I want to say a sentence, a prompt, to you. It will be a positive sentence. Your task is just to notice and reflect on what your internal response is.
“It’s okay to own your power.”
There are a variety of ways that people can react to this idea, but they tend to follow a few trends. Were your thoughts similar to any of these?
- “At first the idea seemed fine, but then, on deeper reflection, I noticed that I don’t like owning my power, so I sometimes avoid it.”
- “It doesn’t feel okay because I’m afraid I will use it to cause harm.”
- “I became aware that I don’t think I have power at all.”
- “I notice I’m afraid of being held accountable for everything I do or say.”
- “I think, in alarm, about the sentence ‘power corrupts.’”
It is entirely natural to feel wary of power. The news every day gives us a dose of information about misuses and abuses of power, and we all have our own experiences of power being misused towards us. Not often do we hear stories of uses of power that support well-being and promote the good of all.
Power has become such a loaded term that you may be surprised to hear a definition of power that does not idolize or vilify it: Power is the ability to have an effect or to have influence. Power is a neutral concept. We all need power to take action, to bring forth our dreams, and to influence others. People are often looking to us to step into our power in healthy ways.
From the Right Use of Power point of view, there are four kinds of power to understand, own, and pay attention to:
- The first and most basic is personal power, which everyone has. It is your ability to influence your own life and to decide how to be with others.
- The next is role power. This is the extra layer of power and responsibility that is added on to personal power whenever you are in a position of authority, such as teacher, therapist, lawyer, employer, elected official, etc.
- The next is status power, which is mostly unearned and culturally conferred. It involves traits such as race, sex, religion, heritage, able bodiedness, age, etc. (You might also call this privilege).
- And the fourth kind is collective power—the additional power that groups of people have when they are acting together.
Using our power wisely and well requires us, rather than avoiding or disowning, to own all of these kinds of power. Understanding the impacts and relational dynamics that accompany each type of power is the key to their beneficial use. There may be ways that you already use and interact with these types of power, but how conscious are you in how you do so and the impact it has?
In this article, we are focusing on personal power. Personal power is your birthright. We all have power. Even babies can choose to roll a ball or impact others’ behavior when they cry or smile. One of the tasks of a lifetime is to develop skillful use of your personal power so that you have the impact on others that you want to have. This self-awareness can be used to guide you to progressively healthier relationships.
There are many ways we use our personal power to influence our personal relationships. These uses of power can be seen as variables, where opposing qualities can be put on a continuum. A good way to explore the range of your own qualities is to write or print the continuums below, then put a mark on the spot on each continuum where you tend to land. Of course, in healthy relationships, there is room for a range of responses based on circumstances, but most of us have natural tendencies.
As you do this activity, please note that all of these qualities on all of the continuums are positive. One is not better than another. It is not intrinsically better to be directive or responsive, and having a healthy range of responses to different situations is a good thing.
However, misuses and abuses of power tend to happen more at the extremes of each continuum. For example, someone who is at the extreme of the strength side of the continuum may be experienced as forceful, inflexible, or mean. Meanwhile, someone at the extreme end of the heart side of the continuum may be experienced as a pushover, conflict-avoidant, or unable to give direct instructions. At both extremes, people become disconnected and relationships become painful, confusing, and difficult.
Firmly boundaried———————Flexibly boundaried
Now you have a picture of your personal power profile. How do you feel about your profile? Are there any tendencies that you would like to shift in one direction or the other to have more of the influence you want to have? Are there any tendencies that feel particularly ‘stuck’ in one place? What is it like to own your power so that you can have conscious choice in how you use it for good?
If you want to explore this further and initiate an interesting conversation, try comparing your profile with people you are closely related to. You will be increasingly able to have the kind of relationships you want and are capable of as you grow to understand and own your power.
If you would like help addressing power-related issues in your life, you can find a therapist here.
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