Updated: Nov 4
In reviewing this blog entry, I was once again reminded that I write very academically. Having been in academia for over 30 years, trying to make things as clear as possible, any entertainment quality in my writing has long since disappeared. I apologize.
I have been thinking about the phrase “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Much of the cynicism that we are experiencing today, constructed through mistrust, hostility, us vs. them thinking, guiltless revenge, etc., has been created by the misuse (that is: abuse) of power. Although Lord Acton has been attributed with having said it in 1857, the concept had preceded him. The phrase generally appears in political conversations. But I began thinking about how it applies to our individual daily lives.
This topic has the potential for "going dark" fairly quickly. Although I will be considering some negative aspects of power's misuse, my intention is to elevate our attention to how we live our lives. Ideally, what we say and do in our lives should enliven us, enliven those with whom we interact, and enliven the world around us. In order to do that, we need to be aware of what, how, and why we are doing what we are doing.
We all experience various types of power in the course of our day-to-day activities. It comes in the form of rewards offered for our behavior or coercion if we do not conform willingly. It can be legitimate power by virtue of one’s role in a hierarchy (CEO, policeman, judge etc.) or referent power that comes with having a personal characteristic for which one is admired. Lastly, for this article, is expert power, which comes with having some valued expertise.
It seems easy enough to understand how the responsible use of each of these forms of power plays out for us. We can be rewarded by organizations or businesses for participating in a program. We might be coerced into following the law if a policeman is present when we would not do it otherwise. Our boss, by virtue of her position on the org chart, has the power to direct our activity. Most of us have had someone in our lives whom we found admirable, and, by virtue of that, had some amount of influence (referent power) in our lives. Likewise, someone with a skill set or knowledge set that is important to us, has a level of expert power if we want or need that expertise.
The flip side of the responsible use of power is its misuse (abuse). Addressing the myriad abuses of power exceeds the limits of this blog entry. I am concerned here with the essentially invisible uses of power in our daily lives, which could be done so much more effectively. Although the word “abusive” might seem harsh, its definition, originally, was “misuse” or “misapplication.” These days it carries more intensity and usually suggests some a more serious impact on the abused object or person. I am concerned, here, primarily with the smaller day-to-day elements.
Consider some of these: “Quite those kids down and bring me another beer!” “Wait until your father gets home!” “You know that I like a glass of wine ready for me when I get home from work!” “Don't make me get up! (Said to the rambunctious kids)” “I don’t know what you were thinking when you gave me this report!” Each of the previous examples exemplify some level of abuse of power in a relationship. And yet, it is likely that you have heard at least some of them in your life. They are so prevalent in our world that it may seem that I am grasping at straws to make my point.
The more one misuses one’s power with another, and the other accepts it, the more that abuse appears. This can happen in the workplace, in a marriage, between “friends,” between teacher and student, between the police and the people they serve, between businesses and their clients, etc. Abuses of power can be quite small and subtle such that they go unrecognized. Every time they occur unchecked, however, the future of that relationship is being shaped and reinforced with the one being abused becoming increasingly weaker (at least in that area, which may become generalized). As time passes, and the relationship becomes more complex as well as legally and financially intertwined, the more difficult it becomes for the abused party to reclaim rightful respect from the other. Such “sunk costs” keep bad relationships together for years…or forever. One must be willing to assert oneself moment-to-moment in order to keep misuses of power in check. There are times, however, where being assertive could be dangerous.
The deep assumptions of the abusee about him-or herself, which lead to the acceptance of the abuse, however small and subtle, are reinforced by each abusive episode. This amplifies the importance of understanding that without one’s self-respect demanding respect from the other, there is no positive relationship to be had. The moment-to-moment requirement that one be respected or there is “no deal” should be the foundation of the relationship.
When the application of power goes unchallenged, the power user is reinforced and is more likely to use it again in that situation as well as expanding to other areas. We all have the opportunity use power in our daily social lives rather than empathy, kindness, thoughtfulness, deference, etc. Since these small misuses (abuses) of power are common behaviors used by many in almost any situation, they go unnoticed.
We often merge the meanings of “assertiveness” and “power.” Although “assertive” means stating something confidently and/or forcefully, it’s the forceful part that can become problematic. When I apply force that essentially imposes on another in a way that reduces or eliminates their choice in the matter, I am likely using my power in a “corrupt” way. Corrupt is defined as “to change from good to bad, in morals, manners, or actions.” Even when we say things like, “I told you to mow the yard,” or “Stop leaving dishes in the sink!” we are using, and slightly abusing, power.
Any time that we say unkind, negative, or thoughtless judgmental things to someone, we are using (abusing) our power. Every time we make those commands or say those unkind, negative, or thoughtless judgmental things, and the other person complies or accepts them, we are reinforced and are likely to use them again, and even perhaps more often and with more force. The other person, on the other hand, is likely to acquiesce in the future and become less assertive and more unhappy.
Of course, in most lives and relationships, this misuse of power is intermittent. But it can have a frequency that essentially governs the relationship. The one asserting power is reinforced and may begin to use it as their modus operandi (MO) for making life conform to their will. The one acquiescing becomes conditioned to submitting. That mindset can slowly morph to influence a larger and larger portion of their relationship. The one who submits begins to look for ways to avoid the application of power by the other by avoiding topics of conversation or trying to anticipate the other’s needs in order to keep them “happy.” The power misuser also becomes conditioned to expect the submission and all of the anticipatory behavior the submitter has begun to exhibit. Often, neither side is actually aware of this disintegration in their relationship. Neither may be truly happy even when there is not an active conflict.
Avoiding this relationship “corruption” requires work on both sides of the equation. The power misuser needs to become aware of the behavior and then be mindful of when it occurs, the precursors of the behavior, and then increase their EQ. They need to apologize each time they fail. But not just apologize. They need to reflect on what they did and make a real effort to eliminate it in the future. Apology without a true intention to change becomes a mechanism for continued abuse.
The submitter, or abusee, needs to accept personal responsibility for their role in the relationship. They need to focus on recognizing the exhibition of abuses of power, becoming more assertive that such exhibitions are not tolerated, increase their EQ, eliminate their anticipatory behaviors, which may actually be stimulators for more exhibition by the other.
Moving back from the dark side, as we all know, talk is cheap. It is easy enough to talk about this stuff. It is another story as we try to put it into practice. Perhaps consider trying to increase your awareness of how these various forms of power play out in your life. Try to recognize when you might be the misuser and when you are the recipient of such misuse. You might be surprised. Then, consider how things might have gone differently. How might you have said what you said that could have added energy to the other person while also accomplishing your goal? How might you have responded, in a positive and assertive way, to someone's misuse of power with you? You might be amazed at how much your world can change.