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The Trouble with Empowerment

They say we should be empowered. We hear it all the time, especially about women. What does it mean for women to be empowered?

A women’s site defines empowerment thusly: “To become stronger and more confident, especially in controlling your life and claiming your rights.” It also means “being aware of your capabilities, and ready to take on even your biggest dreams.”

The site continues: “Empowered women take risks and they work hard to ensure that those risks pay off. They build their empire brick by brick, and they aren’t afraid to toss a brick at someone who tries to tear them down. Being empowered means being determined, confident, and fearless.” So, an empowered woman isn’t opposed to throwing bricks. I see.

This definition of empowerment gives us pause. First of all, it declares that women should become stronger and more confident. There is nothing wrong with being confident. But what does it mean to become stronger? It goes on to say that being strong has to do with controlling your life and claiming your rights. Claiming your rights is a bit broad. What rights? That may be a subject of contention. And the throwing bricks part seems to be a bright red flag. It seems to conflate empowerment with defensiveness.

My treatment of a couple in therapy illustrates this concern. The woman who was part of this couple was middle-aged and a workaholic. Her husband, also middle-aged, had a more relaxed job which he said, “paid the bills.” He kept his job within the boundary of nine-to-five. The wife worked day and night on hers. As I did therapy with them and tried to get them to do the negotiating and compromising that is necessary for a couple to work out their issues, the woman wouldn’t budge.

She used the word “empowerment” several times and it became clear that she thought of herself as an empowered woman. To her that meant having things her way and never giving in to male “tyranny.” Any compromise to her meant she was giving in not only to her husband but also to me, a male therapist. When I used the word compromise, she quickly remarked with some sarcasm, “That’s just a tricky word for getting me to give up my independence and my standards.”

Many of their issues concerned their two boys. The husband contended that the wife was too harsh with them, even cursing them out. She defended herself, saying that her husband wanted to coddle them. The younger boy, who had begun to hit people at school, was a particular focus of their attention. “Every time you yell at him, he hits somebody at school,” the husband told her. “He hits people because you’re too permissive with him,” she said.

“Well,” I threw in. ‘Let’s see if we can find a middle ground.”

“There is no middle ground. There is only his coddling and my attempt to undo that coddling by installing discipline,” she said. Her need to have it her way rendered her unable to acknowledge a middle ground, and fostered a continual attitude of contentiousness. I worked with this couple for over a year-and-a-half with negative results. The woman finally decided that enough was, well, enough.

In this case empowerment meant she should fight for her rights and never let anybody pull her away from her defensive posture. Empowerment kept her rigid. She was rigid in her personal relations and in her work attitude, where she continually insisted that she was the only one who knew how to do things right.

If you are rigid, you can easily break. If you are flexible, you won’t break but instead you will endure and even flourish. As the ancient philosopher, Lao Zi, put it: “The softest and the weakest/Overcome the hard and strong;/And only Nothing finds a place/Where Something takes up space.”

The value system that holds “empowerment” as its goal is full of pitfalls. The healthy personality is able to make adjustments, not remain rigid and unbending. The value system that holds “self-understanding” as its goal is the healthy one.

The Trouble with Empowerment

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2018). The Trouble with Empowerment. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 16 Dec 2018
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