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Power vs Empowerment – What’s The Difference and Why is it Important?

All human interactions have a component of power to them, but it is expressed in two fundamental processes – control or collaboration

First Published in Pro Bono News 'Ask Adam' Column

As a therapist I often get people coming to me because they are feeling powerless in their life. Sometimes they are powerless over their own emotions and thoughts, and sometimes they feel powerless over their circumstances, and sometimes both.

The most problematic presentation however, is when the client is seeking ways to have power over others. Usually their partner, sometimes their parents or friends, often their children and occasionally even their employees or co-workers.

This is more common than you might think, indeed I would say that almost every person is guilty of it at some time, even a lot of the time. Not because they have some pathological “will to power”, complete with Disney villain maniacal laughter, but because they are human.

The nature of power

When human beings feel threatened we usually try to have power over the thing that is threatening us. Of course, the only way to have power over others is through control, and the only way to have control over others is through some form of violence. The most obvious violence is intimidation, physical violence and threat of physical harm, but it’s the least commonly used.

Most people resort to some form of psychological violence. The threat of abandonment or withdrawal of support, manipulation through guilt, threat of social persecution, threats of punishment, gossip and attack on reputation, attacks on identity and worth, subtle gaslighting to cause self-doubt and good old straight out verbal abuse. This is the everyday violence that everyday people use to have everyday control over others.

Again, it’s not because we are evil, but because we are afraid. The essence of almost all acts of control is the attempt for the person doing it to avoid vulnerable feelings like fear, shame, sadness, hurt and powerlessness. We want control over others because we cannot tolerate and cannot control our own emotions. Instead, we do things to cause these emotions in others, as a way to make them stop doing whatever we are feeling threatened by.

In this way the “victim” of violence very quickly becomes the “perpetrator” of violence. Indeed, perceiving ourselves as the victim of other people’s control is the only way that most people can do violence at all. If we didn’t believe it justified, our feelings of guilt and shame would stop us in our tracks. It is very difficult for a human being who isn’t a psychopath to enact violence against another person without believing it is a necessary act of self-defence.

To put that simply, almost everyone believes that their control behaviours are righteous, but we will usually not see other people’s control behaviours that way. This is the nature of power. Justified violence played out on a micro scale between individuals and on a macro scale in families, workplaces, communities, societies and nations. It is also played out strongly in the social change sector, but I’ll come back to that.

The cost of power

Control makes many promises, but rarely delivers on them. If we are using control to avoid our own feelings and vulnerabilities, we are inevitably violating the rights of others, and they will inevitably find ways to resist us.

A tyrannical boss will destroy productivity because his subordinates will find subtle ways to avoid work. A tyrannical parent will find themselves defied at every turn or will find that their children withdraw into a secret life until they are old enough to liberate themselves, often with dangerous behaviours. A tyrannical peer will soon find themselves alone and excluded. A tyrannical partner will eventually be abandoned.

In each of these cases the use of control produced exactly the outcome that the person was trying to avoid by using it. By avoiding their fears, they have brought them to fruition. At a social level, and in the social change sector particularly, these control dynamics are often very prevalent and most visible in the various political movements we are witnessing today (and in days gone by).

Between the “social left” and the political “social right” we can clearly see a desperate contest for power and control played out across the stage of the media, government and law. If we take out the “content” of the dispute (doctrines, beliefs and justifications) and just focus on the tactics, these two groups start to resemble each other very closely.

Both claim the moral high ground. Both socially prosecute the other as “villains”, “hypocrites” and “power abusers”. Both vilify the character and intentions of the other group, while sanctifying their own. Most importantly of all, both avoid any possibility of vulnerability or error by claiming a position of unassailable righteousness.

They are both right too. Their criticisms of the other polarity are generally valid, but what they fail to see is that the criticisms of them are equally valid. Between any two polarised groups there is plenty of fault to go around, but usually no one who wants to claim their share of it. This is the trap of seeking power over others – they will in turn seek power over us, and everyone ends up feeling more threatened and more powerless.

All human interactions have a component of power to them, but it is expressed in two fundamental processes – control or collaboration. Clearly control doesn’t deliver in the long run, so let’s explore the alternative.

So what is empowerment?

Returning to the micro scale, as a therapist it is my work to help a client move from power to empowerment. This typically involves having to compassionately show them the futility and the negative outcomes of their efforts at control over others. When the client can see this, something remarkable and beautiful happens, they are faced with the reality of how deeply vulnerable, hurt and afraid they really feel.

This is the breakthrough moment, and the skill of a good therapist is to hold the client in safety until they can learn to hold their own vulnerability without having to avoid it. For the client, this is often terrifying. This type of emotional pain seems to many people to be a black hole that will swallow them and crush them. Surrendering to it is out of the question, but when they gradually start to allow themselves to experience the pain they quickly discover that it contains great power.

Indeed, I would the say the most powerful person in the world is the one who doesn’t need to avoid their feelings. If I am prepared to feel my fear, feel my hurt and my shame and not turn away from the reality of my vulnerability, I become impossible to control and impossible to denigrate. I will go into the amazing purpose and wonder of our feelings in another article, but for now you may have to take my word for it. Being willing to feel is the ultimate freedom.

This is the essence of empowerment. It isn’t about control over others, or control over circumstances, but control over ourselves. The truth is that other people will always do things that hurt us and threaten us, and that life will always present challenges and dangers. The utopian dream that we try to create through control behaviours will forever remain out of our reach.

When a person can tolerate and experience their feelings they discover a remarkable source of strength and resilience, and they go from being reaCtive to being Creative. Notice that these two words have the same letters, but with the C in a different place. Being able to experience our vulnerable feelings changes the way we C things.

The most remarkable of these changes is that we become able to see that the other person is also afraid, also hurting, also vulnerable and is also trying to hide it. They go from being a villain who is trying to hurt us, to being just another person who is suffering as we are suffering. This is the miracle of empowerment, because if I can see through my defensive reactions and hold my vulnerability in compassion, I become able to see though the defences of others and respond to their vulnerabilities with compassion.

This creates the opportunity to stop fighting for power and start collaborating in our mutual empowerment. It’s not easy to do, and to be honest, I fail at it all the time, but that too is a vulnerability that can be accepted and responded to with compassion.

Returning to the macro scale, we have some wonderful models of this in the world of social change. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jnr, Nelson Mandela, Mary MacKillop, and Mother Teresa are some of the most famous people who discovered the empowerment of vulnerability. They changed the world not through power, but through compassion.

Their capacity to see the good in others, to forgive the violence that we all do, and to reach out to our better nature created enormous change in the world. They united polarised groups by appealing to the common values and aspirations that all human beings share, and by giving us ways to stop seeing the “other” group as the enemy.

Finally, they all taught us one thing – that freedom is not attained through fighting for our rights, but through fulfilling our responsibilities to others, including those who may threaten us. Instead of demanding respect and care and consideration, the gave it, and inspired the same in response from others.

This is the nature of empowerment, the power that we give to others and that they return to us in kind.

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