"My boss can be really unethical," said Denise, another client, "but that's the way things work. If I complain, my job is history."
Paula, a third client, is perpetually exhausted: "I know I should take better care of myself," she admitted, "but someone has to be there for my husband and children."
You probably hear statements like these all the time. If you're anything like me, you may make plenty of them yourself. They may not sound dangerous, but they are. They're declarations of powerlessness, one of the most psychologically debilitating conditions human beings can experience. If we believe them, such statements can get us stuck in emotional tar pits ranging from frustration to rage to utter despair. The good news? They're never true.
I'm not saying we have power over everything in our lives—if that were true, my hair would look so, so different—but I am saying that there's no circumstance in which we are completely powerless. My clients—Mindy, Denise, and Paula—are all being challenged to find their power in a disempowering environment. And whatever your circumstance, so are you.
Allow the Power
The most common reason we stumble into the delusion of powerlessness is that we're afraid of what other people would do or say or feel if we were to act as we wanted. Mindy was terrified of her daughter's angry resistance. Denise's fear of being fired overrode her ethics. And Paula anxiously predicted that her family would disintegrate if she focused less care on them and more on herself. All three felt stymied, but actually they were just "allower-less" (say it out loud: it rhymes). They were waiting for other people and the arrival of circumstances to give them explicit permission to do what felt right, and by doing so, they were rendering themselves powerless.
I sympathize with my clients' plight, but I wasn't impressed by their claims of powerlessness. I've met too many people who have faced far more daunting circumstances yet refused to be disempowered. For example, my friend and fellow life coach Judy Klipin is a polite little slip of a thing, hardly someone you'd expect to challenge an evil empire.
I'd known Judy for months before she told me about a morning years ago when several police officers barged into her bedroom at 5 A.M. They were seeking evidence of antiapartheid activity—and it was there. Sitting in plain sight on Judy's nightstand lay a map to the antiapartheid meeting she'd helped organize. Weirdly, the South African police missed this damning document, but they detained Judy anyway, taking her to the infamous headquarters at John Vorster Square, where many activists were held for long periods of time.
"Didn't you feel awfully powerless?" I asked Judy when she told me the story.
"No," she replied, "though I wasn't thrilled when they encouraged me to picture being raped in prison. But as a white university student, I felt relatively safe. Besides, that's not what was important."
What was important, at least to Judy, was resisting an immoral system. For hours, the police tried to break her. They failed. The only person in police headquarters interested in allowing Judy to follow her moral compass was Judy. But that was enough.
"I was quite cheeky with them," she remembered. "When they asked if I supported Nelson Mandela, I said, 'How would I know? I've never been given an opportunity to hear anything the man has to say!'"
"Had you always stood up for yourself?" I asked.
"Actually, no. I don't know where that behavior came from. I suppose I felt I was protected—not physically, but in a spiritual sense. My parents had always been such strong advocates of equality, as was my childminder, Annie. My first memories are of falling asleep on Annie's back while she sang to me in Setswana. So I'd been raised by three people who were walking testaments that apartheid was insanely wrong. I suppose that gave me permission to stand up for what I believed, no matter what. And because I felt so grounded in that basic sanity, I actually knew that the police were more frightened and powerless than I."
This statement defies all reason—one 95-pound teenage girl more powerful than armed agents of a violent racist regime? But to paraphrase Pascal, there is a reason that reason does not know, and Judy had tapped into that. The way we can allow ourselves to do what we need to, no matter what others may say or do, is to choose love and defy fear.
This has been said so often that I wouldn't even bother mentioning it, except that most of us still don't do it. Want evidence? Go to YouTube, and watch "Linda Hamilton - What Would You Do?" You'll see an experiment created by a TV news team to test whether ordinary citizens will come to the aid of a needy individual. An actor pretends to faint on a city street while a hidden camera films the scene. In one case, more than 80 people ignore the "injured" actor before someone stops to help. Is the Good Samaritan a wealthy philanthropist? A priest? A doctor? Nope. It's a disabled homeless woman. On the video, shot in Newark, New Jersey, you can practically see this "powerless" person connecting with innate compassion, deciding to act, and refusing to give up even when dozens of people ignore her requests to call 911 on their cell phones. She gets creative, calling the unconscious man Billy, humanizing him for others. Eventually, she persuades people to offer assistance. Her name is Linda Hamilton, and she is powerful.
Always feels bad
Insists on certainty
Always feels good
The process of spotting fear and refusing to obey it is the source of all true empowerment. Judy did this by choosing beliefs her government called wrong. Linda did it by choosing behavior most passersby saw as foolishly virtuous. Both were bucking social trends, both refused to be scared out of love, and both ultimately prevailed. That's power.
The Radical Power of Pure Love
This seems a fitting day for me to be writing about powerlessness. It's my son Adam's 21st birthday. His best friends are here, joyously celebrating legal adulthood—except that none of them will ever quite be a legal adult. They were all born with serious birth defects. Each of their mothers took vitamins, ate right, had good prenatal care. We did everything in our power to have "perfect" babies. We found that our power didn't amount to much.
At the other end of the spectrum, my dog had surgery this week. The vet removed various tumors from his chubby old body, and he never really recovered. I spent the past few days sitting with his head on my lap, the only thing that seemed to make him comfortable. When a follow-up examination made it clear that Cookie had nothing in his future except suffering, I signed a form and put my arms around him as the vet added one more ingredient to his IV drip. Cookie set his sweet, soft head on my hand and died as he lived, with no fear and great love.
Birthdays and death days. Both remind us how little power we have. Both present us with infinite opportunities to either love or fear. To the extent that we choose love, the puniness of our material power is replaced by a power that comes not from us but through us. Judy and Linda accessed that power against the tide of social conditioning. Adam and his friends access it every day to live cheerfully with "disempowering" conditions. I felt it coursing through Cookie even as his body powered down, and I felt it in my own decision to let him go. Real power is usually unspectacular, a simple setting aside of fear that allows the free flow of love. But it changes everything.
Those who mistake violence for power are often surprised by this. Apartheid's architects didn't think twice about all the black women like Annie who were paid meager wages to "mind" white babies. They didn't realize that these women would do something revolutionary, choosing to see the infants of their oppressors not through the eyes of fear, as future enemies, but through the eyes of love, simply as babies. "For many white South Africans who were raised by black 'mothers,' there was no way on earth that apartheid could seem right to us," Judy told me. These women, and people like Judy, became heroes by insisting that love prevail in South Africa. Linda Hamilton became a hero by doing the same thing on an American sidewalk. And you can become a hero today, by choosing love over fear in any situation whatsoever.
Each of my clients eventually made the shift: In Mindy's case, empowerment took the form of staging an intervention for her daughter. Denise used her power to leave her hated job, even in today's scary economy. Paula checked into a hotel for three days of rest, then returned to her family with the determination that her own needs counted as much as anyone else's. Each of them felt the power of compassion flowing through them as they aligned themselves with love.
Power comes from actions like these, and the infinite small choices between love and fear. Today, pay close attention: Are you following the gripping energy of fear or the liberating energy of love? My own to-do list includes writing this column, calling clients, answering approximately 4,687,977 e-mails, and preparing a speech. Instead, I allowed myself to choose what my heart dictated. I baked a cake, and held on to a very old beagle while I let him go. It might not look like much from the outside, but I know power when I feel it.
Martha Beck is a sociologist, life coach, speaker and the author of several best-selling books, including Steering by Starlight (Rodale).
From the September 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.