An Essay on Power-lessness
“I saw that everything really was written there before me, and that the doors had only been closed before because I hadn’t realized that I was the one person in the world with the authority to open them.” Paulo Coelho
I am an accomplished social services professional, with more than 25 years of committed and celebrated work helping thousands of youth and young adults feel empowered to make healthier life choices. I am proud of both the small and large accomplishments in my life and career. Despite my doubting Algebra teacher, I did earn both an undergrad and graduate degree before I was twenty-five. My first real job was in my actual field of study and I independently paid my own rent and even paid cash for the first two vehicles I ever owned. Over more than two decades, I’ve developed an honorable career, becoming a local expert in my field of community health, earning multiple community awards and designations. I have effected change, long-lasting meaningful change, in the lives of real people. Yes Mr. H, master of all things algebraic, I did and do have gifts and talents you obviously missed in those early days. Yet why are there many days, that I feel rattled, unsure of myself, or even a failure? Well, what I have determined is that one’s personal power can waiver, even elude us for periods of time, due to change and new challenges. No matter one’s accomplishments or life experience, no one is immune to this dreadful period of low confidence. Thankfully, I am slowly discovering that personal power can be learned, definitely nurtured, and certainly celebrated!
There is no question that I have reason to feel confident, blessed, and accomplished. I am an active parent in the lives of my two healthy children. I am a wife, in a 22-year supportive, loving relationship. My home is stable, predictable, and comforting. I laugh, joke, smile, and find joy in the simple things. I am proud of my life’s work and I am connected to numerous, emerging changemakers, and leaders within my professional circle. And yet, there are days in which I feel alone, unnoticed, a waste of talent, broken, defeated, and even a fraud. I feel powerless. There. I said it out loud. That was hard. Very hard. So difficult in fact that it has taken me nearly thirty years as an adult to utter the words in reference to myself. Not even privately, have I, until now, self-identified as someone who is vulnerable to self-doubt. But I am. I am vulnerable to self-doubt and defeat, just as many others are for no discernable reason.
(short pause here for uncomfortable, embarrassed laughter)
Believe it or not, I had every intention of writing a short, personal essay on cultivating one’s personal power, taking ownership of charting one’s own course, and embracing the real possibility of choosing a life’s work that is meaningful and rewarding. I expected to highlight a charmed professional and personal life that has given me great joy and satisfaction. I planned to prove my credibility as a community servant, an executive leader, and to somehow impart wisdom on the subject of personal growth and development. Instead, I have been compelled to publish the one secret that has likely kept me from actualizing some of my own dreams. How I got here, I cannot exactly explain. Well, maybe that isn’t quite true. Warning! Truth alert!
Up to this point, I have neglected to share one essential detail, that would probably explain a lot. I have had three new jobs in the last three years. This may sound surprising, considering the fact that up to that point, I had one primary career for more than twenty-two years, with one organization, one boss, and one primary mission that I truly enjoyed. You see, three years ago I found myself at what I thought was the pinnacle of my career, top of my game. I had achieved some of the highest satisfaction in my public health career, yet I had begun to grieve, knowing I had reached the proverbial ceiling and that the leadership role would not be offered to me. I could not accept the real possibility that my colleague, my peer would be offered the boss’s job and I would not. So I left. It was the push that lead me to take a position in a totally different field, with great pay, plenty of leadership opportunity, yet I was miserable. Talk about extreme identity confusion! I was so unhappy and stressed, I left that job to enter yet another field, which I knew was temporary and only served as a life preserver. Then add in the fact my first born was going to be a senior, heading to college in a year, and my baby entering into high school. Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and best-selling author, asserts that, “…normal life changes, whether it be professional or personal, is accompanied by a self-perceived loss of power and strength, followed by feelings of insecurity, anxiety, discouragement, and defeat. Multiply this by how many?! Of course I have felt powerless, and for good reason! Who am I ?! Where am I going? Now what? Ok, calm down. Breathe…
In retrospect, the transition has been quite liberating, although I wouldn’t have told you that a year ago! I suppose the real question is, why has this been so hard for me to see? I, the one drawn to help those who are viewed as the powerless, have systematically and painstakingly pushed the thought away that I too could feel powerless. For me, I thought the powerless label represented the final secret that would make my helper house of cards come tumbling down. I think I have literally tried to outrun this possibility my entire life. Gratefully, I have discovered, that by being open and honest with myself, I can start the process of self-care by simply just giving myself a break. Unlike my usual mode of operation, I don’t want to find a logical explanation or solution right away because that is what I have done my entire life. There is a bit of peace and freedom in this space and I would like to stay here for the moment and learn the lesson. And yes, I would encourage others in my boat to do the same. I am happy to report that I have made a nice, soft landing in a non-profit leadership role that is a much better fit and I am finally beginning to feel like I’m on solid ground, serving a noble cause.
What I have found, and only recently, is that gaining the label of educator, counselor, manager, coordinator, director, mentor does not mean I have reached the pinnacle. It doesn’t mean I have stopped searching, doubting, discovering, actualizing, or working to develop or even discover my personal power. Maybe it means I (we) all are meant to cycle through periods of self-doubt and re-discovery only to get closer to our best selves at the right place, at the right time. If this is true, then my conclusion is that it is okay to be in a position of leadership and to sometimes feel powerless. Up to this point, my logical brain has always told me that I was not deserved of a leadership position until I felt completely confident, credentialed, and in touch with my personal power. Well, it would appear, that thinking in this “either or” way has likely delayed my professional advancements or even my personal growth. This is a sad revelation, but it is a start to a new way of thinking and I am up for the challenge.
For me, being honest, open, vulnerable, and being willing to listen to and share advice from trusted others is the first step to acknowledging and welcoming my personal power and using it to move forward. It’s been difficult, but so rewarding. Let’s learn to embrace the Mr. H’s, the doubting self-talk, the uncomfortable situations, and the less than perfect experiences. Embrace the fact they are ultimately lessons that serve us along the journey and they too shall pass.
I look forward to exploring this concept and other topics related to self-actualization, work-life balance, public service, self-care, navigating change, communication strategies, finding confidence, strong women in the workplace, gaining perspective, prioritizing, being genX, and many others over the next several months. In the meantime, I am sharing the works of a few thought-leaders from which I have found recent personal and professional guidance. Enjoy!
“Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges” Amy Cuddy
“Disrupt Yourself” Whitney Johnson
Joan Garry Consulting: Because non-profits are messy https://www.joangarry.com/