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The Hunt for Personal Power

How to take control of your life

Man steering a sailboat with sea in the background.
At the helm. Photo of the author.

What is personal power?

Personal power is to have the psychological fortitude to live a meaningful and happy life.

It means being full of energy, motivated, ethical, honest, reliable, self-sufficient, efficacious, joyful, resistant to trauma, resilient and generous.

Personal power does not mean acquiring power at the expense of others. It is not being manipulative, selfish and exploitative.

There is a psychological energy that we can acquire by living the right way. When we have that energy, that power, we are able to transmit it naturally to others. When we have plenty of it, being generous becomes natural because our power overflows and spills to others.

Throughout my life, I have been studying different spiritual traditions to learn how to live the right way. They include Yoga, Siloism, Zen and the Way of the Warrior. But I have always used critical thinking and scientific knowledge to steer me away from the false gurus and to carefully choose among the things that I was taught.

What I learned is that there are no superpowers, no magical shortcuts to happiness, no sudden enlightenment. There is only plowing along our ordinary lives, slowly improving ourselves through hard work, honesty and commitment. Only through effort you can reach a state in which living well feels natural.

And then the world will throw a new challenge at you in the form of an accident, a disease or other kinds of misfortune. You have to be prepared and weather the storm as well as you can.

Ultimately, you are going to lose. We will all die one day. You have to learn to make peace with that.

Practice self-compassion

Hunting for personal power may sound like a selfish and arrogant thing to do.

However, it is not selfish because only by having energy we can give it to others. Only by finding meaning we can illumine the life of others. Only by being happy ourselves we can make others happy.

It is not arrogant because personal power needs to be built on an honest assessment of our capabilities and shortcomings.

Compassion is the ability to feel the suffering of others, which motivates us to do something to stop that suffering.

Self-compassion is the ability to be aware of our own suffering, which motivates us to find ways to be happier.

Instead, we try to blunt our own pain. To deny it by distracting ourselves with myriads of things that take our awareness away from the pain. But we fool ourselves when we are not able to stare at our own suffering in the face, believing that we can quench it by craving things that we do not need.

Self-compassion is different from self-pity, which consists of blaming our suffering on things out of our control. It leads to resignation and hope: the belief that only changes in the external world can rescue us from our suffering. This is utterly disempowering. Neuroscience has shown that suffering produced by things that we cannot control induces learned helplessness, which forms the basis of psychological trauma (Maier and Seligman, 2016). Therefore, we need to wrestle as much control from our environment as we can, and become aware of that control.

To cultivate self-compassion, we need to be aware of the mechanisms behind our suffering.

Which means knowing ourselves.

Know yourself through meditation and mindfulness

Good ways of knowing ourselves are meditation and mindfulness.

For me, meditation is not searching for an altered state of consciousness, nirvana, illumination, or an esoteric revelation about the nature of consciousness. Is simply sitting silently while I look at how my mind works. Perceptions, thoughts and emotions emerge out of my unconscious into awareness and disappear back into unconsciousness. Any barrier between the unconscious and the conscious is an illusion. Although this flow of the mind is myself, there are subtle ways in which the flow can direct itself, in which the part of the flow that is my cognitive executive function can gently steer the flow in the direction that makes more rational sense.

Likewise, mindfulness is paying attention to the flow of the mind as we move in the world. Without judging, we become aware of how sensations, memories and thoughts enter and leave consciousness.

Meditation and mindfulness serve to create meta-attention. It is a mental habit that consists of being aware of what we are paying attention to. By softening the mind, it gently extends the reach of consciousness into the unconscious. We will need that ability to control our emotions and rescue ourselves out of destructive loops of thought, ruminating and catastrophizing.

However, there is a place in our life for mind wandering and daydreaming. Especially when it is suffused with meta-attention. Sometimes, we just need to let our mind be what it is; to put forth what it wants. Otherwise, our will becomes our jail. We clip our wings by destroying our imagination. We need to release our horses. Only then we can be creative.

Cultivate flow

Lately I have been reading about flow, and I am coming to realize that it is even better than meditation to promote mental health and inner power.

Flow is a mental state defined in the 1970s by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best”. He gave flow the following characteristics:

  1. Focused attention on a task.

  2. Merging of action and awareness.

  3. Decreased self-awareness.

  4. Altered perception of time, which either speeds up or slows down.

  5. Feeling of complete control.

  6. Positive emotions like joy, pleasure, euphoria, meaning and purpose.

Others have defined flow as effortless effort.

Flow is typically found when doing skill-intensive sports like rock-climbing, skiing or martial arts; or in arts like playing music, dancing, painting or writing. However, flow is not just letting go, or using muscle memory to perform an action with little effort. It is only achieved after arduous training in a particular sport, art or skill. In every particular session, there is usually an initial period of struggle until the performer is able to enter flow.

An excellent review of the neurophysiology of flow (Kotler et al., 2022) explores the difference between flow and trauma produced by a risky, scary event. They conclude that flow is induced by engaging with the challenging event in a pro-active way, which recruits the fight response of stress brain circuits. Conversely, emotional trauma set is when we try to avoid the challenging event. This initiates the freeze response to stress.

While repeated emotional trauma caused by stress in the absence of control leads to learned helplessness, repeated flow induces a resilience to trauma that Kotler et al. called learned empowerment.

Reading this, I concluded that by systematically cultivating the state of flow in my mind, I could create the habit of entering it. This would lead to learned empowerment, which is the same as personal power.

Plug power drains

Another way to increase personal power is to avoid losing it. This can be done by identifying things in our life that drain us of power and leave us feeling depleted.

The obvious things are those that negatively impact our health: smoking, alcohol, abusing drugs, unhealthy eating, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, lack of sex, lack of love, social isolation.

Less obvious are mental habits that deplete our mental energy. Mind wandering is often cited but, as a said above, this is not unhealthy by itself. With a sufficient background of meta-attention to collect its fruits of imagination and creativity, it is actually necessary for a healthy mind.

What is unhealthy are mindless activities in which we let emotions take control of our mind and our behavior. For example, I noticed how often I engage in mindless talk, unaware of the effect of my words.

Worse still is rumination: when our mind obsesses about something that happened in our life, typically a negative social interaction. We cannot let it go, constantly rehearsing what we said, what we should have said, and some improbable action that we are going to take in the future. Rumination is caused by a loss of control in the past, in a futile attempt to regain that control in our imagination. It is driven primarily by anger, but also by fear, jealousy and shame.

There is also catastrophizing: imagining something terrible that is going to happen to us. Uncontrolled fear makes our imagination run wild, feeding the fear with scenes of horrible events in an endless loop. Underneath all this, there is the belief that we have lost control over our environment and our life. This belief is the consequence of learned helplessness.

Rumination and catastrophizing quickly become mental habits. However, it is possible to steer away from them by using meta-attention to become aware of what is happening, label it, and provide positive images and high level cognitive input. That way, we will be able to break those mental habits.

Avoid negative emotions

It has become fashionable these days to say that negative emotions are just fine; that we should that let them be.

That is bullshit. It’s the result of a poor understanding of the mind by a psychology built on poor evidence and ideology. As I pointed above, hard evidence from neuroscience shows the negative consequences of letting negative states like learned helplessness and rumination take possession of our mind. Ancient philosophical traditions like Stoicism and Buddhism also advise us to avoid negative emotions.

It’s impossible to live an ethical life without harnessing negative emotions. If you let anger loose, you will inevitably hurt others. Anger has a way to blind you, warping your worldview and leading you to irrational actions. The same can be said of jealousy, the unrecognized cause of violence against women (Puente and Cohen, 2003; Pichon et al., 2020). As for fear, it will often prevent you from doing the right thing.

Of course, all emotions have evolved for a reason. Unfortunately, humans evolved in an environment in which we lived in tribes of hunter-gatherers, which is very different from modern society. As a result, many of our emotional responses are non-adaptive.

The main emotions to watch are anger and fear. Shame and guilt are social emotions that can become quite harmful (Lester, 1997; Lee et al., 2001). Sadness, envy and jealousy can also be problematic.

Anger, fear and shame are worse when they become chronic, a constant background of our mental state. Chronic anger is felt as constant annoyance, frustration and irascibility that may quickly escalate to full-blown rage, like in road-rage and marital fights. However, when coupled with a sense of powerlessness, it may simmer for years, slowly destroying our body and our mind. One of the signs that this is happening is rumination.

Chronic fear is anxiety, an ill-defined feeling that something is wrong, that something terrible is about to happen. It may manifest as catastrophizing.

Chronic shame becomes low self-esteem, an immobilizing feeling of paralysis, especially in social interactions. It evokes social anxiety and drives rumination and catastrophizing.

The best way to fight negative emotions is to nip them in the bud. Meta-attention can alert us of the emotion growing out of its seed. For example, anger often begins as frustration and annoyance. We should counter them by invoking patience and focus on the task at hand. A habit of entering flow can help a lot, because flow is accompanied by positive emotions like joy and curiosity, and incompatible with negative emotions like anger and fear.

If anger has become established in your mind, the best thing to do is to prevent it from taking control of your behavior. For me, reading is a calming activity that will take me out of anger. Other people may want to take a walk, practice a sport, listen to music or watch a movie. It is important to use mindfulness to watch what anger is doing to your mind.

Face your fears

Fear is a difficult emotion to handle. Sometimes, fear appears because of a real danger. However, there are two possible responses to fear.

One is to take action to prevent the danger form causing us harm, taking as much control of the situation as we can. If we manage to feel in control, this would lead to learned empowerment.

The second set of responses to danger involves loss of control. We may become immobilized in a freezing response. Or we may act out of control in panic. In both cases, the feeling of loss of control leads to learned helplessness (Maier and Seligman, 2016; Kotler et al., 2022). This creates a trauma scar that lives on as chronic anxiety.

In my experience, it is good to train our responses to fear by regularly exposing ourselves to scary situations in ways that minimizes real danger and lets us take control. For example, I practice rock-climbing, a sport in which freezing and panic responses are pretty obvious. Other sports in which to face fear include skiing, surfing and martial arts. For those less adventurous, roller-coasters and horror movies may get them in touch with their fears. However, it is hard to feel in control in those situations.

Another thing that helps is to voice out our fears with our friends or in therapy. Emphasize ways in which you can gain control over them.

Take responsibility for your actions

As you see, taking control of what is happening in your life is a common theme here.

Of course, there are many things that escape our control. It would be foolish to pretend that we have superpowers and are able to impose our will on the world. The key here is not the actual control that we have, but feeling in control. This means taking whatever action we can take. Being pro-active instead of passive.

An important teaching from spiritual traditions is that we need to detach ourselves from the results of our actions. We do the best we can, and accept the fact that we are not always going to win. Excessive desire for a particular outcome produces an unhealthy craving. It also takes our focus away from performing our task as best as we can. Thus, in a state of flow we are completely focused on what we are doing while forgetting ourselves. In flow, attention is on what we are doing in the present, and the goal is only factored in as one more parameter to direct the action. Rushing to the end of what we are doing takes us out of flow.

Taking responsibility for our actions, then, is a mixture of two things: to avoid craving a particular result, and to accept the final outcome with equanimity. This means not beating ourselves up if we failed, but also not taking too much pride if we succeed.

Taking responsibility for our actions is not blaming and shaming ourselves. Of course, if we did something unethical, we need to take the appropriate measures for it not to happen again.

Do not see yourself as a victim

Another aspect of taking responsibility for our actions is not to look for excuses for what we did in external circumstances. Of course, there are numerous factors out of our control that impact the outcome of our actions. It would be foolish not to recognize that. However, “finding excuses” means to take the focus away from the control that we have to dwell in things out of our power. This is a drain of energy because, by definition, we cannot change things that are out of our control. Focusing on whatever control we have is much more effective.

Today, we live in a culture of victimism, especially in progressive circles. This is how I think this happened… Postmodern ideology sees the world as a power struggle between the oppressed (Blacks, women, homosexuals, transgender, workers, poor countries, etc.) and the oppressors (Whites, men, heterosexuals, cisgender, capitalists, Western countries, etc.). Politics, then, is the fight to empower the oppressed and eliminate the oppressors. Therefore, if you can identify yourself with one of the oppressed groups, you feel that you belong in the group of the “good people” and can benefit from the privileges given to them. Otherwise, you are an oppressor and targeted as the enemy. Then, everybody tries to show that they, too, are a victim.

Lately, even conservatives are adopting this strategy. And so men and incels are the victims of feminism. Whites are the victims of affirmative action, cancel culture and wokeism. And so forth.

Leaving aside political ideologies, my point is that seeing yourself as a victim is psychologically unhealthy. It is the opposite of taking responsibility for your actions. Being a victim puts the focus on your disempowerment, blaming the world for your situation. It may be true that you belong to an oppressed group, but victimism is not helping anybody.

If you want privileges because you are a victim, how is that not selfish?

How about centering your political fight in helping others? That would emphasize the measure of control that you have. That will be empowering.

Don’t let anybody blame or shame you

We also live in a culture in which blaming and shaming are used as blunt political weapons.

To some extent, this is legitimate. If somebody behaves in an unethical way by exploiting and oppressing others, that person deserves to be blamed and shamed.

What is not ethical is to blame and shame people because they belong to a certain group that has been labeled as the oppressors. Because they are White, or Jewish, or men, or live in a rich country. This negates individual agency and freedom. People are responsible for what they do, not for who they are.

Blaming and shaming are so widespread that they have become a reflex. Total strangers will come up to you and blame you and shame for things that have nothing to do with your doings. Especially online.

You should treat these people as toxic. Put as much distance between you and them as you can. Block them online. Do not have them as friends. Steer clear of them as co-workers. They are out to steal your personal power.

However, if a close friend or somebody who knows you well, offers you advice and criticizes your actions, listen to them. Remember, knowledge is power, and self-knowledge doubly so. And you cannot see yourself well from the inside. Taking responsibility for your action and equanimity should be your guide in this case.

Follow a path with a heart

In the big picture, you need to live a meaningful life. Each one of us should find what that means for themselves. It probably involves a combination of having experiences that make you happy, achieving personal growth, and contributing to the betterment of society and the world.

A path with a heart is one that makes you feel happy and fulfilled as you follow it. Every step along the path increases your personal power. Just being in the path should be enough because all paths lead to nowhere. We all travel from birth to death.

If your life is empty and miserable. If you find no meaning and no purpose, your path doesn’t have a heart. You need to find a better one.

Personal power propels you along the path with a heart that is your life.

References

  • Kotler S, Mannino M, Kelso S, Huskey R (2022) First few seconds for flow: A comprehensive proposal of the neurobiology and neurodynamics of state onset. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 143:104956.

  • Lee DA, Scragg P, Turner S (2001) The role of shame and guilt in traumatic events: a clinical model of shame-based and guilt-based PTSD. Br J Med Psychol 74:451-466.

  • Lester D (1997) The role of shame in suicide. Suicide Life Threat Behav 27:352-361.

  • Maier SF, Seligman ME (2016) Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychol Rev 123:349-367.

  • Pichon M, Treves-Kagan S, Stern E, Kyegombe N, Stöckl H, Buller AM (2020) A Mixed-Methods Systematic Review: Infidelity, Romantic Jealousy and Intimate Partner Violence against Women. International journal of environmental research and public health 17.

  • Puente S, Cohen D (2003) Jealousy and the meaning (or nonmeaning) of violence. Personality & social psychology bulletin 29:449-460.


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