The Use And Abuse Of Power
"Control is an illusion."
- Sheldon Kopp -
Power, often confused with control, is one of the most sought after experiences in our culture (besides Orgasm). There are various definitions of power. Some are negative and suggest that life is about dominating others. A more positive definition would include individual power and responsibility which enhances rather than diminishes self and other. Possession of this kind of responsible power eliminates the need to dominate any individual or group.
When we are born, we are powerless: This means that we are completely dependent upon our nurturer for all life supporting functions. As we grow up, we gradually assume these functions. Power and autonomy become a developmental issue as early as the second and third year of life. We demand to decide for ourselves what we want to do. The word "no" becomes important to us as we begin our natural passage to separation and individuation.
Power struggles are common between our newly evolving selves and our parents. Experiences and the conclusions we draw from them consciously, as well as unconsciously, become the basis of our experience of power and autonomy as adults. Our own interpretations of our parents' reactions and the way we assimilate and integrate these with our inborn striving for self determination and autonomy form beliefs about ourselves. These beliefs become the foundations of our attitude and/or posture toward power and autonomy.
If our young, immature attempts to assert our newly evolving selves are frequently met with annoyance, we might draw the following conclusion: if we don't comply, the significant people in our lives will react negatively. So we compromise by, for instance, learning to pretend compliance while deep down inside we feel full of resentment for not receiving respect for who we really are. As a result, we compromise our own sense of power.
The misuse of power often involves trying to get someone else to do something for us that we can't or won't do for ourselves. "Make me happy, proud, successful, rich, complete, satisfied. Make me feel better" - or at its most base "do what I want so I can feel powerful or safe. "To refuse to be a willing partner in life, to act as though we are acted upon, that we have no choice, no decision making ability is an act of power and becomes an identity. We give ourselves away and make others responsible for the success or failure in our lives so that we take no responsibility for it. We are innocent and perfect - only making others bad and lacking. We live our lives as martyrs and wear our suffering as a badge and blame, punish and resent those to whom we have turned over our power.
Since most of us don't review how we became the person we have developed into, we are not aware or conscious of the compromises. It has become a personal style of relating to others and we easily lose focus on what we really want or desire in a relationship. In order to be liked, accepted or, at least, not rejected, we compromise ourselves this way, giving up personal power by not expressing what we really feel and experience.
The process of growing up is about becoming an independently functioning separate individual. A child needs the parents' support in order to attempt age appropriate independence and empowerment. Some of our experiences that relate to our individuation include the compromises that we make and the conclusions we draw. The way we solve the conflict of being dependent versus wanting and needing to become an independent responsible person forms our belief system. This, in turn, determines to what extent we assume power and independence as adults. Power here is understood as the ability to stay focused - not to let others manipulate us or make us do what we don't want. For example, Parents who get into power struggles with their children do not experience themselves as being in control. Deep feelings of impotence lead to the use of manipulation, the absolute demand for obedience, the use of physical force and other humiliating means to get their way. The child learns that to survive in this kind of atmosphere, one must compromise one's self. Often these survival techniques prove to be destructive over time, as they get in the way of realization of self.
We too easily submit when we don't voice our opinions or when we fail to speak out against a wrong or when we don't vote. Our power is in ourselves, in our knowing, in our trusting our knowing even when others don't agree. Integrity is a big part of this, self-delusion is not. It's important to get our feet so firmly on the ground that they seem to take root. All of this involves coming to terms with our own personal demons, our fears, and so develop a strong inner-self and allow ourselves to have it, and so achieve a sense of contentment, along with the ability to delay gratification so that a false front or false self is no longer needed. We can be fully ourselves. Personal integrity requires being able to sustain ourselves emotionally so that we don't need to feed off of others. As a result, we experience having a fullness of self as opposed to being full of ourselves, while knowing and respecting our own boundaries as well as those of others.
Having mature personal power is based on a strong sense of ourselves as a worthwhile autonomous being: we know ourselves, being in touch with our strengths and weakness. We do not pretend, or hide our true nature. We are not inclined to manipulate others to get our needs met. We are able and willing to be clear and direct, taking the risk of standing alone. Since we don't have to close our eyes to ourselves, we have an ability to see others clearly. We are grounded in reality. This is what gives us the kind of power which people are drawn to and for which they respect us, and, most importantly, which we can respect in ourselves.
Two people who possess this sense of healthy personal power can have a mature relationship in which the focus lies in appreciating and enjoying rather than controlling or exploiting the other. Without that strong sense of self as an autonomous being, power will inevitably be misused to meet one's needs and resentment and dissatisfaction are sure to follow. Two mature people, on the other hand, who have a grounded sense of self and who are able and willing to stand on their own two feet, can respect and enjoy each other as free individuals