What does it mean to be truly empowered and how can we help ourselves get there?

For the final topic of season two of our podcast, we wanted to explore a topic that would leave you feeling inspired. What better topic to end with then, than empowerment? 

Joining me for this discussion are confidence coach and counsellor Aaron McCarthy and diversity and inclusion campaigner Laura Mathias. Here we talk about what the word empowerment truly means, the power that comes from surrounding yourself with the right people and the inspiration younger generations offer.

Listen to the empowerment episode of Happiful: Finding What Works below, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Edited for brevity and clarity.

Kat: Hello everyone, and thank you for joining me today. So today is the final topic of season two, and we wanted to leave you feeling uplifted and inspired. The final topic we're going to be exploring is empowerment. And joining me today are two brilliant guests who are going to help us navigate empowerment, and we're going to have our usual exhale episode after this to help you put into practice what we learned during this conversation. 

So I'm going to ask my guests to introduce themselves and then we'll get into the topic. So, Aaron, I'm gonna start with you. Could you please introduce yourselves and tell us more about who you are and the work that you do? 

Aaron: Hi, I am a coach and a counsellor. Most of my experience has been in New York and the music industry. I lived there for 25 years, so I developed artists, coached producers, and also developed stage presence for artists, how to deal with social media and navigate their careers. Since I moved back to London about five years ago, I've been doing relationship coaching, confidence coaching, and business coaching for CEOs and senior management, helping them get things in their lives on the right track.

Kat: Brilliant, thank you. That must have been amazing to have lived in New York and worked in the music industry. 

Aaron: Yeah, it was pretty hectic but fun. 

Kat: Thank you so much. And Laura, how about you? 

Laura: Hello. I'm Laura. Less glamorous in the sense that I haven't lived in New York. I didn't intend to actively empower anyone else. I've been invited here because I'm a pretty average woman, except for the fact that I'm rocking my big bald head and lost my hair due to alopecia when I was around 13. I spent two decades of my life hiding behind my wig and being terrified for anyone to notice or talk about my visible difference. Since the pandemic, finding a community, and now getting support from that community, I don't know when the light bulb moment happened, but I decided enough was enough. So I've ditched the wig and am embracing my difference and actively celebrating it. I'm here to talk about how I've empowered myself during that journey, but I think we'll get onto how you end up empowering other people as well when you embrace yourself.

Kat: Exactly. You touched on a really good point there about what empowerment means to us and how once we empower ourselves, we can empower others and we'll definitely get onto that. 

To start with, I'd love us to talk a bit more about what empowerment really means. I did Google a definition just to kick us off, and the official definition according to Google, is the process of gaining freedom and power to do what you want or to control what happens to you. So, Laura, I'm going to stick with you. Could you tell me what empowerment means for you? 

Laura: I find that definition so interesting because control is something I haven't felt I've had in my life, especially being a teenager who suddenly started losing her hair. The feeling of powerlessness came from not being able to control the changes happening to my body and my physical appearance. So part of my empowerment in recent years hasn't been about finding ways to make my hair grow back. 

The key to how I understand empowerment is the word 'freedom'. It's that no F's attitude, so to speak. Everyone else around me is telling me that this is the goal, this is the one thing. Empowerment for me is that internal thing of looking inside and thinking, when do I feel at my best? When am I thriving? And maybe what are those things that I've felt I couldn't do and why not? So for me, empowerment is setting that goal and trying to get there, knowing that if you don't, it's not the end of the world. Empowerment and challenging myself to do those things I felt I was never able to do is definitely how I would define it.

Kat: Thank you. I really agree with you; that definition is a bit of a strange one. It's a tale of two halves: gaining the freedom and power to do what you want. I definitely agree with that. And then, as for controlling what happens to you, I'd say it's more about controlling your reaction to what's happening to you. As you said, it's about setting challenges for yourself, recognising where I've been holding myself back and figuring out how I can move forward on that. So I really agree with that. Thank you.

Aaron, coming to you, how would you say empowerment has touched your life, and what does the word mean to you?

Aaron: Well, I agree with Laura. I think it's about having the confidence to be who you are and the belief that how you feel or how you want to portray yourself is okay. Really understanding that, you know, if people don't like it or if people do like it, that's fine as well. But having the confidence, the ability and knowledge that you can determine how you live your life. You are in charge of who you are and how you are in this world. It's that encouragement, and giving people the confidence to believe in themselves. That encouragement is what empowerment means to me.

Kat: Absolutely. It's recognising that you are the author of your own book, your life story, and you can make changes. Feeling empowered and maybe safe to a degree to be able to do that and finding that sense of safety within yourself and within your community to take those steps forward. I really appreciate that. Thank you both.

So when we think about "finding what works," which is the title of the podcast and something we always explore, when it comes to empowerment, I would love to hear your thoughts on what you have found works for you personally or in the work that you do. Laura, I'll come to you first, and again, this is probably a bit more personal. What have you found has helped you on your journey to finding empowerment?

Laura: What has helped me feel empowered is community, through and through. I know everyone says the phrase, "If you can't see it, you can't be it." And I used to believe that, but actually, I don't think that's true anymore. I've realised it certainly helps if there's media representation or if you can see yourself in others, or whatever it is that you are aiming to feel empowered to do. Of course, it helps. But if you can't see that, that's not a no. Maybe that's where the control takes place. I've got to admit, I didn't feel empowered for those 20 years to not wear a wig or to talk about my alopecia because I couldn't see anyone in the public eye doing it. And obviously, I'm 32 now, so I was also in the days when social media wasn't quite the tool it is now.

So, apart from some chat forums where people were understandably moaning about their alopecia, I felt that wasn't the space empowering me to feel good about dealing and learning to live with this condition. It was only during the pandemic when I bothered to search the hashtag #alopecia that the curtains were drawn back, and I found all these people at different stages of their journey of empowerment and living with alopecia or visible differences. It made it so much easier for me to start interrogating my own feelings towards everything to do with myself.

I think representation is key, but I don't think it's the end-all. If you don't see it, a huge part is to be the representation that you can't see. The voice that I've always had in my head, the more I challenge myself to do new things, is that 13-year-old me would never, ever have dreamt that I'd be doing this. And that's who I'm doing it for. If it helps other people along the way, that's just a bonus.

Kat: I love that, and I really resonate with that. The 13-year-old version of yourself or the younger version of yourself is something I can relate to because I struggled a lot with my mental health when I was a teenager and completely lost all sense of confidence and self-esteem. I've gradually been building that back up ever since. Whenever I look at the things I'm doing now, like hosting a podcast, I think, "Wow, past me would never have believed that." And it's partly doing it for them. Brilliant. Thank you so much, Laura.

Aaron, could you tell me a little bit more about what you find works, perhaps for you, but more importantly, what works for your clients when it comes to empowerment? What do you find helps there?

Aaron: I think what works the most is listening. I deal with a wide spectrum of people, but it's really about seeing who they are and helping them reveal who they think they should be versus who they really are. It's about allowing them to unravel that and sit comfortably in what makes them comfortable. It's not thinking too much about what other people say or feel about them, but how they feel about themselves and being okay with that.

If they have things they need to work on, it's about being okay with that and showing them their strengths, their positive values, and morals. The things they might be struggling with are just challenges, and there's always a way through and a way out. It's about talking through it, getting the answers from within them, and showing them that they have the answers; they just need to speak them out loud and find the bite-sized steps they need to take to move forward.

Kat: Absolutely, it sounds like self-awareness and self-reflection are really key parts of that. You mentioned values, and I think that's such an important thing to identify — your core values and beliefs. If anyone listening to this is not sure about this and how to go about identifying their core values, on Life Coach Directory we have a page with information on how to do that. I'll pop a link to that in the description because I think it's a really big part of it. Once you identify those and see the positives in them, you can start to build up that sense of self-trust and self-belief, which ultimately leads to empowerment.

You mentioned working with a broad spectrum of people, and I'd be interested to hear, do you find that there's someone you're particularly passionate about empowering in the work that you do?

Aaron: I like to empower teenagers because I have a lot of nieces and nephews who have struggled with various things. I was raised by a single mom who raised six kids. She was always encouraging us and letting us fail, then showing us why we failed and how not to fail the next time. She let us become ourselves without putting us down and gave us the skills and tools to become good adults. She was an amazing positive role model for us.

So, I think I'm particularly passionate about working with marginalised people, those who have been through abuse, teenagers who are struggling, and maybe creatives who don't know where they want to exist in this world. I enjoy working with outsiders and showing them where they can exist. You might be an outsider here, but that doesn't mean you're an outsider everywhere. You just haven't found your place yet.

Kat: I love that. That's a really powerful idea that you might be an outsider here, but you might not be elsewhere, and you can find your place. Thank you, Aaron.

Laura, I have a similar question for you. You said that you've accidentally become someone who empowers others. So I'd love to hear more about if there is anyone that you are particularly keen to empower with the work that you do.

Laura: Yeah, it's fantastic to hear Aaron talking about how he loves working with young people because that is actually the group that, unofficially, I have ended up focusing on. It seems to have become the core mission of my volunteering. I work for an international charity that focuses on protecting and supporting children. I'm a trustee for a youth charity, and I volunteer for the Alopecia UK Youth Voice Board. I support the young media champions for Changing Faces, for example. I don't know how this happened, but I think because I was a teenager, a young person when all this happened to me, and I felt I didn't have that support or that voice championing me, I'm almost trying to heal that wound for myself and make up for that by giving my time now that I'm kind of coming out the other side to support young people.

Actually, I would love to ask Aaron this: Half the time I'm in these online team meetings or whatever with young people who are maybe at the start of their alopecia journey, or maybe they've had it for a few years, and I'm genuinely impressed, inspired, and activated to want to do more by them. There are teenagers telling me how they just go to their PE lesson, whip their wig off, and then put it back on afterwards. That blows my mind because I think back to when I was at school and I actually ended up missing a whole school year when I lost my hair because I just couldn't be seen. I couldn't emotionally deal with what was happening to me.

So I'm so impressed and inspired by these young people now. I don't see it as a one-way channel of "Hey, look at me, I'm 32 years old, look at what I've done." It's more like, "I'm still learning, and I'm learning from them every single day." 

Aaron: Yeah, teenagers are so impressive because they've got so much stimulation, creativity, and courage. I learn from them every day, and it's quite remarkable to see how brave they can be about everything. Obviously, there are things that get to them, but sometimes they're like, "Yeah, I just do it," or "I just don't do it," you know?

Laura: Yeah, when we talk about freedom, the idea of not caring about what other people think and all those external voices, I've got to admit, for me, it feels like there was a time in my life - granted it was pre-alopecia - where I was a young, chubby, tomboy, eczema-ridden kid. But it didn't matter what I looked like because I was just out there having fun, making friends, and being very outgoing. Then, when hormones started flying about and we were suddenly sizing each other up and deciding if we fancied people, all of a sudden, my value was just based on how I looked.

Now I'm starting to come out the other end where I can see, hopefully, the older I get, the more I'm going back into that "no F's given" phase of my life. So, I think we're almost sandwiched by this freedom more, and it's just this horrible chunky bit in the middle where we're all trying to navigate what societal expectations are telling us we should be, should look like, and how we should show up in the workplace or in romance or whatever it is.

So, yeah, I think having regular chats with these young people is definitely the most empowering thing I've started doing.

Aaron: Yeah, definitely. Surrounding yourself with the right kind of people who don't pick on unkind or irrelevant things, or things that don't really matter in the long run, is crucial. It's about who someone is, how they feel, how they treat you, how you treat them, how you treat the planet or the place that you live in, and the people you come into contact with. That's what really matters.

Not if you're wearing – because I wear black all the time and for years people have said, "Oh my God, how can you wear black in the summer? It's so hot." And I'm like, "Well, yeah, but I go to Uniqlo and get a breathable black T-shirt, so I'm okay." Who cares, you know? Let's have a nice conversation and support each other. That's the most important thing, isn't it?

Kat: Definitely. Showing up as you are and not caring what other people think is something you learn and grow into. I resonate with the struggle of the teenage years with hormones flying around and all of that. It's great to hear how chatting with young people has inspired you both. Thank you for sharing. 

So, talking a bit more about coaching, Aaron, I'd love to hear how that can support someone looking for help with empowerment and what they might expect if they haven't done coaching before. What can they expect from a coaching session?

Aaron: Coaching is guidance to pull things out of you and provide you with the tools to reach a destination. It involves assessing where you are now, the struggles or obstacles you want to overcome, and giving you the tools, processes, and guidance to get you to that point or to the next stage.

In a session, I would ask you what you'd like to work on or talk about today, then discuss why you want to focus on that and how you currently feel about it. We would talk through ways to improve the situation, to unpick it, and to figure out if that's really what you want and why you want it. Then, we would review what that thing is and provide you with a roadmap and processes—whether it's journaling, thinking about something, doing an activity, or something else—that will advance you to the next step in your way.

I aim to let people know they have the answers within them and help them extract those answers, deal with them, and move forward in accordance with their values.

Kat: I think that's what I love so much about coaching — the process itself is empowering. As you said, coaches are there to help you draw the answers from yourself, not to tell you the answers or what to do. They encourage you to reflect and find your own answers, drawing on your own resources and helping you realise you have resources to draw on. This slowly builds confidence and empowerment, no matter what you are specifically going to coaching for. The entire process can be empowering.

Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. 

Kat: Brilliant. Thank you so much. So we've talked about what can help us feel empowered, but as we always do in this podcast, I like to look at the other side of things as well and what can hinder empowerment. What can get in the way of us feeling empowered or hinder that? And how can we navigate these obstacles? And Laura, I'm going to come to you first on this. 

Laura: Yeah. So I spoke a lot about community being a core sense of empowerment, but I know both from my personal experience and speaking to other friends, for instance, in the hair loss or visible difference community, that comparison can be a real trigger and challenge when you are on any kind of journey. I know some people are really triggered or put off by the word "journey," but I do think it's a journey. 

Actually, it's really interesting hearing Aaron talk, because I always say this isn't a linear journey when I'm talking about confidence. I have employed resources within myself and set myself challenges to start getting out of the house more without my wig. I went to a theme park because that was a very specific thing that I'd put off doing for 17 years. By removing my wig to go and do that activity, there was a practical reason behind it, which enabled me to set myself that challenge.

But I see other people saying, "Oh, and now I've gone to work bald," or "I've done this." Even in terms of the campaigning space, once you realise that you're passionate about talking about what your difference is or whatever it is you are trying to embrace, like me now, it's become a passion project. It's difficult when you see people saying, "Well, how did you do this?" or "I want to write for this," or "I want to do a TED talk." It's like, okay, but why? There's nothing stopping you from doing it. There's enough space and room for everyone here. Everyone's got a story to share, and every story can potentially help someone else in the world.

But I think the biggest hindrance to empowerment is that there will be a lot of hate coming your way as soon as you start sharing your story and putting your head above the parapet, whether it's big, bald, or otherwise. People will have something to say. If people are having a go at Aaron just for liking the colour black, then it shows how petty and ridiculous our society and people can be.

But obviously, that's a reflection of what's going on in them. That's the biggest learning curve I'm having to realise in my empowerment journey. When people are throwing hate at me on Instagram or whatever platform it is — I've had quite a lot in the last 24 hours, ironically, because I posted something about going on my first Bumble date bald — it's sometimes really hard to be confronted with such a different mindset. It can feel like it chips away, even when you've put all these tools in place to build your self-confidence. I know how far I've come in the last three years in embracing who I am, but of course, it doesn't make me feel good when I see a 30-something-year-old man telling me, "You look way better with a wig love - hide that cone head." It makes me feel like crap for all of five minutes. Then I take myself away, take a deep breath, go back, find my community, and say, "Oh, I'll be sharing this on LinkedIn. Thanks very much, mate, you've given me some content." And we go from there, you know?

But some days it is easier than others, a hundred per cent. And when the outside voice starts quieting your own inner voice, that's when it becomes a challenge, I would say.

Aaron: Yeah, well, good riddance to that guy who made that ridiculous statement. What gives him the right to be that rude? But that's his problem, not your problem. Making your inside voice louder and having the confidence to say, "That has nothing to do with me, that has everything to do with that person," is empowering. Being confident and empowered enough to believe in yourself and say, "That's fine, onto the next thing," is crucial.

Laura: Yeah, I'm not here to date that guy anyway. It's all good. Thank you. It's that outside versus inside, isn't it? At the end of the day, you have to live with your voice 24/7. That has to be the voice you listen to and put energy into. I think of confidence like a muscle. That's why I say it's not a linear journey because some days, maybe I haven't worked it out enough and it's not feeling as strong. Thinking of my confidence and empowerment as a muscle that I need to work on every day helps me in terms of my empowerment.

Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. 

Kat: That's so true. There are going to be days when that muscle is tired and you can't handle things as easily as maybe you could have the day before. Sometimes you may need to take yourself away and have a little break, especially from the internet when some of these comments come from there. Just give ourselves a chance to build ourselves back up and stretch that muscle again.

I totally agree that as you become more empowered, you become more confident in yourself and might start setting boundaries, which some people can find difficult. Having to deal with people can be a hindrance to empowerment. But as long as you keep that inside voice louder than those other outside voices, it's all good. So I really appreciate you sharing that. 

Aaron, similar question to you. Do you have any thoughts on things that can hinder us from feeling empowered and how can we navigate them?

Aaron: I think the inside voice saying the wrong things and then listening to that nonstop on repeat can hinder empowerment. Not having someone there to tell you, "Okay, that's not true," or not having systems in place like meditation or journaling to counteract those negative beliefs, fears, or thoughts can really shut down empowerment. Also, not knowing what to do or recognising if what you're thinking is wrong or negatively affecting you can be a hindrance. It's important to know when to ask someone else for help, when to help yourself, or when to reach out and assess yourself to seek out an uplifting or empowering person or situation.

Kat: Yeah, definitely. What you said about having something to counter that negative inner voice reminded me of something I did during my recovery from an eating disorder. I kept a small notebook and would make a note any time somebody complimented me, whether it was about looks or anything else. I would read back on these compliments to remind myself and counter my incredibly negative inner voice. While I wouldn't say we should seek external validation, because that can sometimes not work in those early days when trying to build up a sense of self and confidence, I do think highlighting those positive things, like recognising when someone says, "Well done for doing this," and making a note of it, can really help. 

Finding systems like speaking to a professional, friends, family, colleagues, community, or using methods like journaling and meditation to counter what your inner critic is saying is so important. Thank you for sharing that.

Brilliant. Before we wrap up, I wonder if you could say something to anyone who is listening and maybe struggling with empowerment right now. They might be listening to this and thinking, "Oh gosh, I really want to work on this." Aaron, I'll stick with you for this. What would you say to someone struggling with empowerment right now?

Aaron: It's not a permanent state of being. It's something you can work through. There's plenty of help available, and it doesn't mean something's wrong with you. You just need to find the answers, the reason, and the way out. Like Laura said, life's a journey with ups and downs, valleys, twists, and turns, but there's always a way out. It's not permanent. Anyone can get help; no one is beyond help. It's easier to find help than you think, and you don't have to go through it alone.

Kat: Perfect. And with that in mind, where can our listeners connect with you if they would like to? 

Aaron: In the Association for Coaching Directory or on LinkedIn, Jude McCarthy Consultancy or Jude McCarthy, just put it in and you'll find me on LinkedIn. 

Kat: Brilliant. Thank you so much. And Laura, coming to you with this question about what you would say to maybe someone struggling with empowerment or even your past self, as we were saying earlier. What would you say to someone struggling? 

Laura: Yeah, I think it's interesting. We've spent a lot of time on the podcast emphasising our own voice and looking internally. We're teasing out the importance of others as a positive voice, resource, or help. Surrounding yourself with people who make you feel the best version of yourself, or who you aspire to be like, is a good place to start because you're surrounded by positivity. The big reminder I'd want to share, specifically for those in the visible difference community - actually, scrap that, this is relevant to everyone - is that it's not a radical act to like yourself. Yet, we live in a society, especially as women, where this is often overlooked or downplayed - sorry Aaron, but I’m going there…

Aaron: No need to apologise, I absolutely agree because I was raised by a single mom and that's a group I love to empower. So you go ahead, girl. 

Laura: Amazing. Thank you so much. I feel like as a woman, especially as a bald woman, showing too much confidence can seem shocking. It's often seen as arrogance. Empowerment is a positive thing, and on the journey, there will be people who tell you you're too much or that you're striving for the wrong thing. You should just keep your head down, accept it, and get along. But that's not what empowerment is all about. Empowerment is whatever you want it to be. A great first step is looking around you to the friends and family members who make you feel your best, who you think are the bee's knees, and surround yourself with that level of positivity. That's what will help you become the best version of yourself, a hundred per cent.

Kat: Absolutely. Thank you. That's a brilliant note to end on. Where can people connect with you and learn more about the work that you do? 

Laura: I'm on Instagram at Relight Alopecia, so like the Take That song Relight My Fire, but @relightalopecia. And I'm also this year a top voice on LinkedIn, which is exciting. So I'm bringing alopecia awareness to this professional platform as well. So just Laura Mathias there. 

Kat: Perfect. Thank you. And we will pop all the details in the show notes as well. Thank you both so much for your time today and for sharing your wisdom. That was a really great conversation. And for anyone listening, if you want to learn more about coaching for empowerment and confidence, you can learn more at lifecoach-directory.org.uk And I'll be back next week for our empowerment exhale episode, where we're going to be exploring some exercises to really help you feel that sense of empowerment. But until then, please take care.