Claim Your Power

February 27th, 2012

Every now and again in an acceptance speech, magic happens and an actor connects the dots between their on screen role and real life issues. Viola Davis, from The Help, did this in her award speech last year. She said,

I just want to say that the stain of racism and sexism is not just for people of color or women. It’s all of our burden. All of us. And I don’t care how ordinary you may feel. All of us can inspire change. Every single one of us. Thank you.

That’s an award speech worth making. I loved The Help and the issues it raised, universal issues of empowerment. In one scene, there is a flashback when Skeeter remembers an experience with her black nanny, Constantine.

Skeeter: All the boys say I’m ugly. Momma was third runner up in the Miss South Carolina pageant.

Constantine:  I wish you would quit feeling sorry for yourself. Now, that’s ugly. Ugly is something that grows up inside you. It’s mean and hurtful, like them boys. Now you’re not one of them, is you?

Skeeter shakes her head.

Constantine: Well, I didn’t think so, honey.

Constantine grabs Skeeter’s palm, pressing it with her thumb.

Every day…. Every day you’re not dead in the ground, when you wake up in the morning, you gonna have to make some decisions. Got to ask yourself, am I gone believe all them bad things them fools say about me today? You hear me? Am I going to believe all of them bad things them fools say about me today? All right.

Skeeter (in a voiceover as an adult): All my life I’d been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl. But with Constantine’s thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe.

Now, whenever I start to feel disempowered, I press my thumb into my palm and remind myself that I have a choice in what I believe; about myself, about life, about circumstances. The way other people act doesn’t need to control your life. You have the power of choice in how you respond. You can choose not to buy into other peoples’ hatred and insecurity.

We ALL have doubters, detractors and doomsdayers, and if we bought into their energy, we would end up basket cases. There is a saying, “Your enemies feed on your energy, so starve the bastards.” Your detractors feed on your energy, so don’t give them anything to feed on.

This is part of a series on not taking things personally. My interest in writing on this topic is to encourage ALL people to feel things deeply and personally but not TAKE things personally. It’s an important distinction. Some things definitely feel personal. Some things are also intended personally. Some people work very hard to make it personal for us. But it’s always a choice to TAKE it personally.

I have had many opportunities in my life to learn this truth. One situation stands out. An ultra conservative man wanted a meeting with me. We had never met before. I met him in the foyer of my office and stretched out my hand to shake his. He put his hand behind his back. I thought to myself, “Here we go! This is going to be interesting.” It turned out he thought he was coming to meet someone else. We chatted for a while and, while we never saw eye to eye on our beliefs, we did share a laugh or two. Yes, before he left, he shook my hand. The point here is that it’s impossible to take that situation personally. It was literally not about me. It WAS personal, and he wanted it to be personal. But it had nothing to do with me.

It rarely does. Each person brings their issues, expectations, assumptions and insecurities. Some do a better job of owning their own stuff than others. Some have a strong need to try and force others to buy into their drama. Don’t do it. Live your own life with integrity and let others deal with their stuff. (click here for 12 symptoms of living with power) Choose NOT to take it personally.

When it comes to larger scale, and more endemic issues, like racism or poverty or reproductive rights, hold your convictions. Fight for your rights and the rights of others. Speak up and get passionately active. Even so, you still don’t need to TAKE it personally, and your action will be more effective if it’s not loaded with the same energy you’re trying to fight. The point is to feel deeply passionate and become fully active, without becoming a victim.

One of the most inspiring examples of this was the black preacher and civil rights activist Wade Watts who died in 1998. He was persecuted by a man named Johnny Lee Clary who was the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan’s White Knights. After spending his twenties terrorizing black people in his home town in Oklahoma, Clary renounced his racist past and become an activist for tolerance and respect. He described an experience he had with Wade Watts. When they first met, Clary accidentally shook the hand of Wade Watts and immediately looked at his hand in disbelief. Watts said, “It don’t rub off.” Clary got embarrassed and began calling Watts all the derogatory names he could think of. Watts said to him,

God bless you, Johnny. You can’t do enough to make me hate you. I’m gonna love you and I’m gonna pray for you, whether you like it or not.

Later, Clary called Watts at his home to tell him that his church was being burnt to the ground by Klansmen. Watts prayed out loud through the phone, “Dear Lord, please forgive Johnny for being stupid. He’s a good boy.”

Not only did Watts NOT take any of this personally, but he seemed to be a big part in creating change in Clary. How did he do it? Extravagant compassion. Maybe Wade knew that Johnny had a dysfunctional family life and, at age 10, watched the father who had taught him prejudice and hatred, kill himself. Maybe he knew that Johnny was moved from family member to family member and had no stable adult influence. Maybe he knew that Johnny ended up in the gang scene in East LA and joined the Ku Klux Klan by the time he was 14.

When you think of the hateful things he did and said as an adult; it’s easy to take Clary’s actions personally. When you think of a ten year old boy trying to come to terms with his own confusion; it’s hard not to have compassion for him, and therefore hard to take it personally. Wade Watts saw a bigger picture. Without for a second excusing what he did in the name of racial hatred, Johnny Lee Clary is a reminder that people live what they learn and if you surprise them by not buying into their drama, they DO change.

How do people like Wade Watts manage to find compassion and calm in the face of hatred? Inner mastery. This comes from radical self acceptance that doesn’t need to be validated from the outside and can’t be shattered from the outside. Wade had this in spades.

As Abeliene (Viola Davis), from The Help, often told the little white girl in her care, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.” If we all had this inner self respect, we might be more respectful of others and take things far less personally. Then imagine the change that would come over the world.

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  1. […] 9. A loss of interest in taking things personally. […]

  2. Donna says:

    Sometimes, I pass by your blog posts.  But whenever I do NOT…I find something I need to know…and to feel.  I know that the Universe has a way of making exactly what I need available to me…and I thank you for being the seed of my renewed life today.  Brightest Blessings to you Ian.

  3. @counsel4living says:

    This is powerful Ian. Thanks for taking the time and courage to pen it.

    Keep living on purpose 🙂

  4. Jenny says:

    Dear Ian,
    Since my immersion into reading online text, I’ve made less time for books and movies.  This year I made time to see the Help on screen and to read the book.  There were so many great lines, but the one you chose about beliefs is my favorite.  Your writing is continually kind, smart and important.  It’s helped me to open my mind and my heart to the goodness within.   It reminds me think deeply about the way I can respond to the world.  

  5. Robin says:

    Love it Ian.  If all the world could live this way…Imagine.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Wow, Ian. I, too enjoyed the recent Academy Awards and hoped The Help would win more recognition. But you have aptly distilled one of the books’s more eloquent messages. Thank you so much for taking the time to think about this, write about it, and publish your thoughts. “Extravagant compassion” will now be added to my list of personal goals. I am very moved. I love reading your thoughts, Ian. Thanks again for sharing your gift with us.

  7. Mary says:


  8. Mia Caruso says:

    Ian, this is a beautifully written article that inspires me.  Thank you for writing it.  You have hit the nail on the head when it comes to not taking things personally and owning your power.  And as a big movie fan, I love your examples from the movie The Help.  Brilliant work! Bless you!

  9. Tammy Fletcher says:

    An excellent article – definitely sharing.

  10. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    I rather think that you’ve prayed for my return to reality, Ian. Thank you.

  11. Tobechukwu says:

    Thanks for putting up this article. It was quite helpful.

  12. I wish I had written this! It is so powerful, so inspiring—I posted it to Facebook, Twitter and am sending it to a bunch of people personally! Thank you. Diana Fletcher

  13. […] If you haven’t already, claim your power. This article is so powerful itself, I know you’ll be […]

  14. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    You’re always there…just when I need your advice & guidance. I’m glad I looked this up. Thank you.

  15. Tina says:

    Thank you for sharing, Ian. 

  16. Roxanne says:

    Hello Ian! Thank you so much for sharing this. I had to pause so many times while reading this article because of the insights that drastically changed a lot of my perspectives about dealing with other people’s opinions/ideas. While reading, I remembered a quote that goes something like, “How other people treat you is a reflection of them, not you”, but then this quote seems lacking in how one can actually deal with those people, and so, I was also blown away by that section on compassion. The stories and examples you gave were inspiring. Reading this was without question, for me, a revelation. I never thought about my disempowering circumstances in this way, so thank you for giving me a whole new and liberating perspective. I haven’t felt this kind of peace in a long time. I AM SO BLESSED BY YOUR AMAZING GUIDANCE.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! 

  17. ian says:

    Thank you Roxanne, you sound like an awesome, open, compassionate person. Thank you for being YOU. Ian

  18. I am not sure how I arrived on this page — following a tweet.  

    I really enjoyed it and like what you said.

    I am working on a white paper on the topic of discrimination.

    I have come to realize that discrimination is being fed not just by those who discriminate but by those who have experienced discrimination.

    I have learned a great deal about the power of expectation and various research has shown me that in many instances things are interpreted as being discriminatory when they aren’t.  I am not saying that some discrimination does not still exist — not all those old ideas have died out yet — but in many instances, the younger generations are being taught to expect discrimination so they end up interpreting things that are not flowing from discriminatory thoughts or intentions as being discrimination.

    This is very disempowering for the individuals who perceive it where it isn’t.   It is also unhealthy – mentally & physically.

    This is all areas of discrimination– not just racism. 

    I shared an early draft of the white paper with my heart-adopted son and told him of my dream of reducing perceived racism by helping people understand that warning children to expect racism/discrimination perpetuates the pain and  increases (substantially) the “experienced” discrimination.  One can have the experience of discrimination even when discrimination is not the cause of the event that is being perceived in that way.   I told him I did not know how I would do it – how I could have the right voice.  He told me, “Mom, the founder of the NAACP was white — you can do it.”  I love that young man!

    I have many examples in the white paper about situations that further explains this.  

    Again, I am not saying that the entire problem is gone — but that more problem is being experienced perceptually than really exists.  We each interpret events in our life based on our expectations.

    Looking back there were events I experienced many years ago that were probably discriminatory but I did not perceive them as such.  I am glad of that because if I had done so I would have felt disempowered and felt I lived in a far less friendly universe than the one I perceived myself in.  They were all incidents that could have been interpreted in many ways.

    When someone is disempowered they lose so much — self-perception dips and the potential to thrive is diminished.  But it can be regained.

  19. This article is so wonderful on so many levels. So often we forget to look at where a person has been and instead only see the person in the Now. If we all began to look into each other to see the Inner Child, the way we treat one another would change drastically.I am deeply touched by your writing. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I hope this article is viewed by thousands.~Amy~

  20. Jasna says:

    Hi,Ian,your words are very wise.We all need source where we can find the power or energy to go in to action.My source is alwys my coinscousness,when I notice that someone is not good to people or animals.From this source ,I can tranforme me from kitty  to tiger,but not with killing power ,just with power of words and arguments. I  am against violence ,totaly peacefuly from the first  day I remember .When I have noticed violence ,I have always protected the victimes .I believe in power of words and this believe gives me power to speak in moments when all other are in silence ,because they are afraid.I told you story  about stolen  money when I only with words  ,at evening, forced a young man to give stolen money back  to my cooworker.Magic words were:Do you know ,what have you done! ?She don´t  earn  a lot of money on her workplace and now you have stolen even this misery ,she have and need it to survive till end of month.Shame of you!Give her money back,this moment!He was without words and gave  money back to her.It was in the night and  I am  only 165 cm high, with  53 kg .So you can see ,he was not impressed with my muscels but with power of my words.If  you know Toofssy ,little fairy from italian cartoon , who always doing good and  put bad people on test on end with singing gras,in this moment this gras will be singing with his brath.

  21. dawn says:

    Thank you for your timely post on Twitter today. I needed to be reminded of the power we all have in how we choose to respond to people at any given time. I’ve had problems with a neighbor ever since he bought a big screen TV. For the most part, he’s pretty good about the noise levels. Once in awhile, he goes overboard and disrupts my evening. This reminds me that I can choose to get angry and take this as being inconsiderate or I can choose to see it an opportunity to listen to some calming music and not to the noise next door. Beautifully written.  

  22. What a thought-provoking post. I have real problems with self esteem and seeing myself as a victim all the time. I am a master at taking things personally. Trying to see things from someone else’s point of view is a good way to gain perspective. I seem to be able to show others when they haven’t seen the bigger picture, I’m not so good at doing it for myself!

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