Every day we have opportunities to express our opinions, advocate for ourselves, and set limits to what we will or will not accept from others. Our personal power is a reflection of our ability to organize, focus and direct our own and others energy towards goals or outcomes.

How a leader acts when their authority and power are challenged impacts their ability to influence others and their overall effectiveness.  In my experience, leaders who habitually accommodate others struggle with their own feelings of dis-empowerment.

Jessica, a senior manager, came to me to learn now to increase influence with peers and upper management.  A recent situation had left her feeling defeated and frustrated at her inability to assert herself.  When she challenged a peer about his continuous interruptions to her engineering team, he pushed back and justified his actions. He refused to listen or acknowledge her points, insisting he was right and she was wrong.

The result: SHE GAVE UP.

The defeat opened the door for more exceptions and interruptions to the team, who complained to her and wanted action. She feared they were losing respect for her but she was afraid to press the issue with her peer. She avoided further confrontations and felt stuck.

Upon reflection, we discovered this was a pattern for Jessica.  When her authority or power were challenged, she withdrew and accommodated others.  Digging into her history, we saw that as a child she was severely punished for challenging her parent’s authority and had adapted by complying with their sometimes unreasonable limits and requests. Being assertive and persistent in communicating her opinions, needs and boundaries was not something that she was comfortable doing and needed help developing the skills to advocate for herself and others effectively.

What does it mean to “give away your power”?

Simply put, giving away your power is giving up and giving in to the demands or needs of others.  During a conflict, it is moving from a position of autonomy and authority to one of dependency and compliance.

There are times when accommodating others is appropriate, like when you’re willing to make a small sacrifice and the issue is more important to others, or to yield to a better idea or position.  Accommodating is not appropriate when an issue is important to you or the people you lead, or when your input can influence an important decision.

What is Personal Power?

Personal power refers to ability and self-determination to represent your interests in a responsible and self-realized way, acting on your own authority.

What does it mean to give away your power?  Here are some examples:

  • You accommodate others wants and needs before your own
  • You depend on others to advocate for you
  • You avoid conflict at all costs
  • You allow others to make decisions on your behalf
  • You ask for permission from others to do what you would like to do
  • You apologize when speaking up for what you believe in
  • You hold back expressing your opinions because you tell yourself it doesn’t matter
  • You don’t stand up for yourself when bullied
  • You allow yourself to be manipulated or dominated by others

How can you tell if you’ve lost your power?

Physical symptoms: you feel run down, fatigued, lack energy and vitality, or have developed stress related health issues

Emotional symptoms: you feel depressed, angry, withdrawn, apathetic, or anxious

Psychological symptoms: you have a lack of faith in yourself, a loss of confidence and ambition, feel isolated, or have lack of trust in your decision making capabilities

The consequences of habitually giving away your power (besides the physical, emotional and psychological symptoms) are that people lose respect for you. When accommodating others is routine, you start to resent other people when your needs aren’t met or when you feel invisible.  When other people don’t know what you really think or need, you become isolated and feel a deep sense of aloneness. Your need for acceptance wins out over your need for authentic expression and you become dependent on approval from others.

What can you do if you’ve been giving away your power?

1. Get honest with yourself.

  • How are you holding yourself back?
  • Who are you afraid of disappointing or angering?
  • How have you sacrificed your needs for the sake of keeping peace?
  • When did you say yes when you really should have said no?

2. Assess your energy level. When people feel empowered they have abundant energy. 

  • Do you wake up dreading what is ahead?
  • Do you need to consume large quantities of caffeine to find your energy?
  • Do you find yourself feeling exhausted most days?
  • Do you lack interest in growing your career?
  • Do you feel burned out?

3. Acknowledge your anger.

Giving away your power and stuffing your feelings can cause you to feel angry. Anger contains a lot of energy, and if you’ve been holding yourself back you probably have a ton of fuel that you can use for your own benefit.

Figure out how to channel this energy in a positive way.  Spend some time writing down the times that you lost power and figure out how you could have handled it differently through self-advocacy or getting support from others.

4. Take action. What small change can you make today to start feeling more empowered? 

I’ve heard it said that if you are in a position of higher power, you must listen more than you speak.  If you are in a lower position of power, you must speak as much as you listen.

If you feel disempowered concentrate on practicing self-advocacy and being more assertive. A simple first step is to share one opinion with someone once a day to build up some courage and comfort in speaking up.

Look for opportunities to start standing up for yourself in an assertive but non-aggressive way.  Think about how you can create win-win scenarios, and understand the value of making your desires and beliefs known.

If this feels too challenging, take a class on being assertive or work with a coach to practice these skills in a non-threatening environment.

“Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.”  – Gloria Steinem

People often make the mistake of believing that someone else needs to empower them before they can take action or speak up. While this may be true for children or people with certain disabilities, adults must find their own courage and take some risks to advocate for themselves in order to find their sense of personal power.  The feeling of empowerment increases as one continues to be true to themselves and honoring their ideals without relying on others to do it for them.