We gathered across 6 cities in April to talk about our relationships with POWER. As we explored the huge feelings that came up while discussing this topic we came to many realizations. One of which was that whether it was our daily encounters with power dynamics, or the ways that power was put on us as we were children, or the events that permit us to access opportunities (or not); power is an all-encompassing concept that shapes how we think about ourselves, others, and how we approach and experience life. And most of the time, we aren’t even aware of it.
Dinner Confidential hosted dinners on Power in 2019, and many of the themes that were highlighted in that article are still relevant. Most notably, power isn’t one-dimensional. We encounter it from all angles — within ourselves, through others, and the social systems and cultural context around us.
However, there was a new overarching theme that resonated across dinners. Accelerated by global events since March 2020 that have exposed the continually preserved inequalities and dysfunction of the status quo in many aspects of society, it was strongly felt that now is time for a new narrative around power.
What needs to change?
Throughout our global dinners, women were having trouble relating to ‘old’ world power, despite its uncomfortable familiarity. This was commonly felt as the dominating ‘power over’ version of power, connected with bigger forces such as the military and politics that exert influence and control. In this ‘old’ world, we visualized power as a finite thing, shaped by dusty old grey statues and dictatorships. For some of us, we felt indoctrinated through both the implicit and explicit coercion of cultural influences in school, university, with families, jobs and social connections. Now we are more conscious of this version of power, we feel angry at all of the exclusionary experiences, (yet anger isn’t something that women should display), and an unwillingness to put up with any more unfair treatment for ourselves and others.
All over our dinners, women shared stories around being ‘told’ we have more power than ever, especially in relation to education and work and career progression as demonstrated by the increasing number of incredible female leaders in business and in politics. While this progress is both amazing and welcomed, many of us feel stuck, burned out and still having to choose between self / family or the ‘system’ of work. So, if we have more power than ever, why do so many of us still feel powerless?
For some women burnout exposes where power is held, and that capitalist society is set up for us to burn-out, with the emphasis to keep going and forsake our core human needs in order to progress at work. Our gut instincts haven’t been nurtured and have often been closed down to ‘keep going’. We aren’t learning about the power of our biological rhythms and cycles until we have had to, or even until it’s too late, and we are also reminded in sometimes brutal ways that organizations and even healthcare systems haven’t been designed with women in mind. Across the board, our intuition hasn’t been incentivized but our burnout has. As a result of all of this we are continuously feeling a lack of power, and subconsciously giving away our power, mostly without it even being asked for. This is felt even more strongly for women of color or with less economic advantages.
In the neoliberal society in which we live, we are so used to knowing our power in relation to other people. We recognize that there will always be a notion of uneven power in our lives; with our bosses, our presidents, our doctors and even our better looking more confident friends with more money. When some of us notice this, we resort to manipulation to balance out the perceived power imbalance. We use our bodies or sex, or money to gain power, or we minimize ourselves and give our power away, which we resent later on. We also notice the power dynamics when a person in the streets asks us for money, people we volunteer for at the local food shelter, and the person delivering UberEats. How are we contributing to other people’s burnout? What happens to our interactions when we notice we are ‘above’ or ‘below’ someone else? How can we really relate from a core human level?
What is the new understanding of power?
Don’t empower me, just trust me, and try to understand me.
For the last decade the word empower has been thrown at women from all angles. Isn’t it funny how only people who have been treated unfairly in the first instance need to be empowered? The very notion of empowerment means to give power to someone, or make them strong. Well guess what? As women, we already hold so much power. We can even bring humans into the world, whether we choose to or not. We don’t actually need someone else to ‘give’ us power or ‘make’ us feel stronger, we just need to access what is already within, and our environments to support that.
Embracing and accepting our individual rhythms
For a lot of us, we are increasingly realizing that power isn’t ‘simply’ about title or stature, but more about the power to be in tune with our bodies, our biological systems, our monthly cycles, our moods and trusting our gut instincts along with our inner (and outer!) voices. While acknowledging the importance of feeling seen and heard by others, we are loving seeing and hearing ourselves. We are moving from our bodies being almost a separate vessel that relentlessly delivers work, or babies, or being exercised into oblivion; to becoming more ‘whole’ and being able to connect and listen to our physical and emotional messages more intentionally.
The power of community
When we are more in tune with ourselves it’s easier to be more in tune with others. We are able to appreciate and build on the power of community. A new world power is reframing and reimagining power as community, power as an infinite source that can grow and be shared, one that feels closer to Martin Luther King’s definition which is “The ability to achieve purpose & affect change” (vs. the Merriam-Webster’s definition “possession of control, authority or influence over others”). We are inspired by powerful figures such as Brene Brown, Kamala Harris, Esther Perel, Jacinda Arden, Nicola Sturgeon (who happen to be women!)
Being ok with change, uncertainty and contradictions
Power dynamics are fluid and ever-changing. Healthy power dynamics are reciprocal. It’s ok to be game-like and strategic in the dance of power, as long as there is shared ‘power to’ and shared ‘power with’. We are done with ‘power over’. Women are cyclical and always evolving, we are naturally dynamic and used to change, we are owning this power when we are a bit older. How can we pay it forward to enable women to trust their intuition — to get to know their bodies, listen to their internal messages, and expand our capacity to hold contradictions? We are feeling both angry and hopeful, exhausted and compassionate, stuck and optimistic. There is contradiction everywhere, now more than ever, and there is power in embracing our curiosity and questioning things that exist on the same continuum, and where the healthy point lies. When does it become an extreme all or nothing dynamic?
How do we practice this?
We know there are different levels of wealth, knowledge, status, and beauty that affect how we engage in power dynamics. How can we anchor ourselves on the equal level that is human worth, so we can navigate them with more grace, kindness and solidarity? Some ideas from our dinners are:
Small daily acts: remembering we have the power to make someone feel like they truly matter, even with the simple gesture of a smile, or taking the time to meaningfully listen
Self awareness, being present: notice when you are using power ‘over’ someone or when you are giving away your power subconsciously
Questions to ask ourselves: How can we let go of the ‘need to be right’ or our need to ‘know’ to make way for more openness to difference and accepting of uncertainty and change?
Staying curious: how can we listen with curiosity (rather than to defend our POV), Can we approach conversations and relationships with the desire to understand, not judge?
New power role models: who are some of the people that come to mind when you think of this new power narrative? What are their traits? How does it make you feel seeing these people? How does it compare to those who may embody more traditional values of power?