I recently attended the Women and Power Retreat convened by the Omega Women’s Leadership Center at the Omega Institute. The theme of the retreat was “Do Power Differently.”
Power is a complex and layered concept. As a black woman living in the United States I have been most affected by what I call the male model of power. The male model of power is used by both men and women. I have experienced the male model of power as largely patriarchal, bullying, abusive, narcissistic, arrogant, self-serving, sometimes racist, and frequently misogynistic.
The male model of power cedes nothing and feels entitled to gobble up everything. It is always right and only available to those few selected by the so called powerful. With the male model of power negotiation, compromise, and collaboration are emblematic of weakness. The backlash in response to the now daily revelations about sexual assault and harassment by very powerful men is the male model of power in action. Twenty-six years after Anita Hill testified about the sexual harassment she endured at the hands of Clarence Thomas, women continue to be vilified for daring to publicly disclose what powerful men did to them. The toxic masculinity spewed over the last several weeks is simply an attempt to minimize the gravity of the sexual misconduct perpetrated. It is also a refusal to acknowledge that sexual assault and harassment are about power. Within this context the male model of power has only been the source of further suffering. In this climate of toxic masculinity justice for victims of sexual assault and child molestation has been exchanged for continued political power. If not now, when will we begin to do power differently?
Understanding the nuances of the male model of power has been central to my professional survival. This model dictated who I had to be to deserve a seat at the proverbial table. I am seldom interested in living according to another’s definition of who I should be. So early in my legal career I rejected the male model of power in favor of forging my own professional path forward. This gave me the confidence to trust and then use my own voice.
The sad irony is that I have not applied this same approach to my personal life. Instead I have given my personal power away most often to people who used it to hurt me. I gave my power away by judging myself according to the narrative curated by people who think that they know me. To them I am too ugly, complicated, unrelenting, egocentric, aggressive, controlling, pushy, and formidable.
I gave my power away by not treating my physical body as sacred. Parenting alone without support is an impossible job that I and other solo moms do every single day. For extended periods I worked three jobs and only slept about four hours a night. I rarely had an entire day or even a few hours to myself. This brutal pace combined with my failure to prioritize my physical and mental health took a tremendous toll on my body. At times my physical limitations stop me from living life fully.
I gave my power away by using food as comfort and excess weight to hide in plain sight. I believed that being overweight would protect me from being sexually objectified and by extension further trauma. This has proven more abusive than protective. Being overweight limits my mobility and puts me at risk of developing very serious chronic diseases or premature joint replacement surgery. I gave my power away by operating from a place of unworthiness. Seeing myself as unworthy gave me an excuse to abuse my body by packing on extra pounds. Because I viewed myself as unworthy, I did not ask for what I needed and accepted far less than I deserved.
Power carries great responsibility. Nearly twelve years ago I began transforming my narrative, mind, trauma, sense of unworthiness, and abused body into power. My transformative work began the first time I told my story of resilience, overcoming adversity, and living with a mental illness. Telling my story and standing inside of my truth is incredibly powerful. It has given me the confidence to rumble with the shame and unworthiness that has been the albatross around my neck for nearly my entire life. Transformation requires the daily renewing of my mind so that the seeds of shame and unworthiness will not continue to manifest.
Through transformation I have learned that patience, humility, kindness, and mercy are powerful. Empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, and peace are powerful. Compassion, diligence, and self-control are powerful. Love is, love is, love is the most powerful of all.
I emerged from my marriage with a broken heart filled with pain. Over the years that followed my broken heart was healed and then filled with grace. It is the same grace that has been generously extended to me again and again.
Today I am still in the arena fighting to transform my trauma and body into power. Only now I am stronger and equipped to use the weapons of humility, patience, mercy, self-compassion, kindness, peace, and love in the transformation process. This is how I intend to do power differently.