Power, or a person's ability to exert influence, can be seen throughout life in a variety of situations, such as the workplace, in family life, or with social issues. If abused, power has the capacity to harm, but power is not inherently negative. It often can be used to facilitate growth and self-actualization.

When power is exerted inappropriately over an individual, or when one finds it difficult to assert power, a therapist or other mental health professional may often provide assistance in working through these issues. 

Types of Power

Power can frequently be seen in many different types of relationships, even when it is not exercised. At times, refraining from exercising one's power may give one a greater sense of power. It is possible to have power without using it in a harmful or negative manner, or even using it at all. Attempts to exercise power can often be seen when an individual attempts to exert influence over people, situations, and events or tries to influence the emotions, beliefs, feelings, values, or attitudes of others. A person may use power to address negative situations in an attempt to improve them or prevent further harm, but power might also be used to harm, whether or not intent is negative. 

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Different types of power may be exercised or interpreted in different ways, depending on the situation. The right use of power, as defined by Cedar Barstow, MEd, in her book of the same name, is “any use of power that does any or all of the following: prevents harm, reduces harm, repairs harm, promotes well-being… power is the ability to have an effect. It could also be considered the ability to access and mobilize resources.” People may work to uphold this balance in their lives, to use power without abusing it. 

Position, knowledge, or expertise may all contribute to an individual’s power. A manager, for example, can make decisions about a company and its employees. Similarly, those in a position to reward others or punish people for transgressions also hold power. The possession of knowledge may also grant power, though this power often depends on the way knowledge is used. Strength of character, ethics, and moral values also confer power, as other people may be more likely to trust individuals who seem to be morally good or who have similar values. Power can also be seen in relationships, whether they are romantic, professional, familial, or otherwise. A parent has power over children, and older siblings may have some measure of power over younger siblings. Though this power can be abused, it may often be exercised naturally in healthy ways. Man and young boy sit together to read book

Power Dynamics in Relationships

Power dynamics may often be observed in interpersonal relationships. It may be difficult to find a balance in a relationship, whether that relationship is a professional or personal one. In relationships that are strong and healthy, power is generally equal or close to equal: Partners may work together in all areas and hold respect for each other. But when one partner has, or desires to have, the upper hand in a relationship, problems may develop.

A person who somehow has control over the other may seek to exhibit this control in all areas of the relationship. For example, if one partner makes more money than the other partner, that partner may begin to feel entitled to make decisions about how the money is spent, rather than seeking the other partner's opinion. When one partner experiences a deeper level of feeling for another partner, the other partner may take this affection for granted or take advantage of it. Relationships in which these, or similar issues develop, may become unhealthy, but when partners seek to work through these issues, a mental health professional may often be of assistance. 

A balanced relationship--one in which power is, for the most part, held equally--might be represented by some of the following elements:

  • Both partners know their value.
  • Partners listen to each other and make changes based on the feelings and interests of the other.
  • Partners respect each other, even in times of disagreement.
  • Partners talk to each other, especially when issues develop or miscommunications occur. 

Power and Oppression

Marginalized groups may lack power in a number of areas. Sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, is one area where power imbalance can also be seen. Oppressed groups may experience the impact of prejudice, which frequently has the effect of reducing the power of the individuals who belong to these groups.  Minority groups may, due to prejudice, lose power in encounters they have with members of the majority group.

In the United States, there have been a number of recent cases of white police officers targeting black individuals and using disproportionate levels of force in arrests of black individuals. These instances, which can be said to represent a misuse of power, have received significant media attention, and the general public has called for greater awareness. 2014 statistics show that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than young white males. Further, individuals of color are more likely to be stopped by police, for any reason. Black individuals are also three times more likely to die while in police custody than white individuals are. 

Those who hold power are considered to have privilege, and a person who lacks power in one area may hold power in another. Skin color, identity, gender, belief systems, practices, and values are all aspects that may affect one's power and privilege. Examining one's privilege and the ways in which one holds power can help facilitate the development of greater understanding of the appropriate use of power and the ways in which some groups are marginalized or oppressed. 

Therapy to Address Abuse of Power

Therapy for power issues generally attempts to modify the ways power is misused and/or manipulated by a person. In therapy, those who have come to use power in ways that may be harmful, whether by intention or unconscious abuse, may be able to recognize or identify the behaviors and beliefs they hold that relate to power and begin to change them by developing methods to begin to utilize power effectively and ethically.

By working with a therapist, people can learn the positive and negative aspects of power and can often learn how to rebuild and strengthen relationships that have been destroyed or negatively impacted by the abuse of power. Group therapy may also be beneficial. When couples are affected by an imbalance of power in a relationship, couples counseling may be able to address the issue. However, in a relationship where the abuse of power has led to harm or other forms of abuse, counseling may not be recommended.

While a generalized mental health condition for power issues in not defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), power issues may in some cases appear as a result of a narcissistic personality, which may be said to be characterized by a person’s preoccupation with issues of power, prestige, and personal adequacy.

Individuals who belong to marginalized or oppressed groups may find therapy a helpful place to reconnect with their own power and address and talk through issues in life where power is denied them. A therapist might often provide assistance in self-awareness and help individuals explore safe ways to work to prevent further oppression and prejudice. 

Case Example

  • Power imbalance following end of workplace romance: Sofia, 32, seeks the help of a counselor to address the relationship she has been having with her boss, Matthias, 48. Though she wishes to end the relationship, he does not wish to, and she is afraid of the repercussions it will have on her position in the company and is experiencing a significant level of stress as a result. She tells the therapist she does not have any negative feelings about her boss, her "passion has simply died." Matthias holds a high position in the company and is liked and respected by his employees. Further, he not only supervises her on a number of projects, he has the ability to fire her. Sofia tells the counselor that she is able to work with him as she did before the relationship, but she fears that Matthias will be unable to similarly return to a professional relationship. She feels as if she "has no power" and worries she will have to continue the relationship in order to keep her position. The counselor asked Sofia if she has discussed any of her feelings with her boss. She states she has brought the subject up indirectly a few times, and each time, Matthias has strongly rejected any suggestion of ending the relationship. Sofia and the therapist explore ways that she might bring up the topic with Matthias in a safe space, and eventually Sofia decides to ask Matthias to join her for a therapy session, believing that the presence of a counselor may help them talk through returning to a professional relationship in a way that benefits both of them.


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  2. Excessive or reasonable force by police? Research on law enforcement and racial conflict - Journalist's Resource. (2015, October 28). Retrieved from http://journalistsresource.org/studies/government/criminal-justice/police-reasonable-force-brutality-race-research-review-statistics 
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