The Churning Waters of Empowerment

Feeling powerless can be detrimental, often leading to a state of anguish. Commonly described as the absence of power or control, believing one lacks strength or competence to overcome can result in powerlessness which can cause feelings of fear, helplessness, and hopelessness.

"When individuals feel powerlessness, they may feel hesitant, afraid, or unwilling to express their feelings, fearful that what little they have will be taken from them" (Psychology, 2021). The opposite could then simply be described as empowerment, or believing one has an ability to meet one's goal.

Cattaneo and Chapman (2010) created a model of the process of empowerment for use in research and practice, in which they define empowerment as: "an iterative process in which a person who lacks power sets a personally meaningful goal oriented towards 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."

This model of empowerment includes repeating a cyclical process resulting in "a personally meaningful increase in power that a person obtains through his or her own efforts" (Cattaneo & Chapman, 2010). The core of empowerment includes an increase in self-efficacy, knowledge and competence leading to carrying out actions toward goal achievement, observing and reflecting on the impact of actions in relation to goal achievement, and defining or redefining meaningful, power-oriented goals and objectives.

Researchers further describe several pillars of empowerment (Cattaneo & Chapman, 2010) (Rappaport, 1987) (Zimmerman, 1995), such as:

  • Empowerment as mastery which is described as gaining a sense of personal control, wisdom, and connection.

  • Empowerment as participation, involving social connection "as a mechanism toward greater control of resources."

  • Empowerment as goal achievement, which includes awareness and achievement towards goals, whether "intrapsychich" or involving changes in power.

  • Empowerment as individual which is referred to as psychological empowerment, consisting of intrapersonal, interactional, and behavioral components in which "action is taken in the environment".

Empowerment "links the individual and his or her well-being to the wider social and political environment in which he or she functions" (Amichai-Hamburger, McKenna, & Tal, 2008). "From a psychological perspective, empowerment links mental health and well-being to mutual help to the creation of a responsive community." It is further explained that researchers identified four distinct dimensions: (a) meaning, (b) competence, (c) self-determination, and (d) impact. Constructs such as self-efficacy, self-esteem, control, and competence are often impacted by or impact empowerment.

Other meanings that can be gleaned from empowerment include "the interpretation of personal control" (Lord & Hutchinson, 1993). The interpretation of personal control could be seen as "an active process of engagement in the social world."

Empowerment is a concept often utilized in the helping profession. Counselors and social workers strive to empower clients, groups, and communities to overcome challenges such as emotional trauma resulting from abuse, divorce, or grief, or substance abuse, eating disorders, personal or family illness. Counselors tend to "provide the structure that will facilitate the client's development and empowerment" (Shallcross, 2012).

Counseling and Social Work professionals often advocate for policies that also "promote greater social justice and equity" (Virginia Community University, 2021) by enhancing awareness at the level of self efficacy and critical consciousness both at micro and macro levels. A five-step problem-solving model is often used to apply empowerment theory, includes the following steps:

  • Identify problems

  • Define strengths

  • Set goals

  • Implement interventions

  • Evaluate successes collaboratively

Newly empowered individuals can be met with opposition or anger due to the loss of control felt from the abuser. Should you be in a Domestic Violence situation, there are local and national organizations who can help. You may call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or use their live chat on their website, or text START to 88788. This links you to their interactive guide to safety planning.

Empowering processes "are those where people create or are given opportunities to control their own destiny and influence the decisions that affect their lives" (Zimmerman, 1995). Individuals can obtain a sense of success between "their goals and a sense of how to achieve them...and gain mastery over their lives." One does not have to obtain complete control, but perceived control and the resulting hope found in trying to take control back one step at a time.

Each unique person has a right to feel capable and manage one's own life. As a counselor, it is phenomenal to witness a client become empowered as he/she/they have the insight, knowledge, skills, and motivation to take the power back from whatever oppressed situation they are in. If we all work together, we can overcome any feeling of hopelessness or helplessness existing in each other and in communities.

Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached through emailing her at, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting


Amichai-Hamburger, YU, McKenna, K. Y. A, and Tal, S-A. (2008). E-empowerment: Empowerment by

the internet. Computers in Human Behavior. DOI:10.1016/j.chb.2008.02.002.

Cattaneo, L. B. and Chapman, A. R. (2010). The process of empowerment. American Psychologist. 65(7),

646-659. DOI:10.1037/a0018854.

Pratto, F. (2015). On power and empowerment. British Journal of Social Psychology. DOI:11.1111/bjso.12135

Psychology (2021). Power and powerlessness. Retrieved from

Shallcross, L. (2012, December 1). The recipe for truly great counseling. Counseling Today. Retrieved from

Virginia Community University (2021, January 6). Empowerment theory in social work. VCU Online

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Zimmerman, M. A. (1995). Psychological empowerment: Issues and illustrations. American Journal of

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