Around last spring, I made a decision that kindness was going to be one of the primary ways I evaluated new friends or potential partners. In the past it had been fairly low on the list, with features like cleverness, shared beliefs, or shared lifestyle ranking higher. I followed through on that decision: my primary social circle now is one of deeply kind and compassionate people, and I’ve never been happier.
Recently it’s occurred to me that I want to add a second criterion to my Must Haves list for an intimate relationship: empowering. Does this person, in the way they interact with others, habitually empower others? And more particularly, do they interact with me in ways that are empowering to me?
When I talk about empowering others, I mean helping people to feel stronger, more capable, more worthy and able to be in charge of their own life. A person can be very kind and very, very disempowering: every “white knight” or “white savior” story is the story of someone kindly taking care of someone else in a way that reinforces that person’s dependence on the knight/savior.
Even the notion of empowerment can be a trap, because empowerment by definition has to come largely from within. Once you start thinking of empowerment as something you give them, you’re back in dependency territory. A lot of empowering others, then, is mostly in avoiding disempowering behaviors, although I think there are also ways one can be concretely empowering.
Empowerment has a lot of methods and a lot of facets. It can be simply telling someone, “I believe in you; you’ve got this.” It can be listening to someone talk through their thoughts until they’ve found their own solution. It can be assuring someone that you will love and be there for them no matter what decision they make.
To feel empowered in a relationship, I need my partners to believe these things, and demonstrate the beliefs through action:
– I am fully capable of deciding what is best for myself and my life.
– I am fully capable of learning and growing in areas where I am weak, flawed, or underdeveloped.
– The values and priorities I have set for myself are valid, and are more relevant to my decisions than any values or priorities any other person might wish to impose on me.
– Mistakes I make are not signs of fundamental character failings in me, but of habits and traits that I have not yet learned to overcome. They do not indicate that I need someone else to take charge of my life or my growth; they just indicate that I’m a person who has weak spots like any other person.
The essence of empowerment is respecting that the other person has the right and the ability to make decisions about their own life; to determine and pursue their own values; to live and star in their own story. While many of us would agree with these things on principle, we’re quick to draw the conclusion that we know better than the other person in THIS situation; that we have perfectly clear insight into what they need here, and if only we could just show them they’d be so much happier! Empowerment, on the other hand, persistently sets the other person up as the #1 expert on their life, their needs, and their feelings. They are the captain, you are first mate or crew member (when it comes to their problems and their life, of course. You get to be the captain of your own ship!)
It is possible to give advice and guidance in an empowering way, but it is tricky. First and foremost, the advice has to be welcome. Just jumping in with, “Well, here’s what I think/here’s what you should do” when the other person hasn’t asked for your opinion is a way of centering your own perspective, and carries the implication that the other person NEEDS your help whether they want it or not. Prefacing any kind of advice or input with “May I give you some advice?/Would you like to hear my thoughts?” reinforces to both of you that the other person is in charge here. My therapist, who I basically pay to help me figure my life out, makes a habit of asking, “Would you like feedback?” before sharing her advice and perspective.
Second, empowering advice honors the other person’s values and priorities, even when they differ from yours. For example, the importance of blood family and maintaining those ties is different for different people. Some will walk away from a family that consistently treats them badly, some will work hard to stay connected. Empowering advice honors the values of the person making the decision, even if the advice-giver would make a different choice based on their different values. (If your values are so different from the other’s that you have a hard time imagining why they’d make the choices they do, or if you believe their values to be objectively wrong, then you are not well-positioned to give them empowering advice. Better to stick to being the sympathetic, “I’m sorry this is so hard” voice.)
Third, empowering advice frames itself clearly as one option, which the other person gets to take or reject according to their best judgement. Advice that frames itself as, “I have solved your problem, this is what you need to do” is not empowering; it presumes that you know better than they do in this situation. Advice that comes with an unspoken “If you reject my advice, I’ll be hurt” is both disempowering and manipulative. Advice is a gift you give someone, and attaching emotional baggage to it is unfair.
This whole notion of empowerment is still something I’m rambling my way through, and figuring out as I think and write about it. Questions I’m still exploring (and may write about in future) include:
– What are some modes of conflict that are either empowering or disempowering?
– How much diversity is there in what empowers different people? (This might be one for Lane and I to talk through together, since our needs and preferences in intimate relationship power dynamics are very different.)
– If a relationship has had a strong dependency component, when and how do you move it toward a more mutually empowering dynamic?
I’d welcome thoughts on any of these as I continue to think this through.