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What is empowerment?

Power in people, often called personal power, is their ability to make use of the opportunities that are available to them. This involves three elements:

The word power is often used to mean having the authority, strength or other means to exercise control over others. This is power over whereas what is being discussed here is power from within.

People who are relatively powerful tend to be able to see and act on a wider range of possibilities. They will be flexible, sometimes doing what people expect them to do and sometimes doing things differently.

It is not possible to give someone this personal power. The only power I have is my own. I can authorise people to do certain things for me but the power remains with me. In particular I can revoke that authority. When we rely on other people to allow us to do things, we are not being powerful.

Empowerment is about reclaiming our own power.

Power, freedom, and love

In practice freedom is a state of mind that means the same as being powerful. People can be locked up in a prison cell for years and remain free. They retain that sense that although there are constraints there are still opportunities. There are still choices to be made about what to do. The stories of some of the people who have, for instance, been held hostage for years bear this out.

Conversely, many people go about their daily lives trapped. Their lives are one long series of “have to”s, going from one thing to the next without any sense of having any choice. Most trapped of all are the many who believe that they are free, since they are not even aware that they are not making any choices.

Love involves supporting others to be powerful and so free. Indeed, it is said that if you love someone the first thing you do is set them free.

To love someone is to accept them as they are and to support them to more of what they, in enlightenment, would choose to be.


The process of oppression leads us to internalise feeling that lead us to run persecutor and victim patterns, to behave like persecutors or victims. It is the opposite of empowerment. Empowerment is about learning to be able to act on opportunities, oppression is about being made to believe that opportunities do not exist or cannot be acted on.

Just as empowerment is not about being given power, oppression is not about being constrained. Constraints are part of life and, particularly, they are about living with other people. Being oppressed involves feeling that we cannot explore different ways of responding to these constraints.

Empowerment focusses on what we can do, oppression gets us to be only aware of what we can’t do.

Oppression is a process that starts at birth, if not before. In this process we are taught to feel that we do not have choices, that life is full of “should”s and “ought”s that have to be obeyed.

Using the word “power” to refer to having power over others is oppressive. It implies that if we do not have the authority or means to exercise control over others then we are powerless.

The messages we get about our emotions are important, particularly the early non-verbal ones that later become verbalised in messages such as “big boys don’t cry” or “nice girls don’t get angry”. We become emotionally disabled and more vulnerable to being controlled by others. We become unable, for instance, to use our anger to deal with aggression and help protect us from being abused. Worse, our emotions are turned against us so that others can manipulate us by triggering those emotions that we have learned to experience as uncomfortable.

Hierarchies of persecution

We are not divided up into persecutors and victims. Persecutory and victim behaviours are opposite sides of the same coin. If we have a tendency to behave as victims then, given different circumstances, we will persecute (ill treat, dictate to or bully) others. In effect, we are in a hierarchy in which some people are allowed to oppress us while we oppress others. The hierarchies are complex with many factors, such as race, gender, age and education, influencing whether we feel further up or down some hierarchy from someone else.

Empowerment – the way out

When people become aware of their persecution, when they notice how they are being treated as victims, they will often respond in ways that try to get “one up” on their persecutors. In effect, all they do is to move up hierarchy. They can persecute the people who used to persecute them, but there are still people further up the hierarchy to whom they will be victims. Equality legislation is an example where people can be punished for treating people unfairly.

Empowerment takes people out of the hierarchies. As people gain more genuine self-confidence, and become more self-empowered, they become both less prepared to behave as victims and less ready to persecute others.

Not being a victim is to know and deeply feel that “you can do whatever you are able to do – I choose how I respond.”

Updated 1st March 2022