Power is the ability to influence the events, people, and environments around us. However, people do not always use their power well. Sometimes people (intentionally or unintentionally) use power in ways that cause harm to others. When power is used unethically, the affected parties may wish to see a therapist. A mental health professional can help restore a balance of power and teach people more sustainable ways of asserting themselves.
POWER AND ETHICS
Possession of power is not the same thing as using power. A strong person may have the ability to strike a rival, but they are not obligated to do so. Sometimes, refraining from using one type of power (like physical coercion) can lead to an increase of another type of power (social status).
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.” Power’s effects do not always match a person’s intent. For example, a person who manipulates their friends “for their own good” will still likely hurt the people they care about.
Power does not always corrupt: it can be used for prosocial or antisocial purposes. Context can heavily influence how a person uses power. According to a 2008 study, individuals who are in a conflict scenario are more likely to use their power in an antisocial way. But individuals who are primed to think of others (such as in a health care scenario) are more likely to use their power in a prosocial way.
Power and Consent
In some situations, a person needs to get explicit permission (also called consent) from the affected individual before they can take the action. For example, a person may ask their friend for consent before borrowing their phone (as opposed to taking it without warning). It’s important that consent be given without coercion or deception. This includes sexual consent, though the concept isn’t limited to sexual relationships.
Consider doctors, lawyers, financial advisors, and any professional who uses specialized knowledge to help others. They must uphold certain ethical codes in order to avoid abuse of power. People receiving services must be able to trust that professionals will protect their privacy and provide honest, current information that’s relevant to their situation.
Someone who’s been lied to or manipulated into giving consent for a procedure, financial process, or legal proceedings can’t truly give consent.
Examples of professional abuses of power include:
- A doctor prescribes a new drug treatment without telling the patient about all possible risks or side effects. Maybe the doctor knows side effects are rare and simply doesn’t want to make the patient worry. But the patient can’t consent to the treatment unless they’re aware of the risks. This is known as informed consent.
- A lawyer acts for their client without first consulting them. The person who hires a lawyer must authorize the lawyer to take action on their behalf. Lawyers can’t make decisions for clients, even if they believe a particular action would be in the client’s best interest. Lawyers also have a duty to uphold confidentiality. They also can’t share details about their client unless the client gives them express permission to do so.
Professionals that abuse their power may damage their relationships with clients or harm their own reputation. In some cases, they may lose their licensing or face legal consequences.
THERAPY TO ADDRESS ABUSE OF POWER
Therapy for power issues generally attempts to modify the ways a person misuses their power. If a person is not abusing their power consciously, a therapist can help them identify unhealthy or unsustainable behaviors. If the person is misusing their influence intentionally, therapy may help them re-examine the beliefs they hold about power. Over time, individuals can develop methods to use power more effectively and ethically.
By working with a therapist, people can learn the positive and negative aspects of power. They can also learn how to rebuild and strengthen relationships that have been destroyed or negatively impacted by the misuse of power. 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 a power imbalance has led to domestic violence, counseling may not be recommended.
Individuals who belong to marginalized groups may find therapy a helpful place to reconnect with their own power and talk through issues in life where power is denied them. A person in therapy may learn how to set boundaries and advocate for themselves safely. Therapy can also promote self-awareness and self-compassion.
Power Dynamics in the Therapeutic Relationship
The bond that develops between a therapist and a client is essential to the process of therapy. Therapy requires the sharing of intimate details, and it’s often difficult to share this kind of personal information with someone unless there is some sort of connection. As therapy continues, continued sharing can help develop a stronger therapeutic relationship. Therapy is usually less effective when a therapist and client aren’t able to bond well.
Mental health professionals can (depending on their credentials) make diagnoses, prescribe medications, or recommend treatments. They can also recommend hospitalization for people at risk of hurting themselves or others. These abilities give them power in the therapeutic relationship. An ethical therapist won’t misuse this power by threatening to have someone committed or by sharing information about a person’s diagnosis or treatment without consent (unless legally or medically required to do so).
Clients also give therapists power, so to speak, when they share their emotional distress and personal struggles. Therapists share very little, if any, personal information with their clients. In other words, people in therapy must be vulnerable for treatment to succeed, but this vulnerability doesn’t go both ways. In order to protect the people they work with from harm, therapists have to maintain clear boundaries and take care not to abuse client trust and vulnerability. Therapists also have to be mindful of transference, or when clients transfer feelings about someone in their life to their therapist, as this may lead the client to feel as if they have feelings for their therapist.
Ethical therapists maintain professional boundaries and won’t treat the therapeutic bond as a friendship or relationship. Ethics codes for therapists and counselors discourage, if not actively prohibit, dual relationships, which are relationships outside of therapy. Many professionals take a stance of “once a client, always a client.”
Dual relationships can negatively impact the person in therapy since the therapist’s knowledge of their vulnerabilities puts the power dynamic out of balance. Even years after therapy has ended, that knowledge could potentially be used in a harmful way.
CASE EXAMPLE OF THERAPY ADDRESSING POWER IMBALANCE
- 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. She is afraid of the repercussions a breakup will have on her position in the company and is experiencing significant stress as a result. Matthias holds a high position in the company, and his employees like and respect him. Furthermore, he not only supervises Sofia on a number of projects, he has the ability to fire her. Sofia tells the therapist she does not have any negative feelings about her boss; her passion “has simply died." Sofia tells the counselor that she feels able to work with Mattias as she did before the relationship, but she fears that Matthias will be unable to similarly return to a professional relationship. Sofia 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. Sofia 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. 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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