A Few More Thoughts On Power: Use, Misuse, & Freeing Yourself from Toxic Power Plays

Self-portrait. Taken 10/24/2012. Canon Rebel XS.

Freedom, a self-portrait. Taken 10/24/2012. Canon Rebel XS.

I’ve written about power before, here, but it has been a recurrent theme in my life in the past year and a half or so.  Or maybe it always has been, and I’ve just become aware of it in the past year and a half or so.  Either way, it continues to crop up in conversation and dreams, in the songs I listen to and the songs I sing, in the movies I see and the books I read, so I’m going to roll with it, and trust that this theme is something that needs to move through me.

Yesterday, I had lunch with a couple of my girl friends.  As often happens, we got into some conversational space where we were complaining about some relationship power dynamics at work in our lives.  They both have the same issue with a particular power dynamic, and I got on a near sermon-level roll in the middle of Wendy’s about the power other people have over us and our lives, and that is what has me sitting here typing this blog post.

The only power another person has over you and your life is the power you give them, and you can take that power away.

Let me repeat it, in case that didn’t sink in:  The only power another person has over you and your life is the power you give them, and you can take that power away.

If the person to whom you’ve given some sort of power is using that power in a toxic way, you can revoke their power privilege.  (And it is a privilege, make no mistake.  No one human being has the inherent right to wield power over you in a toxic way.)  It may not be easy (in fact, it probably won’t be), or fun (I haven’t ever known it to be fun), and they’re most likely not going to be happy about it, but it can be done.  If, for example, you find yourself under a boss who misuses their power in a game of psychological warfare, who makes it his or her mission to make you feel unworthy of your position and what you’ve accomplished, who reams you out at the drop of a hat (especially in front of others) for not making your paid employment the entire center of your universe (or does it for no real reason at all), who must put you down to build themselves up, you can put in your two weeks’ notice (or whatever time period your employment contract, if any, stipulates) and walk away, with or without another job waiting in the wings (depending on your financial situation).  You can leave significant others who behave similarly.  You can take some time and space away from that toxic family member or toxic family situation.  If you feel threatened, seriously threatened, you can get emergency protective orders.  (Though I would not wish that to be a necessity for anyone.)  As I’ve said, don’t expect people to be thrilled when they find their power has been taken away.  They won’t.  But do whatever you need to do to free yourself, and do it as quickly as you can, because I can tell you that the longer you spend in a toxic power situation with someone tearing you down, the more entitled they’ll feel to continue their toxic behavior and the longer it will take for you to build yourself back up, and the longer it will take them to wake up to the way their behavior affects others and themselves.

On the other hand, you may find yourself being the one misusing your power over someone.  What then?  Stop what you’re doing!  The first step is realizing that you’re misusing the power someone else has given you.   The second step is to stop what you’re doing, to take a step back and examine your motives.

What are you hoping to accomplish by misusing your power over someone in a given situation?  Are you hoping to feel better about yourself?  If so, there are other, healthier, more loving and appropriate ways to do that, beginning with figuring out what is at the root of your dissatisfaction with yourself.

Are you hoping to create, for instance, a more productive workplace?  Using toxic behavior to try to increase productivity, in actuality, usually decreases productivity because people start to burn out, break down, or become apathetic, and you end up with higher turnover, more people bawling their eyes out in the bathroom, and lower quality work from those who find that not caring is the best way to get through the day.  Instead, try encouragement–real encouragement, not the sarcastic kind–and compassion and treating those under you as human beings with a full spectrum of emotions and lives outside the workplace rather than as mindless machines churning out product.  Are you creating a toxic work environment because that’s what you think you’re supposed to do, because you think that nothing could possibly get done unless you make everyone feel like crap and unless they all hate you?  If this is you, realize this is not a movie, book, or TV show, and you do not have to step into the role of the antagonist.  You don’t have to repeat your own past boss(es)’ mistakes.  There’s nothing in the rulebook that says you have to be a heartless overlord to be effective (or, at least, there shouldn’t be).  Focus instead on becoming an effective, benevolent leader.

In your relationships (romantic relationships, family relationships, and friendships included), do you feel the need to wield your power in a toxic way because you feel your own life is out of your control?  If this is you, first figure out why your life feels out of your control.  Gently bring what you can control (situations and circumstances, not people) under your control.  After that, realize that there will always be things, and people, in life that you can’t control.  (Yes, I know how uncomfortable that can be.)  If that’s not your issue, do you feel the need to misuse your power in relationships to attempt to make people love, accept, and care for you?  If so, it’s not working.  It will never work.  You have to drop your weapons, allow yourself to be vulnerable, and make an effort to really know and be known.  You are not the people of your past, or, at least, you don’t have to be.  Everyone will not be like those who helped you originate your feelings of being unloved, unacceptable, and uncared for.  Those who are, are those to whom you should not give any power to affect your life.  (I know, easier said than done, but it will be worth it!)

I’m not claiming to be perfect at implementing any of this, but I think these things are worthy of deep consideration, conversation, and practice.

Jimi Hendrix is quoted as saying, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”  Peace is what we’re all after in the end, isn’t it?  That, and love.  Peace with our position in life, with our relationships, with our trajectory, with everything.  Giving love and receiving love.  When we’re using our power, then, shouldn’t we be using it to move toward peace and love?  Yes.  And the only way we can do that is to wield (or reinforce through our choices about who has power in our lives) the power of love, not the love of power.