The Long Reach of Childhood

How early experiences shape you forever

Empowerment

The Power of the Feather

As a therapist, there are times when I offer a patient an object - a scarf, a pen, a paper flower - some object that can act as a symbol of the power they are beginning to feel because of the work they are doing. They are free to take it with them with the understanding that the object will be returned when they no longer need it. It is my way of using the power of empowerment.

The word "empowerment" is very much in the news these days. We read how the Internet, Facebook and Twitter are empowering the rebel movements in the Middle East - how empowering women has changed the American family - how important it is to empower any group seen as being discriminated against or marginalized. To empower is to "invest with power" - that change can happen when there is an investment of power by an outside source or when a group or individual somehow recognizes its inherent power. But how can change happen when an individual has never been the recipient of an outside source of power nor been able to connect to their inherent power. This is a question particularly relevant to those individuals caught in the discrimination or marginalization by the dynamics and dysfunctions of their families and/or their culture.

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As a tool for change, metaphors and stories that act as metaphors are extremely effective in conveying special meanings based on imaginative and natural associations between one experience and another, between one psychological state and another. The story of Dumbo, the hero of an early Disney film, serves as an effective metaphor for the power of empowerment and how that original power can free an even greater power.

For those too young to have seen the 1941 film, here's a brief outline of the plot:

Dumbo, a circus elephant, is born with unusually large ears, causing him to be taunted and bullied by the other elephants. Feeling like a failure, Dumbo fails at whatever circus act he's assigned to do. In a move that further humiliates him, the circus assigns him the role of a clown, in a comedy act, that has him jumping into a vat of pie filling.

One evening, suffering from hiccups, Dumbo drinks a whole bucket of water containing discarded champagne and becomes very drunk. The next morning he wakes up sitting on a limb at the top of a tall tree. Stunned, Dumbo has no idea as to how he got there even though a large black crow repeatedly tells the young elephant that he had been seen flying around for most of the night. In spite of the crow's assurances, Dumbo can't believe he is capable of flying. To boost the young elephant's confidence, the crow gives him a "magic feather" and convinces him that -- with the power of the magic feather -- he can fly again and so he does.

Back at the circus, Dumbo must perform his stunt of jumping into the pie filling, but this time from a much higher platform. On the way down, he loses the feather, and out of panic, starts flapping his ears -- enabling him to pull out of the dive. He realizes that he can fly - just as the crow said - and he flies around the circus tent as the stunned audience looks on in amazement. Dumbo becomes the favorite act of the audience and media star of the circus.

The belief in the magic of the crow's feather first enabled Dumbo to fly out of the tree, return to the circus and risk jumping from a very high platform. Losing the feather forced him to recognize that the power to fly belonged to him and him alone, based on his anatomy -- ironically on the very part of his body that had caused him to feel like a failure. His continued success as the flying elephant was now based on his own belief that he could fly.

To me, this story makes a subtle but crucial change in the meaning of empowerment; that change can happen when a group or individual is offered an investment of power by an outside source [the crow], which then ignites the power inherent in the group or individual [Dumbo].

Are you a version of Dumbo - someone who has the inherent power to "fly" but grounded because of the internalized beliefs, biases and dysfunctions of the world you existed in as a child?

Obviously getting drunk and landing in a tree is not the answer to finding your power. But there are ways to begin to connect to the power within you. Your understanding of the hidden pressures and adaptations of your childhood can act as a first step in the process of releasing your hidden powers. A key understanding that will help you in that process is whether your disbelief in your power was based on your growing up in a world that fostered bullying, unfair competition, derision, taunting, humiliation, shame -- words and acts of another that made you feel like a failure. How often did you hear putdowns like: "Have you always been flat-chested?" or "You're too short to make it as a baseball player" or "You're so fat, we're going to have to use a shoe horn to get you in the car" or "You're too poor to belong to our club."

With new objectivity, take a look at yourself in a mirror and observe what you see and your reaction to that reflection. Are your reactions to your reflection positive or negative? If negative, are you looking at yourself through the distorted vision of someone else or someone else's requirement that you not own your own power? It could also be that you are looking at yourself through your distorted vision based on your distorted beliefs. By looking at these reflections you will be able to change the idea that because there was something "wrong," it had to be you who were wrong or you who were defective.

Explore who in your adult world can offer an objective view of you, based on their observations of you and how you function. In other words, find the "crows" that have seen you "flying". Having someone believe in your power can begin to prime the pump of your inherent power. These can include teachers, associates, family members that are free of the biases of the family and/or group, friends not caught in competitive dynamics, and sometimes even a stranger who sees your power in action.

There are times when a physical manifestation, such as a magic feather, is useful because of the belief that the object connects to the power of another being. Think of how important an object, often a blanket, is to a very young child in order for them to fall asleep. Sometimes we all need a talisman to remind ourselves of a previously successful endeavor or a gift that offers a feeling of being respected and loved.

Most important is your recognition that the part of you that has always been available to offer support and encouragement to another - your "sympathetic black crow" - is available to give yourself a "magic feather". Your investment of power in another, needs now to include you.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever including more strategies that can play an important part in the process of your breaking free. Hope you'll continue to join me on this journey.

 

Ditta M. Oliker, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and the author of The Light Side of the Moon: Reclaiming Your Lost Potential.

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