How We Learn to Give Up Our Personal Power
Part of the training we receive in childhood is learning how to give up our power to authority figures. Whether it’s parents, teachers, doctors, really any “expert” or “professional,” we learn to do what we’re told even if it goes against what our internal compass is telling us.
I was reminded of how effectively we internalize giving up our power and carry this into adulthood just recently.
We got a letter in the mail from our insurance company about an upcoming home inspection to determine if we had enough insurance coverage. I could spend many paragraphs writing about what kind of scam I think this is. But I don’t want to digress too much.
My interactions with the inspector were a bit strained on the phone. But I was determined to make it a positive experience. She arrived at our house and the first thing she said getting out of the car was “I tried to call you to cancel, but I couldn’t get a hold of you.” It went on from there in the same vein.
I was suddenly taken back to my childhood. I was being scolded by an “authority” figure. I felt small and less powerful. It was such a fascinating reaction. It was physical and emotional all at the same time.
Through the course of her visit, I realized that the inspector’s way of interacting was a bit brusque and short. Of course she wasn’t scolding me. She didn’t see herself as having “power” over me. She was a bit annoyed that it was raining and snowing and probably just wanted to be back at home.
But in my triggered reaction, I felt powerless because I fell back into a pattern I learned in childhood — defer to authority, apologize even when it doesn’t feel genuine, make yourself smaller to avoid being singled-out and punished.
What does this have to do with our parenting?
You’re here reading this because you believe in treating children with trust and respect. You want to be a parent who empowers children. At the same time, you may struggle at times with living according to this belief.
There is a common pattern I’ve seen in many parents, including myself. We truly want children to be authentic and free. We encourage them to voice their feelings and needs. We want them to feel empowered to be who they really are.
And then this freedom rubs up against our childhood patterns and societal norms.
Let’s say that a child is sad and crying. Dominant social norms about children define the child as manipulative, a child who is trying to control the parent or adult through tears or even a tantrum. We have that message in the back of our minds.
Beyond those messages, when we’re triggered by the actions of the child, we’re taken back to our own childhood experiences.
When we were controlled or bullied by those who were more powerful, including those in authority, we felt pain and hurt. Those feelings remain with us when we haven’t had the chance to work through them.
The child’s behavior is a trigger because our past emotions come to the surface in the present. In our own childhoods we had to relinquish some of our power in order to meet the expectations of the adults and systems around us. This feeling of powerlessness is brought back up by children.
We learn over and over that children are not supposed to tell the truth and say what they want. Children are supposed to give up their internal power and authority to external power and authority.
So our desire as parents to empower children bumps up against the conditioning we received in childhood as well as the leftover emotions from that conditioning.
Regaining Our Power
In order to regain our personal power, we have to do the opposite of what we were taught as children.
Power used by adults to control children is an abuse of power.
We don’t become powerful by using our power over others, especially those who are smaller or more vulnerable than we are.
We don’t become powerful by using our power to beat ourselves up either.
When we use our power in those ways it harms our relationships with children.
And, it ultimately feeds back into the disempowerment we experienced in childhood.
We regain our personal power by acknowledging that the past may be part of why we’re triggered. Instead of running away from the past, we can use the discomfort of our feelings as a way to create greater awareness and regain our power.
One way to do this is to simultaneously (1) allow yourself to fully feel your emotions in that moment and (2) be open to connecting those feelings to the past. The first part is being present with yourself and the second part is what I call “following the thread.”
The presence part is bringing your attention to your body, breathing, sinking into the emotions and allow them space to be there without trying to suppress them.
Following thread is opening yourself up to the possibility of knowing how the past is connected to the present moment.
The past may pop up in an image, a feeling, whatever it is. You might even tell yourself “I’m open to feeling and understanding how this relates to my past” and then be still and feel however you feel.
Our past experiences can continue to disempower us internally while at the same time we use our power to control children. This is one reason why when we are abusing our power with children, it doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t create a connection to our internal authority or create a connection that is authentic and empowering with children.
With presence and following the thread to our past, we begin to reintegrate our past and regain our personal power. Power that is based in greater awareness, understanding, and ultimately compassion for ourselves and the children in our lives.
Regain your power, create deeper connections and greater awareness of when you operate from learned powerlessness. Learn, change, and grow with me. Learn more.