It is always a wonderful experience to witness someone I work with in therapy beginning to take back their own power; to see them sit up taller in the chair, to hear the energy return to their voice, the light to their eyes. It is a joyous moment for the person regaining their sense of self, but also often tinged with a sense of doubt, a faint anxiety about how their rediscovered, fuller being will be received by others who have known them as a faded and jaded version of their now technicoloured self. We only have to refer to the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours to have an understanding for just how deeply rooted in our collective unconscious is the fear of the consequences of shining, of being colourful and powerful.
Our relationship with power is a complex and complicated one. As is the case with so many of the things which we most desire , it is also conversely that which we most fear. Power has many negative associations, and sometimes rightly so, if the desire to gain power is to then use that power abusively over another. “Power crazy”,” power hungry” are all are part of our common language and help to perpetuate the idea of power almost exclusively as a negative.We can be left feeling fearful of our own power. But is it possible to desire to be powerful -“power-ful”- and for it to be purely positive, for it to be something that contributes in a benign way to the well-being of others?
Last week, I went into a shop for an emergency repair to a shoe heel. I was having what Abraham Maslow might refer to as a “peak experience” ( yes really,despite injury to one of my favorite pairs of shoes!) one of those often all too rare but exquisite moments in life when all that we desire to make us feel whole and fulfilled aligns. Personal life, professional life, my inner and outer world felt exceptionally full, and full of light, and as a result I felt energized, confident and powerful. The assistant commented on my “great energy” and how as a result of it, he too had felt infused. Myself feeling full in that moment was clearly a good thing for me and also for another. But again, what negative associations we have with being” full of ourselves.” In England, is it not still one of the greatest insults we might bestow upon another? “You are so full of yourself…”
We are naturally fascinated by powerful figures, a good contemporary example might be that of Harvey Specter, the charismatic lawyer from the popular USA Network television drama series “Suits”, who is the embodiment of power and confidence. However we might analyse ( if we so wish) the underlying motivation of such characters, characters such as Harvey undoubtedly appear as clearly defined individuals who have a strong sense of their own identity.They are comfortable with owning their power. When we greatly admire, or indeed envy, an individual it is sometimes because they carry aspects of ourselves that we would quite like to own, but we find difficult to access. We might use the characters we admire as role models and emulate their self confident style. That can be a good thing, we all need role models for how to do life as we wish it, from our parents onwards. Others might criticise such confident and powerful characters for being “full of themselves” branding them” narcissists who need taking down a peg or two.” All the while, however, those who criticise often are secretly envying the energy, drive and power that they feel is too much of a risk to allow themselves to own. Part of the risk is of course engendering the same judgement and criticism from envious others that they themselves feel full of.
Are not our thoughts and feelings always full of something ? So, this perhaps is the thing; if we do not give ourselves permission to be full of ourselves– our true, authentic and therefore powerful selves- we end up instead full of frustration, resentment and envy.Might not the energy projected from those darker thoughts and feelings be sent out into the world to be felt by others in just the same way that the energy from our happier and more fulfilled selves might?
When we are full of our true selves we feel more confident, more resilient, we have a deeper well of inner resources to draw from at times when we chose to give of ourselves to those we care for. We experiences less fear fear of separation and abandonment because we are not facing an emptiness inside as well as outside;we have something to sustain us from within because we are full of ourselves. Feeling a more complete self we are less likely to need to control the other, to take power over them as a mere extension of ourselves, because we have that sense of our ability to continue to exist without them. We are more tolerant of difference and challenge than we are if we have a more fragile sense of self. We are therefore perhaps much less likely to abuse our power if we feel truly power-ful.