The Opposite of ‘Main Character Energy’: 5 Signs You Feel Disempowered at Work

Published in
8 min readApr 24, 2024


Discouraged, professionally

Photo courtesy of André Henrique

Do you find yourself hesitating to share your new ideas during your team meetings? Or feel a sense of dread before you approach the office doors or log into Slack for the day? Maybe articulating your thoughts has become a challenge-even though you’ve never struggled to speak your mind elsewhere. If any of these ring true for you, you might be encountering signs of disempowerment in the workplace.

Disempowerment, as human behavior experts explain, is defined as experiencing a lack of control. It’s that unsettling feeling that there’s not much you can do or say to be the master of your own fate, let alone contribute to any sort of meaningful change. And it can manifest as a feeling of helplessness or dependency on others to solve issues rather than feeling the confidence to be a problem solver.

Tirza Barnes, founder and principal trainer of leadership consulting and personal development organization, Tirza Motivates, describes it as “a common feeling experienced by individuals who feel undervalued and overlooked.”

In stark contrast to “main character energy” that exudes self-confidence and control over one’s narrative, individuals who are disempowered often grapple with low morale, a sense of irresponsibility, and feelings of frustration or anxiety about their workplace experiences.

According to Barnes, “This feeling arises from imposter syndrome, a sense of inadequacy, and the belief that one’s efforts are not recognized or appreciated enough. As a result, individuals may lack motivation and fulfillment in their roles.”

Of little surprise, certain groups are most affected by this insidious pattern-people of color, individuals with disabilities, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, the elderly, those new to the workforce, and, you guessed it, women. Research cited by WorkHuman reveals that nearly 20 percent of women at work often feel dismissed due to their gender, a sentiment that intensifies among women of color.

The path to disempowerment often begins with resistance or disregard. Subtle cues from leaders, particularly in environments where underrepresentation is prevalent, further contributes to this issue. Think about the signals glaring when few women reach the top leadership roles in the corporate space. An environment ripe for disempowerment is further exacerbated by more overt and blatant factors like insufficient professional development support, and negative leadership qualities like talking down to employees and favoritism.

Barnes says the experiences of disempowerment vary between women and men in similar positions due to historical power imbalances.

“Men have typically held more authority in the workplace, shaping how disempowerment is understood and managed. The workplace favors men, with organizational norms and structures reflecting male-centric values.”

As a consequence, she notes, women may begin to question their emotional intelligence, feel pressures to adapt to male-dominated workplace behaviors, and exert extra effort to gain recognition. This ultimately leads to a steeper climb for women to assert power and progress professionally in comparison to their male colleagues.

Navigating disempowerment can be challenging, as it often seeps in gradually as you engage in your day-to-day tasks and settle into your “normal” workplace dynamics-making it difficult to recognize the signs until they have already become deeply ingrained.

With that in mind, here are five unmistakable signs that you’re facing disempowerment at work, and adjustments you can begin to make right now to combat those feelings and behaviors.

5 signs you’re feeling professionally disempowered

1. You feel like you’re losing your will to speak up

One of the first tell-tale signs of a disempowering work environment, as noted by Barnes, is the gradual loss of your voice and feeling your value diminish.

“The greater the feeling of disempowerment, the more silent one becomes,” she says, “This loss of voice is evident in behaviors such as withholding ideas, neglecting to establish boundaries, voicing frustrations about an inability to be authentic, and abstaining from exercising personal power.

Barnes further points out that the fear of making mistakes can significantly stifle innovation and productivity, and result in a reluctance to fully engage and contribute creatively.

Studies show a tendency toward adopting “risk-averse, conflict-avoidant strategies,” largely to avoid potential backlash for challenging traditional gender roles and to protect hard-earned career progress.

But here’s the thing-it’s critical to remind yourself that you don’t have to dim your own light. Finding the inner strength and courage to address these issues can be challenging, especially when facing financial pressures of family responsibilities. Yet, the first step toward reclaiming your empowerment is recognizing that you don’t have to internalize these limitations. Your worth is inherent, not conditional on external expectations or perceptions.

Acknowledge that your value is independent of others’ approvals or societal “norms,” even crafting your own positive affirmation in order to help you remember that it’s so.

Read more: Psychological Safety at Work Is Essential: 7 Ways to Cultivate It

2. You’re feeling a loss of motivation or passion for your work

Can you remember the time when you were once so excited about the potential you had to make progress in your career-and with this specific company? Your drive to learn and excel seemed boundless and unstoppable.

In the face of disempowerment, those ambitions can start to feel out of reach and your goals can start to feel useless.

Disempowerment often breeds a sense of stagnation, especially when coupled with a loss of confidence. It’s not uncommon to begin to feel like you no longer measure up to the big vision you once had.

According to Barnes, this feeling of disempowerment “arises from imposter syndrome, a sense of inadequacy, and a belief that one’s efforts are not recognized or appreciated enough.” These feelings can lead to dwindling motivation and fulfillment in your professional role.

There’s a silver lining, though: If your work environment is the root of these feelings of disempowerment, there are numerous opportunities you can take to reignite your passion.

Consider taking on creative projects outside of your job to find growth and validation. Seek inspiration and motivation from others, perhaps by finding a professional development coach. Join career-focused organizations that offer a community of like-minded peers who may be navigating similar challenges-or who have already overcome them.

And don’t overlook the potential of exploring new employment opportunities for organizations that could be more supportive of your growth or for a role that’s better aligned with your personal aspirations.

Read more: Navigating the Exit: Your Guide to Resigning from a Toxic Work Environment

3. Your comparison mindset is becoming relentless

In Barnes’ Conscious Caring Leader program, she presents a framework that pinpoints five ego habits that act as subtle, yet significant indicators that you may be experiencing professional disempowerment:

  • Comparing oneself with others
  • Attempting to prove one’s worth to others
  • Aiming to gain acceptance by pleasing others
  • Engaging in self-criticism and criticism of others
  • Trying to impress as a way to conceal insecurities

Another manifestation of disempowerment is interpreting constructive criticism as personal attacks or evidence of incompetence. It’s a scenario where even simple interactions are clouded with the fear of being judged.

But why is it so easy to slip into these damaging patterns? They often emerge as a survival tactic-a way to protect a sense of self or wellbeing when we fear it has been threatened. Rooted in the social comparison theory, these tactics are misguided attempts to boost self-esteem and regain confidence. This approach, however, can be detrimental, harming relationships and potentially triggering feelings of inferiority.

If you recognize that you’ve found yourself in this space, it’s time to take a step back and refocus on your own strengths and goals. You are your own benchmark and there’s no need to measure yourself against anyone else.

An effective strategy you can begin to implement now is to maintain a portfolio of your work and achievements, serving as tangible proof of your capabilities. Other suggested tactics include gratitude journaling, getting proactive with therapy, and work to reprogram comparison as motivation.

4. Your stress about work is causing physical and emotional symptoms

I once had anxiety attacks almost every morning before walking into the office of a previous job. This is a telling sign, often swept under the rug, but important in understanding the impact of a negative, disempowering work environment. When you start experiencing physical symptoms like headaches or extreme fatigue, especially attributed to work scenarios, it’s a clear indicator of stress that shouldn’t be dismissed.

It’s an essential first step here to recognize that these experiences are not, and should not be considered, your normal. In fact, Better Health spotlights that this kind of stress is a “significant health and safety issue.”

When you feel disempowered, stifled in expressing your thoughts, and lacking in confidence, it’s only a matter of time for anxiety about your job to escalate. If left unaddressed, this not only impairs your performance at work but can spill over into life outside of your 9–5.

To begin breaking this cycle, you should seek support whether it’s professional help or confiding in trusted friends and family. Give voice to your concerns and acknowledge that you’re caught in an unhealthy cycle. This may also mean taking decisive steps to openly discuss your workplace issues and find solutions with trusted managers.

You owe it to yourself to set boundaries that prioritize your mental and physical health. No job is worth compromising your health, sanity, confidence, or sense of self-worth.

5. You feel the need to ‘watch your back’ around the team

The influence of negative workplace culture on your sense of empowerment is big. Really big. So if you’ve found yourself treading carefully around your colleagues out of fear of intentional ridicule, embarrassment, or retaliation, you’re not in a safe place to thrive.

Barnes explains that the absence of emotional intelligence in the workplace leads to a cascade of negative outcomes, and emphasizes that a lack of trust is a red flag that shouldn’t go ignored. “Without empathy and effective communication, workplace relationships suffer, leading to conflict and decreased morale.”

Think of the hallmarks of a toxic work environment: finger-pointing, elitism, favoritism, lack of transparency, and overly harsh criticism. If these sound like familiar traits of your work culture, you’re likely in a space that is not just detrimental to your professional growth but also your personal wellbeing. In places where individuality is stifled and conformity is rewarded, it’s not hard to find yourself second-guessing your actions, flying under the radar, and participating in dangerous comparisons. This happens especially when leadership fails to take active steps to address the issues.

When management remains indifferent or unwilling to initiate necessary changes that allow for employees to feel safe being themselves, the most empowering step you can take might be to seek employment elsewhere.

The decision to move on, though difficult, can be the most powerful assertion of your self-worth. Finding a workplace that better aligns with your principles, aspirations, and wellbeing isn’t just about leaving your negative situation behind, it’s about taking a leap toward a more fulfilling and empowered professional future.

About the author

Jasmine Matthews is a marketing manager, content strategist, and freelance writer. She shares personal essays, listicles, and how-to guides exploring the intersection between motherhood, mental health, career navigation, and self-discovery on her personal blog Jasmine is an alumna of HBCU, Elizabeth City State University where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies, and a graduate of Full Sail University where she received her Master of Arts in New Media & Journalism.

About the source

Tirza Barnes has a strong passion for supporting organizations by offering custom learning solutions that address the opportunities and difficulties of the modern workforce. My 25 years of experience working with thousands of non-profit professionals as a trainer, consultant, and coach has been the key to helping organizations accomplish change efforts, increase program services, and provide training and development to upskill staff.

Tirza Motivates, LLC, is a boutique firm passionate about advancing personal and professional growth. Our primary focus revolves around cultivating advanced soft and hard skills, achieved through a comprehensive suite of services that includes leadership consulting, tailored employee training programs, technical assistance services, and personalized development coaching.

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