“Sign on the dotted line, or pay up.” This was the choice my neighbour was offered by her landlord. After briefly considering each, my neighbour chose the option that put her at high risk, so that she could spend money on other things: junk food, a vehicle, movies, meals out. This is absolutely her prerogative. But is “feeling powerless” equally so?
In relative or absolute poverty, it’s common to feel powerless. There are indeed some choices we do not get to make, and people behind desks that call some of the shots in our lives.
When we hold a sense of powerlessness, our emotions justifiably include frustration, anger, rage, depression, anxiety, or apathy. From these places, we might naturally “act out”, seeking power in the few places we believe we can get it.
When I felt powerless, I punched new holes through my ears, stole socks from Value Village, set things on fire, packed my bags and walked out into the city streets…relatively goofy actions that harmed no one but that put me at risk of infection, fines, jail, violence. Talk about self-sabotage!
It’s healthy and appropriate to want a degree of personal power. If we are not permitted the critical development stage of practicing personal power in our youth, or if a third party arbitrarily removes opportunities for power in our adulthood, our frustration can build.
When the welfare worker requires that we wait outside in the rain for an hour, rather than inside with the first six people in line, we can feel powerless.
When the disability agency requires that we stand for two hours rather than arrive for an appointment time, or “take a number” and sit and read for the same period, we can feel frustrated.
When the employment agency refuses to hand us the form required to continue our participation in the program, we can feel angry.
When the child care subsidy office says we have four days to submit documentation that takes at least eight weeks to collect, we can feel overwhelmed with irritation.
When we know that not submitting to these rules will lead to eviction or hunger, we feel powerless.
Are we, though?
What happens when we start taking the power we do have?
…calling the tenancy board to learn all our options before talking further with the landlord?
…writing a short note to the child care subsidy office to request more time?
…asking a doctor for a note confirming we are physically unable to stand for two hours at a time, so that we are legally entitled to sit?
…building an emergency buffer, such that paying closer to market rent for a while is an option?
…budgeting according to our priorities so that our preferred housing is always affordable?
In my experience, taking the power we do have is life-changing. Looking for and taking our power wherever possible leads to increased power overall. And when we feel an overall sense of power in multiple smaller areas, we become infinitely more comfortable with not having absolute power. Life moves from a place of resignation or acting out to a place of negotiation, peace, balance, and joy.
In my book, I provide explicit instructions for how to grab the power available to us even while we are very poor financially. Every time we do so, our sense of power—as well as our bank account—ultimately increases.