I wore one of my favourite (and expensive, designer brand) dresses to present a workshop a couple of years ago. A participant commented casually, at the airport later that evening that they liked it and asked where I got it. I found myself wanting to tell them “It’s X but I got it in a second hand store”. I felt compelled to clarify that ‘I’m not someone who spends $700 on a dress’.
Why? I don’t hold any negative judgments about expensive fashion or people who buy it – this was about something else.
I later reflected with a friend on why I felt uncomfortable with the idea that someone might think I had spent $700 on a dress. It was about my discomfort with power. Having enough wealth to choose to spend money in that way is a form of power. And I had the immediate reaction of wanting to shy away from, and diminish, my power.
If we construe power as a limited resource, as coming from domination, then claiming power means taking it from someone else. Women are often uncomfortable with this definition of power because we don’t want to be in either of the only two roles available – winner or loser, abuser or victim. So, many women end up shying away from it or refusing to deal with power altogether.
How many times have you thrown away power when it was given to you? A compliment, positive feedback, an opportunity etc.
Or done whatever you could to diminish personal power and influence when you felt it growing? Not applying for a position, adding minimising qualifiers to your opinions “I’m probably just being precious here but…”*, or minimising your kickass gig “It’s nothing fancy, it’s just…”*
Here are three ideas to help connect with and own your personal power.
1. Reframe: If we no longer see our power as “bad” or dangerous, then we will no longer feel compelled to keep our power in check. Power is absolutely used for good. Reframe your power in terms of dominion or power within and over yourself. Use your power to influence and contribute to things that matter to you.
2. Relate: David Rock’s SCARF model refers to Status as one of the core needs/threats that drive all human beings. Taking a domination or ‘power-over’ position can be perceived as a threat as you position your status as higher than the other person’s. If a threat is perceived it is also responded to – by closing down, moving away, defending – a loss of relatedness. By understanding power as dominion, you can lift someone else up in status while simultaneously maintaining your power or status. Don’t think see-saw, think elevator – you’re both going up at the same time. Their status rise doesn’t threaten you, and yours doesn’t need to threaten them. And you preserve relatedness.
3. Reinforce: In my experience, it doesn’t take women long to connect with their power when they are on their own. The challenge is often staying connected with it and not minimising it when we are in company. Standing in our own power more doesn’t mean that other people won’t stop trying to silence us. A circle or group of other women can help here. Women can support women to be courageous, to challenge ourselves, to keep us accountable, and they can see what we don’t see. The more practice we get, the more comfortable we get, the more we can show up as our authentic selves, the more we can do.
So how did I (and still do) answer the question about my dress? I simply said “Thanks. It’s X. I love it too.” It was uncomfortable then but I know know that I don’t need to diminish my personal power in order to keep in relationship.
* Real things I’ve heard women say.
Eating in the Light of the Moon. Anita Johnston
Your Brain at Work. David Rock
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