Are You Powerless to a Power Struggle?

Are you not doing what is good for you simply because someone else is telling you to do it?

A very lovely client of mine recently told me about a long-standing battle she had been having with her husband over a ‘box’. The box itself was harmless. It was just an archive box full of her old papers and Knick Knacks. The problem with this innocuous box was that it had been sitting in the corner of the marital bedroom for a significant period of time. The box had become a constant source of frustration and annoyance for her husband. He wanted her to ‘sort through the crap in the box’ and ‘move the box’ so he didn’t have to ‘see that bloody box anymore’. Yet the more he complained about it the happier she became for the box to remain there. The ‘box’ sitting quietly in the corner of the bedroom had somehow become a cause of tension for the happily married couple. Does this sound familiar?

Interestingly, what my client found most annoying was that she did in fact want to move the box! Although she argued with her husband that there was no need to get so stressed over moving a box, at the same time she was becoming increasingly frustrated with herself for not finding the motivation to move it. It seemed that the more he needed her to move the box, the less inclined she felt to move it and the more she refused to do it. This little ole box had become a pawn in a power struggle.

So why do we get into power struggles over simple things? Why do we refuse to do things that we want to do just because someone else tells us to do it? If there is something that we want to do, like move a box, then it really shouldn’t bother us if someone else suggests that we do it. Instead – we resist! We ‘dig our heels in’. We tell them to ‘get off our backs’, ‘mind their own business’ and ‘stop telling us what to do!’. We might also start making demands back – ‘AND don’t you DARE think about moving that box without my permission!’

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The need for power is a basic human need. It is the need to feel free to make our own choices, to create and influence and to decide what is best for us. We all need to feel the power to choose, to change, to move, to protect ourselves, and ultimately to do whatever is required to ensure that our needs of love and safety are met. We get into power struggles when we give away our power to external things – to other people, events or situations outside of ourselves. We have gotten into the habit of believing that things in the external world have the power to dictate our inner experience at all times. We believe that whatever is happening ‘out there’ is automatically generating our experience at every moment and we do not have any control over this experience.Because we are often in ‘reaction’ to the world around us we have learned to feel powerless simply because we don’t have the ability to feel what we want to feel and not feel what we don’t want to feel.

We experienced powerlessness in childhood in many different ways. In extreme cases we may have felt powerless to change the fact that our parents fought, divorced, judged or abandoned us. We may have felt powerless due to an illness that prevented us from playing, learning or spending time with friends. We may have felt powerless because we had to wear clothes we didn’t like, play sports or do hobbies we didn’t enjoy, or eat food we disliked. We may have felt powerless because we were punished, grounded or deprived of dessert or television. However, as stressful as these events or scenarios might have been, they are not really at the root cause of our feelings of powerlessness. What we really felt powerless to were our own emotions. We weren’t powerless to a person, event or situation, we were powerless to our emotional experience of that person, event or situation.

For example, if at seven years old, my parents decided to move house and I had to change schools, I may have felt powerless because I did not have a choice in the matter – I was being forced to leave a school and friends that I liked. But what was I really powerless to? When leaving my friends I may have felt loss, grief and sadness. When having to start at a new school I may have felt scared, anxious and self-conscious. This would have been a perfectly legitimate inner experience of the situation. Understandably, I would not have wanted to feel these emotions and in order to resist or avoid them I would have decided that I needed the situation to change – but of course I could not change it. So I felt powerless. I felt powerless because I could not change the situation that was causing me to feel emotions that I did not want to feel. We feel powerless when we cannot change the external person, event or situation which we see as the cause of our emotions or inner experience. But of course it is impossible to change the external world (although we often try!). It is however, possible to change our inner experience of it and this actually makes us powerful beyond measure.

We all want the power to choose how we want to feel and how we don’t want to feel. Yet if we continue to believe that the power to do so lies outside of us then this power will continue to elude us. Being powerful actually equates to taking responsibility for our own thoughts, emotions and reactions. It is the ability to choose how to respond to a situation in a way that we would like to. In fact, the term ‘responsibility’ really means the ability to respond. If we take responsibility for our emotions without repressing them or projecting blame then we are standing in our power. Sometimes the most empowering thing we can do is just admit that we’re angry or sad – without needing to change these emotions or blame someone else for them. If we fail to take responsibility for our inner experience we are essentially powerless, we bump from one unconscious reaction to the external world to another, unable to change our own feelings until the cause of that feeling, which is supposedly outside of us, changes. We’re powerless to the frustration we feel in traffic jams, the anger we feel at parking fines and the outrage we feel at rudeness.

For example, if I feel depressed on a cloudy day and I believe that the cloudy day is the cause of my depression, then I am powerless to cloudy days, I have to wait for the cloudy day to clear before I can be free of my depression. How many of us are waiting for things external to us to change before we can feel differently? Are you waiting for your boss to stop micro-managing so you can feel valued? Are you waiting for your partner to cook you dinner so you can feel loved? Are you waiting for that box to be moved so you can feel less irritated?

When we don’t take responsibility for our inner experience then our emotional state remains completely dependent on the external world. The troublesome event or person simply continues to give us trouble and we feel powerless to change it. The dependencies we have on external things are at the heart of power struggles. We know we have a dependency when we need things to be a certain way in order for us to feel a certain way - ‘Ijust need you to move that box so I can relax!’. The more we need someone or something to be a certain way, the more powerless we become. This sense of powerlessness then drives us to acquire more power externally by asserting ourselves over others, manipulating or people pleasing in order to change or control the external situation so we can regain our power.

Interestingly the people we love – our children, spouses, parents and friends, are our biggest ‘Dependency Detectors.’ They have an amazing capacity for intuitively knowing when we are dependent on something external. When we ask someone to do (or not do) something because we need them to so we can feel a certain way, the request is conditional – we have placed a condition on that person and asserted our will on them – it is essentially a grab for external power. Those close to us tend to know when we are not taking responsibility for our own emotional state and are instead, asking them to take responsibility for our feelings. Knowing this, they do exactly what is in our highest good – they deny us. J How often have you needed to get somewhere on time and your husband or 3 year old have decided it is the best time to dawdle or throw a tantrum? It seems that the more you nag them to hurry up, the longer they take. Notice that your stress levels appear to be generated by their tantrum or dawdling, but actually, the root cause of the stress is your need to be on time (and not appear rude, inconsiderate and disorganised).

When we receive a highly conditional request or ‘demand’ we instinctively resist it. While our conscious, logical brain would agree that a request makes sense and that it is a good idea (e.g. to move the box), the inner child or unconscious part of us resists it. This resistance is usually an unconscious reaction to a perceived ‘grab for power’ from the other person. Energetically we can feel when someone is coming from a dependency and is trying to control us, assert their will and disempower us. Naturally, our inner child feels threatened, senses the danger of becoming powerless and generates an appropriate action to defend itself (i.e. refuse to do it or get angry and defensive). If we feel resistance, it is a good indication that we are experiencing a threat to our power. Likewise, if someone is resisting us, it is a good indication that we are coming from a dependency and seeking power from them. Since powerlessness is an extremely uncomfortable state rooted back to those (often painful) childhood memories, our unconscious or inner child will do whatever it takes to avoid feeling it again.

When two people, both feeling equally powerless, are seeking to change each other in order to change their emotions or inner experience, you get a power struggle. Neither wants to submit because they need to win the battle to prove their power and change their inner experience. However, true power comes from disengaging from the battle altogether. Because you have the power to choose your inner experience you can release the need for the other person to change. You have power and there is no need to battle for it, let alone ‘win’ that battle.

Not giving our power away means taking responsibility for our inner experience – for our thoughts, emotions and reactions. It is recognising that our emotions and reactions are not a result of the world but a result of how we see the world – our beliefs, past experiences and social conditioning. If we believe that other people have the power to make us feel a certain way then that is exactly what will happen – if we believe that people treat us like we’re stupid or don’t listen to us then that is exactly what will happen. If we then believe that we need others to change, that we demand that they behave differently in order to make us feel smart or listened to, then they will deny us. Because it is not their responsibility. No one else can ever really make us feel smart or listened to unless we decide to feel that way ourselves.

True power comes from owning our emotional experience of the world, at all times. It is the ability to respond to the world in a way we would like to and not be at the mercy of others nor our own reactive emotions. To step out of a power struggle we therefore need to take responsibility for our own emotions and release our dependencies.

To do this, ask yourself some questions:

* Am I attached to achieving a particular outcome? i.e. do I need a particular outcome in order tofeel a certain way? Can I let go of this dependency?

* Do I feel the power to choose my reactions and emotions regardless of what happens?

* Do I need the situation or person to change in order for me to feel powerful?

* Does my power depend on disempowering this person? Winning the battle? Feeling 'right'?

For example, when your husband has left his jocks on the floor for the 100th time after you have repeatedly asked him to pick them up – can you feel powerful enough to choose to feel calm, valued and respected? Does your peace depend on whether the jocks are left on the floor or not? Do you need him to pick up the jocks before you can feel at peace? Does your power depend on him doing what you say? If you can feel powerful, peaceful and calm – jocks or no jocks – you are not attached. You can choose to have peace no matter what. And that is power, and actually, it’s freedom.

So what about that damn box? Does my client or her husband’s power depend on whether the box stays or goes? Do either of them need the box to move to feel peaceful? Doubt it, but who’s going to give up the battle first?