Learning to Lean into My Power
Leaning into and accepting one’s power is a scary, challenging, and iterative learning journey.
May 09, 2023
Each day I’m learning something new. How to handle a new task, be more inclusive, frame language in a growth-centered way, build collaborative and safe environments. There’s so much to learn. Because I’m deep in the process of learning, I forget that I’m capable, knowledgeable, and experienced. I have this bad habit of thinking: What do I know? It’s as if because I don’t know it all, I don’t know anything. A frequent way I give up my power. Even though I know being “in growth” (a great phrase I learned from a colleague recently) shouldn’t cause me to relinquish my power in situations I’m capable of handling. Leaning into my power has been a complicated and challenging part of my learning journey.
Sensing my wavering self-belief, my friend recently reminded me that I know so much, and I have so much to give. She reminded me that I have the power to set the tone and take the lead wherever I am. I have a complicated relationship with power though. “Power” has a surprisingly innocuous definition, “[the] ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something.” Socially, power is not just an ability or capability, it’s a complex mix of identity, access, wealth, and privilege. Because there are so many underlying, and frequently invisible, factors, power is not often assigned to someone based on merit alone. Like the quote, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” power is also constantly linked with corruption, and it’s for good reason. From the government to police to toxic bosses, there are countless examples where a person or entity’s abuse of power is responsible for direct harm to a person or whole group of people.
It’s not hard to see that power for me carries an acutely negative connotation. When it comes to women-identifying persons, it’s a complicated subject. There’s a particular profile for those in power, white and male. White men are in charge of the government, business boards, and leadership positions overall. There’s also quite a bit of research that shows women who hold power are perceived negatively when compared to men in similar positions. Not only do women-identifying people have to find the confidence and the audacity to find the power within themselves, but they must also do so in a way that doesn’t turn off those around them simply for being who they are. When we start factoring in various intersections of identity—like race, class, orientation—these barriers to power increase exponentially. Like the research says, any characteristic can be used against women-identifying people in power.
I didn’t know it until I was older, but I thankfully grew up with powerful women. Women who speak their minds, take care of each other, and stand up for themselves. The women in my family might be called “abrasive,” like I have been, but they have the magic to keep from bending. The women in my life have taught me so much about sticking up for myself, others, and that which I believe in. As a first-generation graduate from a mixed family of blue-collar workers, I’m privileged to be in spheres my family has never been. I’m learning how to feel that I belong in these environments, navigate the complex and unspoken rules of these spaces, and apply the priceless skills my family’s taught me in new and creative ways. I’ve had to cobble together a lose definition based on their examples and the amazing leaders I’ve met and continue to meet.
As I learn to lean into my power, I frequently ask myself: What does it mean to be ethically powerful? My working definition is: “Ethical power” is a blend of awareness, accountability, thoughtfulness, and empathy all while speaking up and setting clear boundaries and expectations. It's tough to balance. While in the growth process, I try to do what’s right, and as it goes, there are times I don’t hit the mark. My next step is to take my friend’s advice and begin to reclaim my power by acknowledging that I’m capable, knowledgeable, and experienced. One day I’ll be deft at handling any situation, but right now I’m learning to lean into and accept my power in all its scary and challenging iterations.