To empower means “to make an individual or social group powerful or stronger”, “to give power”. Therefore, it is a term that seems to be quite appropriate for those who suffer or go through complex situations in their lives. In the field of mental health and social services, nobody questions this concept and, nowadays, it has been applied to multiple collectives: battered women, disabled persons, people in a situation of social exclusion, children suffering bullying, etc.
But, what is empowerment made of? How can we empower in a real way? How can we avoid the mere content of the word and focus on what is important for the person who is suffering?
In order to shed light on these questions, we should go back to the meaning. As it was previously mentioned, to empower means “to give power”. The Real Academia Española’s dictionary provides two definitions for the term “power”. On the one hand, to have the ability or capacity to do something and, on the other hand, to have more strength or to be stronger than something.
The first definition can be observed in people who are going through hard times and show verbalizations such as “I can’t do that”, “I don’t have the strength to get up”, “fear paralyzes me”, “a sense of sadness overwhelms me, and I can’t bear it”. In these cases, people seem to be caught up in their emotions and thoughts, which, indeed, have power over them. In technical terms, what the person thinks or feels is hierarchically bigger than the person itself. Therefore, if there is something catching him/her, it is preventing him/her from clearly seeing what is important, what goes beyond and determines the course that represents the direction of her life.
From this point of view, the reflection under consideration is the way in which someone can be empowered without practicing and motivating him to start working out at the “gym”. From other perspectives, in which empowerment seems unhelpful, instead of training the person for her to become hierarchically bigger than her malaise, it has been tried to lessen the malaise, that is, weakening the power of those feelings the person was caught up in. In this way, the person does not get the power but depends on the lessening of her thoughts and feelings.
This leads us to the second definition of power: to have more strength or to be stronger. Probably, the reader will be able to remember frequent expressions such as “bet I win you” when, back in childhood, there was a dispute between children about which one was stronger. Therefore, at this point it is useful to ask a question: if the person suffering has to be stronger, then, stronger than whom? This second meaning directly leads us to the concept of empowerment associated to fight.
To clarify this point, I would like to direct the reader to a fighting context. For example, imagine yourself being the spectator of a boxing fight. You are in the seat and there are two boxers fighting in the ring. Meanwhile, you are watching the fight, would you be able to read a WhatsApp or the press? Would you be able to talk to the person sitting next to you? I guess you would consider all these situations possible. However, imagine that, instead of being seated, you are one of those boxers. If you were fighting in the ring, would you be able to read a WhatsApp or the press? Would you be able to talk to the person next to you? Your answer would be probably “no” because, in that case, the only way of defending yourself and keeping your integrity intact would be to keep fighting.
If the person who is suffering has to be stronger and defeat her own unease, then, she would fight against her most unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Therefore, the only option is fighting (with all that it implies). However, if the person remains as the spectator of those thoughts and feelings, she would be free to carry out different actions. That is, the person would be able to focus on the important things at those moments and to carry out effective actions to keep moving in the meaningful direction in her life.
In conclusion, the concept of empowerment linked to fighting can pose some problems. It seems that, as regards private events (thoughts and feelings), fighting is not the solution, but rather the problem, since it is associated with stress. When dealing with difficult situations, being and maintaining an attitude of a spectator is more useful, since it helps to strengthen behaviors in the valued direction.
But, what can we do to learn how to be a spectator of our thoughts and feelings? Mindfulness is, indeed, a perfect method towards empowering of the self.
In addition, recent experimental advances have developed adequate procedures to teach people how to define their private events within the spectator self which—in combination with the practice of mindfulness—make possible the appearance of the purpose in the personal life. That is, directing attention and becoming aware of the person’s thoughts and feelings; training the differentiation between what one thinks and feels, and what is thought and felt; and noticing that the self is more than all those private events, is the best way for the experience to show that the person is the only one capable of commanding and carrying out different actions and introducing changes in the life that are consistent with what is most important for the person. These advances allow us to talk about real empowerment as the training of the person to perform actions that are consistent with what he appreciates, beyond the commands of the most unpleasant thoughts and feelings present in complicated life situations.
In conclusion, becoming aware of the obstacles in the form of thoughts and feelings, and building a new relationship with all of this, will place people in an ideal position to make the important things emerge and to take real control of what we actually control: actions.
Is there a better way to empower someone than by training him to command his actions and teaching him to maintain the chosen and valued direction, beyond what his thoughts and feelings invite him to do?