Empowerment Bypass

Last year, I was reaching out to someone I wanted to work with, a white man who leads a high-profile coaching firm. I was stuck in self-doubt. I tried to talk myself through it (“You have nothing to lose.” “You're incredibly qualified.”) But I couldn’t shake this feeling of not good enough.

Where was this coming from? I’d spent most of my adult life learning the tools of empowerment (I used to be a civil rights lawyer, for god's sake!), but this feeling of unworthiness had remained.

Digging into this with my own coach, she asked me, “What is unworthy about you?” After several rounds of answers, all of which I could dismiss as straw men, I blurted out, “I’m just a scared immigrant kid who has no idea what she’s doing.”

As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I could taste the truth in them. This was the part of me that was afraid, and unsure.

“How old is she?” my coach asked?

“Six,” I said. I closed my eyes and could feel myself back in 1st grade, in a new country, not knowing how to belong or to make myself heard. Having the wrong color skin, the wrong kind of name, everything about me wrong.

“How are people reacting to her?”

“They find her strange. No one talks to her.”

“What about her parents?”

“If she let them see, they'd be afraid,” I found myself saying. “They’re having such a hard time themselves, what could they possibly do if they knew how scared and alone she is?”

“It wasn’t safe for her to be scared.”

Yes, it wasn’t safe for her to be scared. My heart ached for her fear and loneliness. It was the first time I’d let myself really ache for her. I’d been focusing instead on keeping her fear and uncertainty hidden.

As a kid the hiding felt essential to belonging and family stability. I realized with surprise that as an adult, it had enabled me to feel empowered, or at least what I’d been thinking of as empowerment.

All the tools of empowerment I’d learned had helped me cover over that fear and uncertainty. My elite college and law school degrees assured me I could establish my legitimacy within the systems that had felt so inaccessible. I learned how to speak articulately and hold myself with authority. I learned about systemic bias and could speak out against discrimination.

But nowhere in this empowerment training had there been tenderness and a safe harbor for that scared 6-year-old Korean immigrant girl. I’d trained myself in all the outward skills of empowerment, but had bypassed this inner work of accepting and loving the most scared and vulnerable part of myself.

What if we experienced empowerment as wholeness, not just access or being heard? What if, instead of putting on my legitimacy armor in situations where I'm claiming my seat at the table, I claimed the power to bring that scared six-year old immigrant girl with me? This is the kind of authority I want to inhabit -- authority that is grounded in my own humanity. This is the kind of voice I want to exercise -- one that carries the unique tones of my immigrant self.

These days I'm practicing being with her. I try to notice when I'm that scared kid again. I might walk into a room where I don’t know anyone, or get the sense that someone I’m talking to would rather be somewhere else. Suddenly I’m six years old, my body awkward and not right. Feelings about myself come up that originated then: I am unwanted, defective, not beautiful. In these moments, I used to smile harder, be smarter, make the armor even shinier. Now I soften and respond with love. I see that what is happening hurts and take it in. I take a moment to see her with the eyes she should have felt on her then, eyes that see her as precious and beloved. In my heart, I welcome her into the room, the conversation. We will face it together. I can hold her fear and she does not have to hide.

When I soften into love, my body relaxes. I’m able to connect in a genuine way with the people around me, rather than get locked into forced conversation or striving to win over. If there’s no connection to be had, I can move on. My six-year-old heart, held in love, is able to know, “It’s not about me. I'm still OK.”

The shift from scared to loved has started to feel easier, more natural. As she feels less scared, I’m able to experience other parts of her, like her curiosity. I expect I’ll be getting to know her for some time.

The world around us continues to be broken, but as we become more whole, we have more capacity to be sources of wholeness. This is the power than can reach hearts, starting with our own.


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