the popular usage of ”empowerment”— particularly in relation to self-development, the current women’s movement, wellness communities, and inspirational leaders— has long triggered unease within me; beyond gross overuse, i feel the way the term is often used is incorrect— and insidiously disempowering to the subconscious as a result.
some definitions i pulled across a handful of online dictionaries, including merriam-webster, cambridge, and oxford:
to give (someone) the authority or power to do something
to give official authority or legal power to
enable (to provide with the means or opportunity)
to give someone official authority or the freedom to do something
to enable or permit
to make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights
to encourage and support the ability to do something
to promote the self-actualization or influence of
for me, definitions one through five cover the formal empowerment of someone by granting them access to execute a certain position or action of power within a given institution or system. depending on context, this can be a fair naming, particularly when operating to “correct” systemic imbalances and injustices; the privileged using their means to empower the disenfranchised rightfully exists as one tool, amongst others. though some might get it twisted, such empowerment is not a transference of actual agency, ability, or deservingness, which every person innately possesses— it is largely functional and surface in nature.
then we arrive at definition six— the deeply troubling common usage definition in wellness and women’s communities; here, the first five definitions are rolled up to imply that one human can somehow “make” another human stronger and more confident. we can sure be deluded into this notion, but only after we decide— consciously or subconsciously— to give our own power away first. that this is a formal definition makes my head spin.
as far as i’m concerned, the only way it is possible for one person to empower another— i.e. give permission or power to— is by also giving power to systems of oppression and the victim-savior paradigm. our power is not derived from another. the power of our essential nature cannot be given, taken, or transferred— it can only be illuminated; others can inspire us to open to our truths but true empowerment can only ever come from within.
the only definitions i find relatively sound within a psychosocial context are seven and eight as they have a supportive quality— focusing instead on inspiration and promotion around self-actualization and self-empowerment.
but even then, i wonder how much we can escape the common usage assumptions embedded in our subconscious: “empower” as a subject oriented verb inherently disempowers the object by assuming its lack of agency and erasing its innate power. these subtle disempowering suggestions that have pervaded our collective subconscious require us to believe that we need something or someone outside of ourselves to be truly powerful— to “fix” us, to “heal” us, to “give us permission.” this is false, capitalistic, imperialist, supremacist, oppressive bullshit. it is quintessentially “giving our power away.” i don’t feel fucking empowered when someone suggests that they can empower me. making someone or something outside of ourselves the actor within contexts of empowerment, healing, and permission/agency is harmful, reductive, and regressive— let’s take some heavy pause here, please.
we wholly empower ourselves, heal ourselves, and give permission to ourselves— any outside influences are conduits and facilitators— that’s it. anyone claiming differently— saying they are saving, healing, fixing, allowing, empowering you (giving you power)— is quite possibly a false leader coming from ego.
even in healing modalities where say, someone performs a chakra clearing on you: your body, your energy, and your subconscious are active participants in these processes by offering permission, access, insight, and the willingness to shift— whether or not you are consciously aware of this. we are our own healers, even when we have assistance— healing fundamentally cannot happen without our consent or participation.
a quick shift back to institutional empowerment: though technically another can empower us in these situations, self-empowerment is still the purest and truest form of empowerment at the root level— even here. for example, the act of white people empowering people of color by offering them job roles will not alone correct racist institutions— or the issue of racism; as such, this deference or assignment by a white person or “white” institution to a person of color is still a phenomenon occurring within the original oppressive paradigm; it is “empowerment” only to a degree.
as much as we must do what we can within existing constructs, we can’t take for granted the need for imagining and building new paradigms from scratch ourselves, where terms like “diversity” and “inclusion” are no longer needed because our new systems are inherently sound and of integrity.
all said, in it being a word deeply intertwined with current movements, i don’t believe “empowerment” is going away any time soon. so my hope is that we at least use it and receive it with more discernment, awareness, self-respect, and humility— and that we explore fuller, truer ways to express how we are supporting each other in collective healing and liberation.
much love <3