Power Polarities: Ethical Wisdom

MagnetsPower, often seen as a monolith of force and domination, actually is defined as “the ability to have an effect or to have influence.” We are all born with the ability to have an effect! It is how we use this ability that makes the difference between abuse of power and use of power for good. And most of us don’t get the chance to take a course that would help us learn the dynamics of power and how to use it wisely and well.

Power, the ability to have an effect, can be teased apart into many aspects, all of which have an effect and influence. I’d like to tell you about four aspects of power through four tasks related to four goals related to four polarities.

Each of the aspects of power is part of the idea of “living in the power zone.” You are living in the power zone when you have developed a wide range of healthy responses to the polarities. When you are out of balance or your behavior goes to the extreme on either side of the continuum, you will be stuck, confused, or out of touch with yourself and others, and thus at big risk of using your power in a way that causes harm to yourself or others. For example: In the first task of being informed and aware, the continuum moves from overwhelm to ignorance, both of which have a bad effect.

The power zone of healthy responses lies in the range between the two extremes. We all have a natural and habitual tendency to land somewhere on the continuum. What I want to recommend is that you try expanding your natural range a bit in these four aspects of power. If your tendency is to get too much input or information (and thus be overwhelmed), stretching into getting just enough—but not too much—input will help you not be overwhelmed.

Here are a few stories:

Angie stretched and learned how to tell people, “Stop, I just can’t process any more information now.” She could then reflect and make decisions from a full, but not over-full, place.

Keith would get completely absorbed in his own feelings and, in the process, disconnect from the person he was relating to. He stretched toward the polarity of connection and practiced staying in a level of his own feelings where he could still understand and respond to others.

Maya learned about shame and stretched into learning how to deactivate it so she could be more present and accountable.

Diego couldn’t finish anything. As soon as a problem came up, he would just let go, in the process giving up his power. He stretched by practicing staying a bit longer, even when it got difficult. “I’m tired of my automatic no’s,” he said. “I’m ready to feel stronger and more capable.”

The wider the range of responses you have available to you, the more creative and appropriate your responses can be. As in exercise, stretching keeps your muscles loose and flexible rather than rigid and painful. As Maslow said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem will look like a nail.” May working with these aspects of power help you live in a richer and wider power zone using the power you already have wisely and well to accomplish the four goals listed here. You will also increase your ethical wisdom!

1. Living in the power zone: Be informed and aware

Task: To be open to receiving and using relevant, current, and important information from within and without, to hold ownership of and responsibility for one’s personal role and status powers, and make well-considered decisions.

Goal: Use power to evolve relationships and situations.

Polarity to manage: Too much information = overwhelm; too little information = ignorance.

2. Living in the power zone: Be sensitive and compassionate

Task: To explore and learn from one’s history, habits, and beliefs about power and authority, and to stay in one’s heart and stand in one’s strength.

Goal: Use power with both heart and strength.

Polarity to manage: Over-focus on self = self-absorption; under-focus on self = unconsciousness.

3. Living in the power zone: Be connected and accountable

Task: To stay in right relationship even in conflict, taking responsibility for one’s impacts, even if unintentional, and repairing and self-correcting to prevent further or future harm.

Goal: Use power to prevent, resolve, and repair harm.

Polarity to manage: Over-responsible = introjection/shame; under-responsible = projection/blame.

4. Living in the power zone: Be skillful and wise

Task: To develop good boundaries and the wisdom to know what is right and when to persist and when to let go, and how to think proactively, use feedback, and take good care of oneself.

Goal: Use power to promote well-being and serve the common good.

Polarity to manage: Over-attached = unable to let go; under-attached = unable to hold on.

(Aspects developed by Cedar Barstow, Conway Weary, and Carrie Thomas Scott.)

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Norah

    February 26th, 2013 at 4:20 PM

    I get it that we all need to somewhat be in the “power zone”; but I think that there are some people who take it a bit far, go for that power trip when really this should only be about being strong and believing in yourself to make a positive change in you and not a negative thud on the life of someone else.

  • Jude

    February 26th, 2013 at 11:02 PM

    For me power is the ability to influence.But how we exercise this power makes all the difference.Using power in different ways under different circumstances is often indicative of a weak mind.not ranting on certain people but under a stressful situation many do go on to use power in an inappropriate manner and that is what I would consider an abuse of power,which is definitely not a good thing to practise.

  • Joe C

    February 27th, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    I love the suggestion that to have power is to be aware and to be informed.
    Unfortunately too many people who wield power in the world are totally ignorant as to the plight of others and how they could effectively use what they have for the greater good.
    ‘Just think of how much power they would actually hold if they were fully aware of the influence that tey have- that they took some of this and used it for the betterment of their fellow citizens- and that they are aware enough of who they are and what they have to continue to spread good.
    Power is knowledge, not just book knowledge, but the knowledge that you have to help others. I wish that more of those who actually have this kind of opportunity would choose to use it more in this manner.

  • haylee

    February 27th, 2013 at 1:06 PM

    power needs management no doubt. without management it will either go to waste or push you into abuse of power. there is not a lot of people who can manage power very well. and that’s the major cause of problems and even power struggles today all over.

  • Roberta

    February 28th, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    To those people who are able to maintain that perfect power balance in their lives, more power to them! That is the person that I want to be!

    They can see how their power can help to get them ahead but theey also see ways that they can use it to benefit others too. They take care of other people along the way but they don’t forget to take care of themselves either.

    This is not something that can be taught in the classroom, it has to be acquired through life experience and maybe is genetic. Who knows. But these are the real people who get ahead in life and I hope to take some lesson from that.

  • Eva

    February 28th, 2013 at 11:01 PM

    Balancing is good and maintaining the middle path is a good thing too. but there are some situations where we need to take a stand where we need to move to one side and say “This is where I wanna be!” sometimes trying to balance can leave you feeling undecided and I definitely do not want to be in that position.

  • Cedar Barstow

    March 28th, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    Hello all,
    Eva–yes I agree with you. I call it “living in the power zone”. This means broadening your range of kinds of appropriate responses you can make. An always balanced middle isn’t always the right thing. Sometimes, for example, being VERY directive is required, not just in the middle between directive and responsive.

    Roberta–yes to balance and yes to a healthy range of responses that connect with the circumstances.

    Haylee–right, learning how to use power wisely and well is a big thing. It isn’t enough just to have good intentions. There are skills and concepts to be learned as well.

    Joe: you say it well. Consider coming to one of my workshops to gain more skills and wisdom about power.

    Jude: I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say using power differently in different circumstances is indicative of a weak mind. I’d say increased awareness and sensitivity to your impact when using power, will lead you to use power appropriately (even if differently) in different situations.

    Norah: yes, indeed. Misuses and abuses of power happen when people move out of the healthy zone and into the extremes on either side, i.e. extreme directivity or extreme receptivity.

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