Personal Empowerment: Invest Your Energy Where You Have Power

Human beings have one amazing power, but one power only — the power of choice.

This is the last article in a series centered around how to be maximally empowered in relationships, especially relationships with persons of deficient or disturbed character. In prior articles, we’ve discussed many empowerment tools such as never accepting excuses for inappropriate conduct, staying focused and in the here and now and remaining calm when confronting negative behavior, judging actions and not intentions, and setting limits and enforcing boundaries:

There is, however, no better way of empowering yourself in relationships that to be sure you invest your time, attention, and emotional energy where you have power.

One of the critical mistakes people often make, especially if they’re dealing with a person of deficient or disordered character, is to focus a lot of time, attention, and energy trying to understand and modify the behavior of the disturbed character. Of course, the behavior of another person is one of many areas of your life where you have no control (i.e., no power). Yet, because persons of defective character will often be good at manipulation and will have you questioning yourself, you can end up spending a lot of time and energy hoping that they will eventually change.

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Human beings have one amazing power, but one power only — the power of choice. You have the power to act. You alone command your muscles. You have no power whatsoever over people, places, and things — anything external. Although many entertain the delusion, you have no power over the outcomes of your actions, either. You can do everything correctly and still not secure the desired results. Other factors influence that. Naturally, most of the time, unless adverse fate intervenes, if you behave prudently, appropriate rewards follow. But it’s important to recognize that nothing external to you is really within your power to control.

The biggest problem people have when they get caught in the trap of trying their best to make a problem relationship work — by focusing time, attention and energy on the person they can’t control — is that they inadvertently discover the behavioral “formula” for depression. Some time ago, researchers discovered that even animals who found themselves in the position of trying everything they could to reach a goal only to find themselves unable to control events, ended up feeling “helpless.” Their “learned helplessness” also led them to display the frustration, anxiety, and eventually the emotional and behavioral “shutdown” that characterizes depression. This helplessness model has been shown to apply to human beings as well. When people invest time and energy trying to make things happen only to find that no matter what they do or try nothing seems to change, they end up feeling frustrated, anxious, despondent, angry, “helpless,” and depressed.

Fortunately, there is a behavioral “formula” for vitality, joy and empowerment. That formula is to invest your time, attention, and emotional energy where you have power: your power to act. In addition to having counseled hundreds of individuals whose character needed much in the way of social development, I’ve also counseled hundreds of individuals who have been victims of abusive, manipulative, and exploitative relationships. Most of the one-time “victims” were to some degree depressed when they first came to see me and always for the same reason. They had invested considerable time and energy trying to understand their abuser, trying to make the relationship work, trying to maintain hope that the other person’s behavior would eventually change. They’d tell me things like: “I know he must have low self-esteem to be acting like this, and I know that once he realizes how much he is loved his wounds will eventually heal.” Clearly, harmful conceptualizations about the reasons for the problems, and misdirected energy, had only succeeded in putting these individuals in a position to remain mired in a destructive relationship and to become quite depressed in the process.

In my book, In Sheep’s Clothing, I tell the story of “Helen,” who after years of anguish discovered the tools of personal empowerment. She once told me:

I feel more alive today because I know I have power. I know all the “tactics” by heart. I know what some people are really like — how they think and how they act. I know what to expect and how to respond. But most of all, I know that I can set the rules. I and only I decide what the limits and boundaries are. I don’t pray for change, I take action. I’m never going to be the “steamroller” my partner was with me. But I’m committed to taking better care of myself.

There’s no way to explain the principles of personal empowerment any better than the words of Helen. She decided to invest her time, attention and energy where she has power. She traded depression for joy and a “doormat” existence for self-assertion. She understands all the principles and tools. I doubt that she’ll ever be a “victim” again.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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