“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” – Seneca
In my opinion, power is one of the most misunderstood and abused words in the English language. How often have you heard someone say, “The U.S. President is the most powerful person in the world,” or “True power comes from within,” or “It’s important to empower others”? Power takes on completely different meanings in each of these phrases, but what does it actually mean to be powerful?
To better understand the concept of power, we need to separate what I refer to as External Power from its opposite, Real Power.
Real Power cannot be granted by another person. Only we can give it to ourselves. The story of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, and a Holocaust survivor, illustrates the difference between Real and External Power very well.
Frankl was imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany. He lost his parents, his brother, and his wife in the camps. He himself endured torture and unimaginable terror on a regular basis. One day, lying naked and alone in a small room, he realized there was one freedom his Nazi captors could never take away. He called it the last of human freedoms: the ability to chose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.
He realized he could decide for himself how the situation was going to affect him. Between what happened to him and his reaction to it lay his power to consciously choose his response. The Nazis had more External Power—options to choose from externally—but Frankl had more Real Power. Meaning, the inner power to choose his mindset and how the Nazi’s abuse of External Power was going to affect him.
External Power takes on different meanings depending on the context and external forces driving it forward. It is entirely dependent on outside factors, and is therefore tenuous and fragile, and ultimately out of our control.
Real Power is consistent no matter the external forces opposing it—it comes from within, and the only person with the power to change it is you.
Three Ways to Cultivate Real Power Right Now:
1. Put the following statements to the test in your own life:
· Whatever we do (or don’t do) has consequences.
· We co-create everything we experience.
· We can choose our attitude towards what’s happening.
This means we recognize there is nothing “out there” just happening to us. Events are triggers, sometimes very powerful triggers, but as the story of Viktor Frankl shows, they are not absolute causes as to why we feel, think and behave the way we do. Focusing on the trigger empowers external factors and keeps us stuck in victim mode. This is disempowering and tends to fuel a pursuit of External Power “to regain control.”
2. Practice paying closer attention to your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.
The information you gather will help you gain clarity on where you get stuck, and help you identify your ineffective mental and emotional habits.
3. Implement the “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” practice.
The “messenger” is a metaphor for whatever is triggering a painful emotional reaction—typically a cocktail of anger, fear and hurt. Try to see this messenger (your co-worker, the other driver, your spouse), as someone or something that is helping you master a new skill. View the messenger as a helpful teacher instead of an enemy to attack or avoid.
Or, as the brilliant comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it in an episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee: “Pain is knowledge rushing in to fill a gap. When you stub your toe on the foot of the bed, that was a gap in knowledge. And the pain is a lot of information really quick. That’s what pain is.”