What is Real Power?

By Paul Dunion | April 18, 2014

There is nothing more confusing in our contemporary society than the nature of real power. An ancient definition of the word power is to be able to. However, such ambiguity sets the stage for a myriad of twists and distortions. Before looking at the nature of real power, it may be helpful to examine two distinct distortions of power — the first being the more popular, abusive power. In fact, when someone is described as powerful, it is not unusual for that to be understood as abusive, as if power andabusive power are synonymous.

Abusive power is typically expressed by one of the following:

1) Physical violence — “I can control you by injuring or killing you.”
2) Predatory behavior — “I can covertly manipulate and exploit you.”
3) Shaming — “I can control you by telling you that you are a bad person.”
4) Blaming — “I can control you by telling you that what you did is bad.”
5) Bullying — “I can control you by intimidating you.”
6) Sarcasm — “I can control you by mocking you.”
7) Domination — “I can control you by influencing and cajoling you.”
8) Unsolicited Analysis — “I can control you by defining you unfavorably.”
9) Deception — “I can control you by either misrepresenting the truth or withholding the truth.”

The second distortion of power is abdication of power and is considerably more indirect than abusive power, but similar in that it is also an attempt to control others. Abdications of power include:

1) Attachment to confusion and ignorance — “I can control you by claiming that I can’t do something because I don’t understand it.” (When this strategy is being employed there is typically little or no interest in learning the required skill.)
2) Addiction — “I can’t do it because I’m overwhelmed by life and busy self-medicating.”
3) Excessive deference — “I can’t do it because I don’t possess the expertise that you do.”
4) Lack of a voice — “I can’t do it because I can’t clearly articulate my intentions.”
5) Attachment to being a victim — “I can’t do it because I’m not big enough or strong enough.”
6) Attachment to feeling worthless — “I can’t do it because I’m unworthy and undeserving.”
7) Refusal to heal — “I can’t do it because I’m broken and wounded.”

Abdication of power leans heavily into passivity; and, unlike abusive power, it attempts to control others indirectly. Since both distortions of power strive to control others, which is a set-up for experiencing helplessness, due to the choices of others laying way out of the scope of our mastery and typically have unfavorable consequences. People who are the recipients of abusive power will normally either retaliate or pull away. Folks who are faced with someone abdicating power often feel very alone and turn elsewhere to feel joined and connected.

Attempting to penetrate the nature of real power is similar to trying to unveil the mysteries of love, freedom and justice. If we remain curious and devoted to such an inquiry, then we may be the recipients of some ephemeral encounter with the nature of real power. In order to avoid the distortions of abuse and abdication, we will need to address what it is that we are able to do. It will be necessary to exercise enough discernment, guided by some helpful questions: Does my power support some endeavor that is sustainable for others and me? Does my power take into consideration future generations? Does the action of my power line up with my values? Does my power support what is generative and creative?

Our discernment can be deepened by the following guidelines for the pursuit of real power:
1) Getting effective at identifying what is and what is not in your control.
2) Remaining focused on what is in your control.
3) Accepting and/or letting go of what is out of your control. [Letting go is a measure of suspending willful attempts at control as well as discontinuing thinking about what cannot be controlled.)
4) Remaining self-examining, or willing to continue to know yourself more deeply and holding what you discover with compassion. (With special emphasis on how you exercise power.)
5) Learning to identify what you want from others and ask for it.
6) Practicing daily acts of generosity and gratitude, which inhibit feeling like a victim.
7) Creating a viable support system, learning to regularly ask fro help.
8) Learning to say “yes” and “no” authentically.
9) Becoming effective at knowing where you belong and spending time there.
10) Becoming effective at knowing what love is trying to reach you and letting it in.

Pride, fear and ignorance will likely keep our experiences of power fluctuating from degrees of abuse, abdication and real power. At best, we can remain mindful of a propensity toward abuse or abdication. The more we are willing to be aware of how we exercise power, the more opportunity we have to integrate real power into our lives.

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