The Body: The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource Follow Us Follow Us on Facebook Follow Us on Twitter Download Our App 
Professionals >> Visit The Body PROThe Body en Espanol

The Journey Toward Empowerment

November 2001

Article: The Journey Toward Empowerment
Editor's Note: This article was written before the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and thus was not prepared with those specific events in mind. However, its message is in many ways very important in difficult times such as these.

Empowerment is about making choices consistent with the person we are, not the person others expect us to be. This aspect of empowerment relates to being an authentic person. Empowerment also involves acquiring virtues, such as honesty and courage. This aspect of empowerment accentuates its spiritual dimension.

This article is divided into four major sections: ways to surmount depression (since many people with HIV are depressed and since one cannot be empowered while being depressed); an overview of basic elements of empowerment; methods of effectively dealing with others; and a review of the qualities of happy people (for to become empowered is to become happy).

Ways to Surmount Depression

By making people uncomfortable, depression often motivates them to take the steps needed to overcome it. This is a positive effect of depression.

In addition to biological or organic reasons for depression, individuals may be depressed because of situations or circumstances related to being HIV positive or because of the stigma of being HIV positive and/or being gay or an intravenous drug user. Because life goes on despite our HIV status, many other things, independent of our HIV status, may cause us to be depressed!

While I have not battled organic or biological depression, I have experienced being depressed over changed circumstances. For several months, I was depressed after having moved from Chicago to a small rural Connecticut town of 6,000 persons. The loss of the stimulating city environment, good restaurants, friends, the ready companionship of gay people, and the ability to write at various interesting coffee shops (our town only has a Dunkin' Donuts located in a small strip mall).

I rejected my doctor's advice to take anti-depressants (although this is in no way a judgment of people who take anti-depressants). I felt I understood the causes of my depression and the general steps I needed to end it -- obtain interesting volunteer work, get involved socially with gay people, and find outside sources of stimulation (e.g., interesting getaways or places to visit). I gradually developed these outlets and my depression ceased.

Like many, I have adjusted to "poverty" -- from making $40,000 as the head of a non-profit organization to less than $12,000 on Social Security disability benefits. While this is an economic loss, there are ways in which it could be looked at as a gain. But this required me to look creatively at my situation. See the section on "Viewing Our Situation Creatively." Viewing one's situation creatively, rather than looking at oneself as a victim, is essential to overcome depression.

Depression and Our Changed Situation

Situational depression may include those circumstances where one feels or experiences some type of loss. One's loss may include such diverse things as:
  • death or disability of a friend or lover;

  • temporary or permanent HIV-related limitations (e.g., the loss of the ability to walk due to neuropathy);

  • change in one's appearance, such as facial wasting;

  • change in one's sex life (negotiation of safer sex, changes in dating behavior); or

  • changing one's environment or living situation because of poverty, which occurs for many of us to ensure drug coverage or public benefits. Particularly for those who did not grow up poor, learning to thrive despite poverty is a learning experience.

People should take a reasonable time to grieve or acknowledge the loss they have experienced. After grieving our loss, we must prepare to move on and accept it. Acceptance implies that we will overcome any resentment. We must learn to dance with our pain and find joy despite the losses we have faced.

It is preferable to accept our situation and adapt to it rather than being bitter. We can choose to hold on to our anger or release it. Acceptance enables us to truly live, grow, discover new interests, and take new paths on our journey.

Changing our attitude is critical to surmounting depression. Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, in his best-selling Man's Search for Meaning, noted that there were people in the concentration camps who comforted others and gave away their last piece of bread. He concludes that such people "offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- the ability to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances."

Facing Our Changed Situations

Facing our changed situations will require us to summon our patience, resourcefulness, coping mechanisms, the ability to analyze a situation and to develop a strategy to cope with it.

In order to analyze the situation so as to develop the best strategy, one should not make decisions while being upset or angry. This is one lesson that is appropriate when dealing with bureaucracies such as public aid or drug-assistance programs.

Viewing Our Situation Creatively (or Re-viewing Our Situation)

To view one's situation creatively is to re-interpret a bad or negative situation as a good or positive one. This is simply a matter of changing one's perspective. Many HIV-positive people have admirably done this. They have viewed HIV to have enhanced their life by causing them to:
  • re-examine their priorities, relationships, and satisfaction at work;

  • live more deliberately and more passionately;

  • be more honest and direct with others; and

  • be who they are, rather than what others expect them to be.

To illustrate how one situation can be viewed creatively, consider the state of poverty. Many people may consider poverty to be a bad or negative circumstance. But the following are some of the positive aspects of poverty. Poverty provides the opportunity for:

  • reflection and solitude, because we will have less opportunity to go out to do things which require us to spend money. In short, we may have to stay at home more often;

  • doing important things that do not require money; and

  • examining our materialism and the role of objects and things in our life.

Depression and Stigma: Stigma is a function of how others perceive us; more importantly it is also a reflection of how we perceive ourselves. We allow ourselves to feel stigma. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

To avoid feeling stigma we will often need to reject the opinion of the majority of people, who believe that some aspect of our behavior is morally wrong.

People who are conformists may have a more difficult time coping with the stigmatized views of the majority. Nonconformists who do their own thinking and who routinely question the standards of the majority will have an easier time discounting these standards!

Rising Above Stigma: Two major ways to rise above stigma are to define oneself as normal and lovable. This may require you to question societal norms and religious doctrine. To do the latter, you might delve into the Bible to understand religious passages and the historic context in which they were written. As HIV-positive people, the ability to define oneself as normal may require that we come to see our natures as valid and worthy.

To define ourselves as lovable, we must learn to care about ourselves. The more we take good care of ourselves, the more lovable we will find ourselves. Before I knew I was HIV positive, I found that HIV-positive people taught me more self-love and self-respect.

Focusing On Others: One possible key to surmounting depression, which causes us to focus on ourselves, is to get out of our shell by focusing on others. To do so, we can get involved in civic and community organizations that focus on causes important to us. Or we can work on projects that get and keep us involved.

Empowerment: The Basics

Following are some of the fundamental principles of becoming an empowered individual.

Becoming Comfortable With Ourselves: Being an authentic person involves being comfortable with who we are and with our friends and associates. In becoming authentic, we grant ourselves the opportunity to have a life that works. I once met a person who knew his friends were all "wrong" for him or at least a bad influence on him. He was afraid (and not secure enough) to leave these friends behind. In his view, to do away with his friendship circle would make him lonely.

There are many ways to be comfortable with who we are. One of the most significant ways is to be able to talk about who we are and what is important to us. (This concept is discussed in the next section on "Developing Honesty and Courage.")

Another simple way to be more comfortable with yourself, and to enhance your work life, is to determine your natural gifts. When you use your natural gifts at work, your work sometimes becomes a mission. Your natural gifts are the things you do effortlessly and may include the facility of working with numbers or the ability to draft, draw, write clearly or lead.

Many people end up in careers that do not use their natural gifts and, as a result, they must work harder at these careers. Imagine having the innate ability to dance, yet working for the census bureau! Having the courage to admit to yourself that your interests have changed, or that you entered a career at which you could not excel, takes inner strength and, ultimately, the courage to change direction.

Most people have many natural gifts. To see with awe all the natural gifts we have been given is to practice gratitude and to realize how fortunate we are.

Developing Honesty and Courage

For gay men and lesbians, and for all who are HIV positive, the process of coming out is a critical claim of our authenticity. In coming out we are able to talk about who we are, a process of asserting ourselves.

Many positive effects will flow from our honesty. First, we will begin to develop a wider self acceptance and with it our self respect is likely to increase. Second, the honesty and courage needed to come out will jump start our integrity.

Third, coming out also increases our resilience and prepares us for the possible cruel rejection of a few and the many unexpected hugs and blessings of the enlightened. With resilience, we are prepared for the next risk or challenge. Oddly enough, we become resilient by making ourselves vulnerable. By becoming resilient, we prepare to be fierce and are, therefore, unable to be injured.

Fourth, you will attract other honest and courageous people. You will repel game players. As more honest and courageous people are drawn to you, the more authentic you will become!

Fifth, as we become honest and courageous, we are likely to become good people. A good person is not the same thing as a nice person. A nice person may be polite and may tell you what you want to hear. Being good requires that we contribute to the planet in some way. Activism is one vehicle that enables us to contribute to the planet and exercise our virtues. Empowerment, therefore, draws us toward activism.

Activism is one of the obligations of empowerment. So empowerment requires us to work, and it is this work that sets us free. As Cicero said, to be free one must be a slave to a set of rules.

Activism causes us to focus on others and, therefore, reduces our self-centeredness. As Mother Theresa said, "by forgetting ourselves, we find ourselves."

Learning to Appreciate Solitude: Learning to use solitude effectively also enables us to be comfortable with ourselves and to develop awareness. We can use solitude to learn who we are and how we define ourselves. With reflection, we can see the steps we must take to change our direction. Unless we change our direction, we will end up where we are headed.

Becoming Aware: Many people are awake yet asleep. Becoming aware is the process of becoming alert. Awareness has an inward and outward dimension. To be aware we must have the capacity to look inward to see who we are. We must consider what we need to change about ourselves. To be aware we must also be sensitive to those around us by looking outward. Thus, to be aware is to be respectful of others.

Gaining Control of Our Emotions: The more empowered we become, the more likely we are able to gain control of our emotions and move beyond our anger. Anger, for example, might be the basis for civil disobedience. Anger can be an effective emotion, although it is not the most effective one. Anger's downside is that it tends to separate us from others. To treat the enemy lovingly (Gandhi's opponents were afraid to even meet with him lest they fall under the spell of his charisma) will dissolve any separation we may feel from the other. The change in others in response to our love will be more sincere and without reluctance.

Many with HIV are, understandably, angry because their life has changed so much. Indeed there are many losses associated with being HIV positive.

Anger is damaging because it prevents us from accepting our situation. Only when we accept our situation can we begin to deal with it. Anger is also damaging because it can deplete our energy.

Being Able to Make Decisions: Empowered people are able to make decisions. They do not waste their time deciding to decide. Their decisions are based on their priorities. They are not paralyzed by indecision and procrastination!

Honoring One's Commitments: Empowered people tend to do well whatever they choose to do. They honor their commitments and, at the same time, have the important ability to say no.

Methods of Effectively Dealing With Others

The empowered person must be able to effectively deal with and relate to others. Effectively dealing with others will cause you to feel more control in your life. The empowered leader must also be able to motivate others.

Dealing With others, the most important aspect of empowerment, relates to:

  • being honest when communicating with others;

  • clearly communicating with them;

  • managing our egos (which will enable us to effectively listen to others);

  • planning for the future; and

  • breaking down projects or goals into manageable tasks.

Because empowered people deal effectively with others, they have a reputation for getting things done.

Honest Communication With Others: Honest communication is one of the hallmarks of empowered communicators. Many people fear being honest because it will make them vulnerable. But people often open up to us and form relationships with us when we make ourselves vulnerable, not when we show our strengths.

Being Clear: In dealing with others, clear communication is critical. It will decrease or eliminate any feeling of frustration or uncertainty. Effective communication is both a skill and an art. It relies on our intuition and our sense of timing. Comments at one time, would be inappropriate at a different time. As the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a season for everything under the heavens.

Being direct and saying what you mean is the essence of clear communication. Clear communication enables the person you are communicating with to understand your expectations. You can clarify your expectations by giving the other person a timeline or deadline and describing comprehensively your approach to a project.

Managing Our Egos: Our egos can be a tremendous barrier to effectively dealing with others. Our egos get in the way of listening. Our egos prevent us from having a real conversation with another because they would have us believe that only we can teach others and that we may have little to learn from them. Our egos can also cause us to hastily judge or evaluate (and usually dismiss) what others are saying.

To manage our egos, we can admit when we are wrong, attempt to see the situation from another's perspective, and view all people as possible teachers (then we will believe that we have something to learn from them). Managing our egos will make us more effective listeners.

The Ability to Plan: The ability to plan implies that individuals will commit to the tasks that must be completed for a project to be finished. The empowered person follows through with any plans. Thus, empowered people are persistent and determined.

Empowered people make commitments and honor them. This gives them credibility with their peers. Once people know you by reputation, they will trust your ability to plan and to get things done.

In my capacity as the head of a few non-profit organizations, I have been amazed at how many people are unable or unwilling to make concrete plans (or make a commitment to them) even a few weeks into the future. This inability may result from difficulty in saying "no," or people may be unable to make commitments because they are game players or procrastinators.

Many people take on too many commitments and do not effectively assess the time these projects will take or whether they relate to their personal priorities. Failing to follow through with a project is much worse than saying no.

Likewise, being very honest with the person who is unable to make a commitment will often elicit an answer. In raising money for organizations, for example, people often say "we'll do something." This often means "we'll also decide when we'll do something." Explain that for planning purposes and to track the success of its fundraising campaign, the organization needs to know how much money is being collected over the short- and long-term. Or, just ask the person if, in a few weeks, they would be able to determine the extent of their commitment to your organization's campaign.

Because empowered people are do-ers, they do not tolerate unproductive people or people who do not finish projects. They do not play games with people.

Empowerment and Happiness

Empowerment should lead to our happiness. Happiness relates to the fulfillment we find in life. Viktor Frankl referred to this fulfillment as the end result of the search for meaning; psychologist Abraham Maslow called it self-actualization.

Our happiness will be related to the extent we are comfortable with ourselves, honest with others, and courageous enough to say who we are. Many philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and sociologists have written about happiness. There is much agreement about the basic elements of happiness. Happiness is defined from within. Happy people do their own thinking and make their own life choices. Consequently, they are internally directed.

The experts agree that happy people have meaning in their life, have a finely developed value system, and face reality by accepting their situation as it is.

Happiness and Meaning in Life: Having meaning in life means having an important purpose for living. It may include being passionate about something important to oneself: a hobby, relationship, job, or service to others. Viktor Frankl has noted that concentration camp survivors who knew there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.

Happiness and a Value System: Happy people have a finely developed value system. They are honest and have the courage to tell the truth. They mind their own business and focus on themselves. As a result, they are unlikely to gossip or mind someone else's business.

Happiness and Acceptance: Happy people accept reality. They accept where they are at any moment. Many people are happy despite the fact that they are suffering with physical pain or conditions. Happiness therefore is an inner strength that is manifest by a positive attitude and outlook.

Other Qualities of Happy People: Happy people are clear about their priorities and the goals they develop for themselves are all closely related to these priorities. Happy people would not be afraid to act consistent with their life or job-related priorities.

In conclusion, to become empowered is to dance through life and not to be encumbered by bad things that may happen to us, including suffering. Becoming empowered is about becoming virtuous, about being more honest and courageous and about reaching out in the service of others. Empowerment is also about finding meaning in life, a critical form of fulfillment that will enable us to be happy. Good luck on your journey!

James Monroe Smith was the founding executive director of the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago (1987), a post he occupied until April 1992. He has taught at the college and law school level. He is the author of AIDS & Society (Prentice-Hall, 1996) and Producing Patient-Centered Health Care (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999).

Back to the November 2001 issue of Body Positive magazine.

This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
See Also
Depression and HIV
Feeling Good Again: Mental Healthcare Works!
More on Depression and HIV/AIDS