In her book about self-esteem, Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem discusses the ways that internal and external power intersect and interact: “We make progress by spiraling back and forth between the inner world and the outer one, the personal and the political, the self and the circumstance. Nature doesn’t move in a straight line, and as part of nature, neither do we.” This spiraling—related to a Jungian idea of human consciousness, in which we follow the spiral to a higher level, only to meet a new challenge—is indeed how we make progress as human beings. And it is complicated by patriarchy.
The inner world that Steinem speaks of is the seat of our internal power, which simply belongs to every person—the power that makes us human, with unique abilities and gifts and the desire to create a life based on those abilities and gifts. This power comes from within, and motivates us to act on our own behalf. Internal power stems from self-esteem, and is therefore affected by our beliefs about ourselves. A person who is in touch with her own internal power does not seek self-definition from others, and does not define self via external power.
Ah, but that doesn’t mean that external power is irrelevant. External power is power in the world—the ways in which we interact with others and make an impact on our communities. Sometimes this power is sweeping or widely influential, like the power a judge or a CEO or a politician holds. But for most of us, it is simply the vehicle we use to bring our internal power into the external world. It gives concrete forms to our ideas and abilities—external power can get things done out there in the wide, wild world. And that’s important: it defines and circumscribes our health and safety, our ability to survive and to thrive.
A sexist society—a patriarchy—relies on the manipulation of both kinds of power, so that those who are said to be inferior will not believe otherwise, and will not try to change the external conditions of their lives. Living the spiral as a woman in a patriarchy means you are constantly attempting to bring your best self into the world while fighting a barrage of messages that tell you it is futile, as your best self doesn’t measure up. Now that’s a mind game, my friends. One with both personal and political consequences.
Some women face barriers that others never have to imagine, much less survive: poverty, racism, homophobia, intimate partner violence, rape, sex trafficking. Women who have survived trauma, as well as those who must struggle against more than one form of insult, discrimination, and violence, have greater barriers to both external and internal power than those who don’t. We must recognize this as a society, and work to heal it. One of the challenges to doing so is that all of us—including men—are trying to navigate our internal power in a society that defines a very narrow path to external power, and asks men to gain and keep it by hurting others, physically and emotionally.
Living the spiral—owning our internal power while working to bring our best selves into the external world despite the barriers against it—requires balance, awareness, and sensitivity. I’ve come to think of navigating the spiral as a dance. Sometimes, I stumble: I believe the messages of patriarchy and seek validation outside myself, or allow doubt to define my internal perspective. But I’ve gotten pretty good at catching myself and beginning again, this time while standing in my own power. Each time I do so, I remember Steinem’s assertion about navigating our power: “Progress lies in the direction we haven’t been.”
When we remember this, we make choices that allow our internal power to serve as our compass, creating a true revolution from within—a shift in perspective in which external power is a manifestation of internal power, rather than the other way around. Now that is progress indeed.