Fun fact: These days, slavishly working out and starving yourself until you’ve forced your body to look vaguely like a heavily photoshopped version of Khloe Kardashian is actually “empowering”! Who’d have thought it?!
Ditto the Pussycat Dolls song “Don’t Cha”. It might look and sound like the meanest girls from school have grown up and are now viciously putting down other women in front of their boyfriends for ten seconds of attention, but actually, it was meant to EMPOWER US LADIES, all along!
Yep, the word term “empowerment” has really been dragged through the dirt these past few years.
Cynical marketers have seized on the idea to do exactly the opposite of what female empowerment actually means, i.e. giving women the power, authority and confidence to take control of who they are and how they run their lives.
Here’s what empowerment is not: It’s not feeling compelled or pressured to act or look a certain way. It’s not working overtime to chase an unattainable ideal, or putting other people down to make yourself feel stronger, or surrounding yourself with things to make other people jealous.
In fact, these things weaken you by putting all the power in other people’s hands. What if they aren’t impressed or jealous? What if that guy doesn’t fancy you despite your best efforts? What if the person you’re putting down laughs in your face?
What happens when you don’t have these props around you to make yourself look good?
So today, in honour of International Women’s Day, we’re going to talk about REAL empowerment: the power to manage your emotions, control your behaviour and improve your mental wellbeing.
Let’s get started…
Ok, the first thing to bear in mind is that you can’t actually control your emotions. Your emotions are involuntary. They’re automatic. You can’t stop yourself from experiencing a wave of fear, or anger, or hurt, or anything else.
In fact, if you try, you’ll quickly get frustrated, exhausted or feel like a failure. It’s unrealistic and unhelpful to judge yourself based on pangs you can’t control.
What you can control are:
But we’ll get to that in a second. Before we do, here’s something else to bear in mind…
Yes, just as it’s pointless to blame yourself for emotions you can’t control, it’s also pointless to blame someone else for your response.
That’s because they aren’t in control of your emotions, either.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t hold another person responsible for the actions they choose. Of course you should. If your partner lets you down, or your mother says something cruel, or your colleague is being unreasonable, you’re totally within your rights to call them on it.
But when you do, you need to focus on the bit that they control: their behaviour, and why you object to it. Not your emotional response. Not how you behaved because of those emotions. They can’t control those things – only you can.
For example, imagine you’re at a party with your husband and you feel that he’s getting a little bit too flirty with an attractive stranger.
You might feel jealous. You might feel upset. You might even have a flash of blind rage.
Yes, he might have been out of line. But it’s not your emotional reaction that makes him so – it’s his actions.
After all, it’s perfectly possible to feel jealous, upset or furious with someone even when, rationally, you know they haven’t done anything wrong. Screaming at someone because they’ve “made you” feel jealous doesn’t help. If you have a tantrum, storm out or slap them, that’s a choice you made. They don’t control your behaviour – you do.
So, if you wait until an opportune moment and calmly say something to your husband like: “I don’t think it’s fair or respectful to ignore me and flirt with someone so overtly,” this focusses on the action that he took. He can then defend himself, apologise, or talk it through with you to figure out exactly what made you uncomfortable.
That’s what I mean by holding someone to account for what they do, rather than blaming them for how you feel.
Even if you decide on reflection that he didn’t really do anything wrong and that maybe your jealousy was unwarranted, you’ve both had a chance to handle things maturely without losing your cool. And if your husband doesn’t react well, you know that’s his bad – not yours. Because you’re not responsible for his emotions or actions, either.
All of which means you’re much more likely to wake up in the morning feeling in control of yourself and your life, rather than ashamed or angry that you let your emotions get the better of you!
Okay, let’s get back to the things you can exercise control over. Firstly, the conditions around you.
We all have conditions unique to us that are practically guaranteed to trigger a negative reaction, every time. Often, these are avoidable – or, at least, manageable.
The psychologist Dr Susan Krauss Whitbourne describes this as “Selecting Your Situation”. As she puts it:
Avoid circumstances that trigger unwanted emotions. If you know that you’re most likely to get angry when you’re in a hurry (and you become angry when others force you to wait), then don’t leave things for the last minute. Get out of the house or office 10 minutes before you need to, and you won’t be bothered so much by pedestrians, cars, or slow elevators.”
Do you get hangry when you skip breakfast? Don’t skip breakfast! Struggle to cope with your emotions when you’ve had a few too many? Then don’t get drunk when you know you’re going to be in a stressful or emotionally charged situation, like having to socialise with your ex or spend Christmas with your jellyfish sister-in-law.
But wait! This doesn’t mean you should shy away from tricky, scary or challenging situations altogether. Selecting your situation isn’t an excuse for chickening out of things that will genuinely enrich you, like nailing a big presentation, braving that first date after your breakup, or applying for the promotion you know you deserve. Nor should you use it as a cop-out whenever the going gets tough.
The point is that you need to give your chance the best chance of success.
By all means, go to your best friend’s wedding even though the man who broke your heart will be there – just don’t turn up exhausted/hungover/late and stressed, stick around the friends there who make you feel safe and happy, resist the urge to seek him out, plan in advance how to handle it if you do have to speak to him… oh, and don’t drink three bottles of champagne to “calm your nerves”!
In other words, identify the conditions that you CAN control, and control them in a way that will limit your emotional distress.
Here’s a great exercise that comes from Buddhist ideas about mindfulness:
Next time you feel yourself getting emotional, stop, and ask yourself, “Who am I being right now?”
And then: “Is this behaviour empowering me, or weakening me?”
And finally: “Is this who I want to be? How do I be THAT person?”
This doesn’t mean ignoring or suppressing your emotions, but it does mean interrogating them, understanding them, and managing them.
Let’s say you’re irritable because your partner is on a night out with friends and you’re at home alone.
Maybe you keep checking your phone to see if they’ve texted you yet, and they haven’t. You’re starting to get upset and annoyed. Maybe you’re starting to feel jealous, imagining that they’re talking to another woman. You can feel yourself getting worked up and annoyed, and you mentally begin to invent other reasons why you’re annoyed with them. You think about sending them a guilt-trippy message about how bored you are at home. Perhaps you even go as far as hearing a noise outside and jump on the chance to text them saying you think someone’s outside and you’re feeling scared.
Be honest: does this sound a tiny bit familiar?
Okay, so then you stop for a moment, pay attention to those feelings, and say to yourself: who am I being right now?
Because if you’re upfront with yourself, you might say, I’m being that kid that feels left out and doesn’t want the other kids to be allowed to have fun without me, so I’m ruining it for them.
Or maybe: I’m being the kid that plays up for attention when my mum tries to leave me at the school gates.
This isn’t something to be ashamed of. As I’ve said, you can’t help those emotional pangs. You can’t stop the little kid in you from stamping her foot. But you can choose not to pander to her
Once you’ve calmly recognised that this is what your emotions are pushing you towards, you can then say to yourself: is this behaviour empowering or weakening me?
I think the answer here is obvious. Sulking and begging for attention, or pressuring your partner into curtailing their plans for no other reason than you’re bored and don’t like being alone is hardly going to make you feel strong, empowered and in control of your own life.
Instead of moping, why not take the opportunity to catch up with your own friends and family? Maybe give them a call, or invite them round for dinner, or pop out for a drink?
Or, do something you’ve been meaning to do for ages but kind of need the house to yourself. Practise the guitar, maybe? Watch that film you’re desperate to see, but your partner would hate? Finally get started on that online course you signed up for ages ago, but haven’t had the time to work on?
[Side note: if the reason you’re upset is that your partner constantly goes out and leaves you with the kids, that’s different. But even then, choosing to play a self-pitying victim will weaken you, too. Much more empowering to take a moment to think about how (tomorrow, when he’s sober!), you’re going to sit your husband down and calmly explain why you think his behaviour is unfair and what compromises you think the pair of you should make to better share responsibility / ensure you both have a life, etc.]
Recognise, too, that this is a process. Your emotions are impetuous, sometimes violent forces that take ongoing effort to grapple with. You won’t always get it right, but as Travis Bradbury explains in this Forbes article, when that happens you have to forgive yourself and move on:
A vicious cycle of failing to control oneself followed by feeling intense self-hatred and disgust is common in attempts at self-control. These emotions typically lead to over-indulging in the offending behaviour. When you slip up, it is critical that you forgive yourself and move on. Don’t ignore how the mistake makes you feel; just don’t wallow in it. Instead, shift your attention to what you’re going to do to improve yourself in the future.
Regardless of the situation, recognising and acknowledging why you feel the way you do, deciding who you would rather be, and then actively striving to behave in a way that reflects that, is the single most effective way to empower yourself.
If you embrace one idea about female empowerment this International Women’s Day, make it that.
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