How Is Your Sense of Personal Power Limited?

Is Your Sense of Personal Power Limited?

Personal Power comes from within, from a strong and healthy sense of self. Your personal power includes several components: your self-esteem, how good you feel about yourself; your independence, how well you can decide on your own what is right for you to do; and your initiative, how well you can take action and follow through. It consists of knowing what your individual talents and resources are and having the confidence to act on them.

All In The Family

As with your sense of self, your personal power develops from your family roots. Your family laid its foundation with their attitudes and actions. As your first answers to the question "Who am I?" came from family members who reflected to you who they thought you were, your first answers to the question "What can I do?" also came from your parents and other relatives who showed and told you what they thought about your capabilities.

Your identity and your personal power are always linked, because you express your sense of self in action, and your actions reveal who you think you are. Just as your family may have pressured you to be who they wanted you to be, they may have pressured you to do what they wanted you to do. In defining yourself and choosing how to act on your self-defined identity, you were either helped or hampered by your family's willingness or reluctance to let you act independently.

We naturally grow up looking to parents and family members for the affirmation of abilities that gives us confidence. Your earliest achievements, such as standing and walking, took place in the family context, and you looked to your parents for reassurance that what you were doing was good and admirable.

As a toddler, you experimented with separating from your parents, but you looked back to make sure they were still there as you bravely walked away. Each new stage of independence, from starting school to leaving home as a young adult, included a mixture of forward and backward pulls from within. You wanted to grow up, but you were scared of the responsibility. Would you succeed on your own? Your ability to take initiative and move forward now is linked to your family's past record of encouraging this development of your personal power.

However, if your family had difficulty seeing you as separate from them, if they wanted your identity to serve their own self-hood needs, they may not have been able to help you develop the personal power characteristic of self-esteem, independence, and initiative. All parents struggle with letting their children grow up and away from them, because children give parents' lives focus and meaning. As your emerging identity made your parents question who they were, your emerging abilities pointed out the areas of their lives that they may never have had the time, money, energy, courage, support, or resources to develop. Any painful or unresolved issues of self-esteem, independence, or initiative in your parents' own lives made it harder for them to encourage you.

Is Your Sense of Personal Power Limited?

To the degree that you are held back by the family messages you internalized about your abilities, your sense of personal power is limited. If your family did not help you build strong self-esteem, and discouraged your independence and initiative, you may find that you:

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* doubt your own abilities ("I'm not smart enough to go on to graduate school.")

* have a strong need for control ("If you would just do it the way I asked you to, things would work out fine.")

* are never satisfied with your achievements ("Yes, it was nice to get that award, but there are lots of people better than I am.")

* feel that you always have to prove yourself ("If the work's all done well, then I can relax.")

* prefer being a follower to being a leader ("Just tell me what to do and I'll be happy to do it.")

* desire money and success as symbols of security ("If I would just get that promotion and raise, I'd know I was doing well.")

* refuse to take risks ("If I do that, it might not work out and then I'd be in worse shape than I am now.")

* set limits on what you believe you can do ("I can probably get an article published in a local paper, but I'd never make it as a writer for the mainstream magazines.")

* have relationship problems related to power issues ("If he would only let me do what I want, then I could...")

Become Aware

By becoming more aware of how your family addressed issues involving personal power and the effects of your family's approach to your current sense of power, you can discover the origins of many things that keep you from doing what you want or from feeling satisfied with your actions. A more developed sense of personal power contributes to your individual growth and the health of your relationships.

Positive expression of personal power involves both independent initiative to take actions that are fulfilling for you, and caring and responsibility in relation to others. This balance between considering your own and others' needs and wishes requires a high degree of awareness and flexibility. Without that balance, you can easily draw back from your personal power because it is risky to act on what you believe or hope for, or you can become overbearing by using your personal power without regard for its effect on others.

Your family experiences may have taught you that power is either something fearful to be avoided or something vital to be seized and controlled. The emotionally charged aspect of personal power extends to the word power itself. Students have commented that their associations to the word reflect their mixed feelings. You might stop and reflect on your own associations; others have suggested these words: struggle, money, conflict, status, oppression, tyranny, intimidation, selfishness, and hierarchy.

Reclaim Your Power

Is Your Sense of Personal Power Limited?The root word of power, however, simply means "to be able," so you might think of personal power as a confident, thoughtful use of your abilities. By evaluating what you know about the development of your independence in your growing-up years, you will understand how past family experiences may be impeding your ability to stand on your own today. You can also clarify your current needs for independence and implement strategies to become more autonomous.

According to Erik Erikson, you first began to absorb family teachings about initiative when you were about four or five years old. At that time, you naturally became more assertive and active, and your family's reactions to the choices you made were important in shaping your self-image. If they encouraged your efforts, applauding your successes and minimizing your failures, you learned that when you took initiative and planned well you could carry out your intentions successfully. If they discouraged your initiative, ignoring what you did well or criticizing or punishing you for what you did poorly, you learned that exercising your personal power was associated with pain and guilt.

The consequences for you as an adult if you absorbed negative teachings about initiative in childhood include indecision, hiding your talents, lack of direction, and blaming yourself when things go wrong. John Bradshaw, in Bradshaw On: The Family, describes the result of family-learned shame and guilt as "disabled will," a blockage of your sense of power and purpose. To release such a block and to learn how to take initiative now, you must free your will by engaging your feelings. You can't know what you want to do until you know what you feel.

No matter how much your family circumstances either helped or hindered the development of your self-esteem, independence, and initiative, you have a powerful inner spirit that can be further released and empowered. As that spirit becomes freer, you will have a much greater range of creative responses to life.

Related Book

She Writes: Love, Spaghetti and Other Stories by Youngish Women
edited by Carolyn Foster.

She Writes: Love, Spaghetti and Other Stories by Youngish Women edited by Carolyn Foster.She Writes is an anthology of emerging Canadian women writers such as Elizabeth Ruth, Heather Birrell, Kristen den Hartog, Kelly Watt, Dana Bath, Teresa McWhirter and more.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book. Also available as a Kindle edition.

About The Author

Carolyn FosterCarolyn Foster, M.S. is a pioneer of using writing for growth and personal insight. She teaches, lectures and gives seminars on personal growth. The above was excerpted from her book, "The Family Patterns Workbook", ?1993, published by Jeremy Tarcher/Perigee Books, Putnam Publishing. Visit her website at

Watch a video with Carolyn Foster: Coaching Series: Leading from Strength: Making a Difference

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