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How to Attain Real Personal Empowerment

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Psychologists have proposed a new model of personal empowerment which states that true empowerment cannot come from merely feeling empowered but must involve real world evidence of our ability to have an impact on our relationships and social surroundings.

Popular culture often misrepresents the concept of personal empowerment by placing emphasis on attaining a subjective emotion in which one feels empowered. However, empowerment by its very definition requires increasing our actual influence within our social sphere, whether we do so within our intimate relationships our larger social context, as citizens or as consumers.

A model that emphasizes having a real world impact

Lauren Cattaneo & Aliya Chapman of George Mason University proposed a model of personal empowerment that describes an interactive process, which emphasizes the real world actions we take and the impact these actions have on our social relations. Feeling empowered is great but it can only contribute to increases in actual personal empowerment if we then apply these feelings in the real world and get results.

For example, reading a self-help book might make us feel empowered to improve our relationship with our spouse, but unless we are able to initiate a productive dialogue with them and unless that dialogue leads to actual improvements in the relationship, we are no more empowered than we were when we started.

How to increase our personal empowerment

Cattaneo & Chapman define personal empowerment as "...a process in which a person who lacks power sets a personally meaningful goal oriented toward increasing power, takes action toward that goal, and observes and reflects on the impact of this action, drawing on his or her evolving self-efficacy, knowledge, and competence related to the goal." p. 647

A crucial aspect of this new model is the dynamic feedback between our efforts and the results they yield. Successes and failures along the way can impact the process of empowerment in both positive and negative ways. Taking action is not sufficient in and of itself. Rather, doing so will only contribute to our sense of empowerment if our actions have the intended impact and we meet with success. Failures can hamper feelings of empowerment and set us back.

One of the most important takeaways from this new model is that identifying goals that promise a higher likelihood of success can be vitally important to any empowerment process. In addition, being able to acquire the necessary skills to attain these goals can make a huge difference in how quickly and successfully the empowerment process proceeds. One of the easiest and most accessible ways we can apply these lessons and gain empowerment is by pursuing a meaningful complaint.

Why complaints are the perfect tools for achieving personal empowerment

We all encounter complaints on a regular basis, yet far more often than not we fail to pursue them effectively. Instead, we typically complain about them for the sole purpose of venting our frustrations. For example, we feel so helpless and hopeless about resolving our consumer complaints that a staggering 95% of consumer dissatisfactions go unresolved because we fail to complain effectively about them. The same holds true for complaints in our personal lives. When we are frustrated or hurt by a friend or loved one, we discuss our complaint with a large number of other friends and loved ones and rarely with the original person.

We are convinced that bringing up our complaints with the people responsible, whether they are friends and loved ones, or companies and businesses, will be more trouble than it's worth, will not lead to a satisfying resolution and that it might actually make the situation worse. However, by pursuing a complaint successfully we can demonstrate our influence in our relationships and/or our social context and feel more capable, competent and empowered.

The 6 steps to personal empowerment

Cattaneo & Chapman lay out 6 steps in the process of attaining personal empowerment. Let's illustrate these steps by applying them to the pursuit of a consumer complaint.

1. Identify a power oriented goal: The idea is to increase our level of influence at any level of social interaction, either with another person, a group or a system. When pursuing a consumer complaint we in essence are doing battle with a business, a company or a corporation. Winning the battle by attaining the result we want is a significant demonstration of our social influence. When we address a complaint to a friend or loved one and resolve it successfully, we are having an impact on a relationship that is both meaningful and highly significant to our lives.

2. Knowledge: To attain our goal we need an understanding of the system involved, the power dynamics we might encounter, the resources we will require and a plan of action. My book The Squeaky Wheel has all the information one needs to pursue complaints effectively both with loved ones and as consumers. It lays out clear guidleines for complaining effectively to spouses, friends, and teenagers. It specifies what to know when calling customer service hotlines, how to manage our emotions in such situations and how to construct effective complaints that will elicit best efforts from the service representative. It also discusses how to escalate complaints to company executives.

3. Self-efficacy: To take action we must first believe we can accomplish our goal. Acquiring the knowledge and skill set necessary to pursue our complaints and having a variety of effective complaining tools at our disposal can make all the difference in the world to our confidence and feelings of self-efficacy.

4. Competence: The better our skills the greater our competence. Putting our newly acquired complaining skill set into action will quickly give us information about where we are strongest and which skills or competencies need work. Pursuing complaints with loved ones requires delicacy and the right techniques, both of which can be improved through practice. Complaining to companies and business can take persistence and here too, the more efforts we make, the more we learn, the higher our level of competence becomes.

5. Action: The process of empowerment is a dynamic one where we act, reflect, assess, and act again. When complaining to a loved one, we should try out our skill set by addressing small and less meaningful complaints first (for example, a complaint about an incomplete house chore, or a specific episode of lateness). We might have an exchange with a customer service representative that does not resolve our problem but gives us important information we can use when speaking to a supervisor later on or when escalating a complaint to company executives.

6. Impact: Personal empowerment can be hard earned and in a sense, it should be if we wish to change how we feel deep within. Not all our efforts will yield results right away. The process of empowerment is just that, a process and not an overnight metamorphosis. The more meaningful our social influence, the more empowered we will feel.

The process of empowerment is not a linear drive toward stronger internal feelings of efficacy, but rather a dynamic process in which we acquire knowledge, take action, assess our impact and refine our efforts. It is best to build slowly by pursuing simpler complaints before tackling more meaningful dissatisfactions. Each small complaint we resolve along the way will create another building block upon which we can build a stable and lasting sense of personal empowerment, self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Feeling more confident, competent and empowered might be only a complaint away.

View my short and quite personal TED talk about Psychological Health here:

For more ways to boost personal empowerment and self-esteem, check out my new book: Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch


Cattaneo, L. B. & Chapman, A. R. The Process of Empowerment: A Model for Use in Research and Practice. American Psychologist. (2010) 65, 646-659.

Winch, Guy. The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve your relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. (2011) Walker & Company; New York.

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