12/06/2013 08:12 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

The Secret to Attaining Personal Empowerment

We tend to equate personal empowerment with a subjective emotion -- the feeling of being empowered. Yet personal empowerment, by its very definition, is not something one feels but rather something one demonstrates. To be empowered is to have actual influence within any of the many spheres of our lives.

For example, we might feel empowered to work on our relationship with our spouse or to set limits with our teenage child. Feeling confident and assertive, we initiate a conversation with our spouse and have a chat with our teen. But unless our discussions lead to real improvements in our relationship or significant behavior change in our teen, we are essentially not very empowered at all, despite how charged up we felt when we approached them.

In other words, true personal empowerment has to involve real world evidence of our ability to have an impact on our relationships and social surroundings. Indeed, current psychological research posits that personal empowerment is an interactive process of taking action, getting feedback, making adjustments, taking further action, and eventually attaining real results.

The Steps to Increasing Personal Empowerment
Because the attainment of personal empowerment is an interactive process, it usually involves several steps, time, and effort (which means that it also requires patience and persistence).

1. Defining Our Goal: Since real personal empowerment requires the ability to attain specific outcomes, the first step we must take involves defining a personally meaningful goal that demonstrates our ability to have an impact.

2. Taking Action: In the second step we take action toward reaching our goal and proving our influence. Of course, the actions we take will only contribute to a sense of empowerment if they have the intended impact and we meet with success. Although failures will hamper feelings of empowerment and set us back, they should be anticipated and even welcomed because they contain crucial information that can help us adjust our efforts and increase our likelihood of future success.

3. Assessing Our Impact: Most of us are not going to be fortunate enough to meet with success right away. Therefore, once we take action we can assess our impact and figure out how to refine our approach and improve our future efforts. Completing this crucial third step will increase our competence, improve our knowledge base, and make us feel more effective and assertive.

4. Repeating Our Efforts: Because personal empowerment is a process, steps 2 and 3 will probably need to be repeated several times before we reach our goal. However, with each round we will refine our skills and efforts and get closer to attaining the outcome we desire.

Let's look at an example of the entire process. Imagine you live near an intersection that lacked a traffic light and your goal was to get your local municipality to install one. You might start with making a phone call or writing an email to the relevant elected official. But if that does not work (and it probably won't), you need to become more knowledgeable. You can investigate who is in charge of making such decisions. You can then organize a petition signed by neighbors in the area and send that to the appropriate person. If that too does not work, you can try enlisting the local press to report on the need for the traffic light.

Personal Empowerment and Self-Esteem
With each round, each time you fail to achieve the impact you desire, you assess what you can do differently in the future, make changes, and try again. Persisting toward your goal in this way will not only make you likely to eventually succeed, but it will do wonders for your self-esteem in the process. Attaining personal empowerment by demonstrating actual influence in your social or personal environment will build more substantial and longer-lasting self-esteem than any other technique or approach, because it is based on real world and demonstrable outcomes (as opposed to other techniques of building self-esteem which merely address your beliefs about your character and attributes).

The bottom line is there are no shortcuts one can take to feeling personally empowered. However, the substantial effort and work that are required for us to demonstrate a real influence in our environment is extremely worthwhile, as it is guaranteed to produce not only real life improvements but psychological and emotional payoffs that are just as valuable and even longer lasting.