At a basic level, the term 'empowerment' simply means 'becoming powerful'. Building personal empowerment involves reflecting on our personal values, skills and goals and being prepared to adjust our behaviour in order to achieve our goals. Personal empowerment also means being aware that other people have their own set of values and goals which may different to ours. By developing our self-awareness, understanding our individual strengths and weakness and by increasing our knowledge we can take greater control over our lives and be better equipped to make positive, informed choices.
Recovery College students have described empowerment as:
“My ability/power to do what’s important to me”
“Having the right information and feeling confident to make decisions and to deal with the consequences, whether it turns out good or bad”
“Being able to make choices”
“Plans/strategy to live my life the way I want to that makes me feel satisfied”
“Able to look at things in a different way – knowing that nothing is black and white”
“Having a voice and being heard”
Empowerment is central to recovery as it enables us to take control over our lives and to make choices which reflect our values as an individual. There can be times when we feel disempowered or unable to make decisions – this may be because of the attitudes and opinions of other people, our own emotional state or due to many other factors. It is especially important during these times to get support from others to help rebuild our sense of empowerment; this could be from a friend, family member, mental health worker or advocate.
Barriers to empowerment…
Being viewed as a patient, a label or set of symptoms rather than as an individual.
Feeling under pressure to do what other people want or expect you to do rather than being able to set your own goals, live by your own values and define what is important to you.
Assumptions that others “know best” instead of acknowledging that you are an expert in your own experiences.
What promotes personal empowerment? Recovery College student contributions:
Doing things to increase your confidence and skills.
Taking the time to get to know yourself and recognising what you’re good at and what needs a bit of improvement
Hearing other people’s recovery stories and using your mental health experiences in a positive way
Take small steps to make decisions and build up your self-belief
Learning how to be assertive and getting support to develop assertiveness skills.
Gathering the information and researching your options so you can make the best possible choice in a situation
Recognising your own achievements and using this to boost your self-esteem.
Real Life Experience
Empowerment. It sounds like such a positive concept – take control, make choices, choose your own path – surely everyone wants to feel empowered, don’t they? Except, for me, it didn’t feel as straightforward as that because battling my mental health challenges over the years had left me feeling overwhelmed and drained. My support worker told me on numerous occasions that I should “steer my own ship,” which is all well and good, I thought grudgingly, if you’re floating on a peaceful lake but a far more daunting prospect if, like me, you feel caught in an ocean storm. Over the years, those close to me had become well-versed in taking charge of my life and a combination of their dominant personalities compiled with my desire to “people-please” meant that, generally, the weightiest decision I had to make for myself was what to have for breakfast.
I existed in a sort of emotional vacuum for a while, not experiencing the depths of distress and despair that had marked the height of my difficulties yet not feeling brave, or motivated, enough to move forwards. Honestly, the thought of taking back power over my life just felt too exhausting to contemplate. Empowerment scared me. To be truthful, it still does sometimes. There’s a freedom of sorts, a sense of relief, which comes with others making all your decisions and taking responsibility for the consequences. At times, the idea of having to be in control, to make choices, and therefore be accountable for the outcome, simply terrifies me.
I suppose, at that time, I felt that if someone else took control and things went badly then it would be their fault, not mine. I rationalised that I was sparing myself from the possibility of failure, protecting myself from potentially making a poor decision and having to cope with the blow to my already fragile sense of self-worth. I might have remained in that comfortably passive state forever, if not for the persistent encouragement of a close friend. She poked holes in my excuse that passivity was the only way to preserve my self-esteem, reasoning that the opposite was true, that I was denying myself the chance to succeed. She didn’t try to persuade me that every decision I made would turn out well, but what she did do was offer me support regardless of the consequences of my choices. She helped me to accept that everyone second guesses themselves at times, that no-one has a magic formula for getting it right in every instance.
At first it was a real challenge, I’d agonise over minor decisions and my mind kept churning up a seemingly endless tirade of “what ifs?” My doubts and fretting didn’t disappear completely but over time they reduced significantly – what was once a cacophony of orchestral proportions had now faded into slightly annoying background music which was far easier to tune out. There was no lightbulb moment of recognition when I suddenly thought “I’m empowered!” rather, it was an excruciatingly gradual twist of a dimmer switch as the realisation dawned that the hundreds of tiny choices and a handful of major ones that I faced now felt attainable rather than overwhelming.
Today, I feel confident to make informed choices, to take ownership of my actions and to see mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow. In its purest sense, empowerment simply means “to become powerful” and, at long last, I am truthfully able to say that the most powerful person in my life is me.