a victim, a loser and a fuck-up. I saw that when I followed my intuition, my inner truth and applied myself, I could excel at what I did. And my fulfillment came not from being “better” than anyone but from simply sharing what I had learned and continue to learn. The more we become grounded in what we do; the more our fulfillment no longer comes from outside approval, success or recognition, but from an inner feeling of “rightness”.
I also came to accept myself much more with my shortcomings. For instance, I am still hopeless at details. (Fortunately Amana, is amazing with details so she picks up after all the little messes that I leave.) Oh, by the way, my relationship with my brother now is great. As I healed, he fell back to earth. We are good friends, we love and respect each other, and we even trade victories in tennis. Today, it is rare that I find myself getting sucked back into the old way of feeling myself when I am with him, and I recover quickly.
Coming back to the two clients I mentioned earlier. The man was physically abused by his father. Physical abuse from a parent generally creates a deep inner sense of impotence and helplessness. But even worse, it creates an inner sense of wrongness. My client not only feels impotent and defenseless in response to the attacks and criticism of his boss but also wrong and guilty. He takes the blame and the rage and turns it on himself.
My other client defended herself from the abuse of her mother by becoming compliant. Most of us defend against disrespect and abuse from a parent by becoming compliant, because it is usually much too threatening to rebel. In her case, she was slapped in the face when she expressed any objection. In such and similar cases, the rebellious energy inside of us goes into hiding, often expressing itself as passive aggressiveness, self-destructiveness and depression. The compliant side is still running their lives. It fends off the guilt and the fear of taking a stand. But it leaves them feeling anxious and dis-empowered.
What could help my two clients to heal? To answer, I would like to describe four aspects of empowerment that have helped me.
1. Listening to Our Inner Voice.
We have a small voice inside of us. It is the voice of our inner knowing. This voice is like a guide directing us toward our truth and directing us away from what is negative and unsupportive. We stopped listening to this inner knowing because most of us were not supported to hear it. But it is still there.
It is telling us what we love, what inspires us, what our passion is and what we are gifted at. It knows in what way we are meant to express ourselves. It knows how the divine energy wants to manifest through us. At first, it can be a bit difficult to hear this voice or feel the feeling of our inner knowing because we are not used to listening. But if we take some time to slow down and go inside and focus on listening, it will speak to us. Then, as we begin to hear this voice again, we can take steps to realize it.
I can’t say exactly how I discovered this voice. Meditation helped for sure and so did realizing that I can lost contact with it. I also remember vividly some years ago while doing a workshop, I felt so inspired by the workshop leader that I said to myself, “Wow, this is what I would really love to do and I know I could be good at it.” Once I discovered this for myself, I also needed to apply myself. Dreams don’t come true by themselves. We have to work for them. But the very process of working toward a goal with focus and intensity is incredibly empowering. When I knew what I wanted and felt the sense of purpose and commitment to make it happen, it gave me direction and an inner sense that I was on the right track. There were countless obstacles that I had to overcome. At times, I have felt deeply discouraged. But I kept going because I trusted my passion and my vision.
There is another side of this inner voice, this inner feeling. It also tells us when we are doing, saying or placing ourselves in situations that are not right for us. It acts as an inner guide. I feel it as a body feeling, or as a pain in my stomach or sometimes as nagging thoughts in my head that are revisiting a past moment again and again. It seems to be saying, “Something was not right there.” There is a practical way of becoming more conscious of when our guide is giving us these signals. Instead of just moving on, we start to pay closer attention to how we feel in specific situations and with specific people in our life. Then, we naturally start becoming aware of what feels right and what doesn’t.
2. Learning About Our Past Conditioning.
We also become empowered by gaining insight about our past conditioning and how it affected and continues to affect us. This has two aspects. One is becoming aware of the tyranny of our inner judge. The second is appreciating the depth of our shock and the terror that still lives inside of us because of past traumas.
It is very important to discover the values, roles and the identity that we formed as a result of our past experiences. Practically, it means paying attention to the negative voice in our head that is constantly judging, controlling, criticizing and condemning us. This is the energy of our inner judge that we can hear or feel inside of us or projected out on others, especially authority figures. This energy becomes particularly strong if we fail or are rejected or if we have, as in the case of my client, a critical or demanding authority. Once we discover the voice of our inner judge, we can begin to question its values, rules and standards. We also gain insight about our negative conditioning by recognizing the roles we adopted as a child to gain love and respect. Generally, these roles have little to do with who we were and are and they caused us to lose touch with ourselves.
I discovered about this negative conditioning by going into individual and group therapy. Piecing that together has brought me immense compassion for myself. When we don’t take this journey of self-discovery, we blame ourselves endlessly for not living up to our own standards or the standards of others. We blame and castigate ourselves for not being able to stand up for ourselves. And even worse, when we don’t understand the dysfunction of our childhood conditioning and the ways we were damaged and disrespected, we may still idealize our parents and accept their values, judgments and opinions without questioning them. We don’t appreciate how they and their values may continue to re-enforce our negative self-image.
3. Generating Life Energy.
The third aspect of empowerment that I have found helpful is mobilizing our body energy. Practically, we build inner strength when we pick some physical activity that we enjoy and commit to sticking with it on a regular basis. It can be just about anything – yoga, martial arts, kick boxing, running, working out at the gym, a sport or dance, but it is good if it stretches us a little. The stretch breaks old negative mind patterns.
Moving our body generates life energy and that in turns nourishes our inner rebel. I found that by moving my body physically and by keeping my energy level high, I could feel the indignities that I had suffered. It also helped me to see that the victim identity that I had formed was not real. Plus, generating life energy just feels good and the better we feel inside and about ourselves, the easier it is to feel motivated and positive about life. (Sounds very American but actually, it’s true)
The fourth major ingredient of empowerment, from my experience, is risking. But risk has to take into account our shock and our fear otherwise; we may step over that part of us and become hard and insensitive. When we appreciate and embrace our profound fear and shock, we have take risks that are small enough that the fear does not overwhelm us. We call them “baby steps.”
Practically, this means taking the smallest of steps that challenge our fears and stretch our normal way of living and doing. The quality of risk helps us to recognize that fear does not have to run our lives. Each time we take a risk, we gain a small victory over our fears. A child cannot make that choice because it is usually much too overwhelming. But as an adult, we can take little risks because we are stronger, more resourced and generally less available to the abusers of our childhood. We even suggest that people incorporate the quality of risk into their lifestyle so that they are taking little risks regularly.
There are many ways to risk but one of the most significant ones we can take is to question the values, standards, rules and roles we learned as a child and to take actions that directly go against them. We call it, “stepping out of the box”. The “box” has defined us since early childhood, giving us a code of morality and behavior that has ensured us approval and love. It can define what career we should pursue, what kind of person we should be with in relationship, what our major values in life should be, what kind of friends to have, how much money to make, how our body should look and even what we should eat. Most of us became good little boys and girls and complied these standards, rules and roles.
When we start to “step out of the box”, we begin a process of separating from our family conditioning. We are taking the risk of discovering that we are different, of finding out who we are in our essence rather than who we were taught to become. One of the most important insights I ever had was realizing that I had a totally different perspective on life and why I was here than my family did. Certainly, I am motivated to achieve. (Probably if you had been raised in my family, you would be too.) But for many years, my main priority in life has been about emotional and spiritual growth. By seeing that I was different, I had to let go of the comfort of the sense of belonging to my family. We get much of our identity from that sense of belonging but it is identity that is not rooted in our being. It is given to us, not something we discover for ourselves.
It is also big risk to confront someone when we feel disrespected. It took me a long time before I could do that. There was just too much fear. And once I recognized that I needed to say something to someone, it felt like it was too late or no longer important. But slowly, I learned, even if at first my voice was shaking and it was hard to find the words. To my surprise, as I learned to express what hurt me or how I felt disrespected without attacking, blaming or accusing, nearly always, the response I got was positive. It is still not easy, not my any means, but I can do it. However, I don’t encourage my clients to take that step unless they come to it on their own.
Both of the clients I mentioned earlier have taken significant steps out of the box. It has helped them to begin to see how their victim identities were formed and to feel the terror inside of standing up to authority of any kind. It is also helping them to slowly discover and validate how they are different and to validate their own gifts and strengths. While it seems not yet time for either to directly confront the people who are being disrespectful toward them, I have seen over and over again, both with myself and those we work with, that as we develop more love and respect for ourselves, we naturally feel ready to take the risk of standing up for ourselves when we need to. We can take it as an opportunity to respect ourselves even more.
All of these steps have a way of building on each other and profoundly changing the way we see life and ourselves. It is not in our nature to feel like victims, to collapse our vital life energy or to tolerate disrespect from others. But many of us, because of our past, have adopted an identity which invites disrespect and which fosters a feeling of collapse and inferiority. To live in this way is a deep suffering. By gently following the steps that I have outlined here, we can reverse these negative opinions and feelings toward ourselves. I say this from my own experience. It takes some understanding, work, commitment and perseverance. But it is well worth it.
The Four Steps of Empowerment
1. Listening to Our Inner Voice.
2. Becoming Aware of Our Negative Childhood Conditioning.
3. Taking Small Risks to Challenge Our Fears.
4. Generating Life Energy.