I want to talk about power. Power is at the bottom of most things and yet it is seldom talked or
What do you associate with the word “power?” Likely your associations will fit somewhere
along a wide range of responses—from negative, like from greed, control, exploitation, harm to
neutral or to the positive side, like opportunity to make things better, healing or preventing
harm, fulfilling purpose.
As a young person in the 60’s, the word was associated with war, disrespect, oppression—all
things bad. l, on the other hand, was all about the song: “all we need is love.”
I planned to be an elementary school teacher where I imagined, amazingly, that I wouldn’t have
power, just love for my students. After a few years, my public-school teaching career morphed
into a new love—psychotherapy, specifically Hakomi Mindful Somatic Therapy.
An ethics course that had me shaking in my boots lest I make an ethical error and cause harm. I
was causing harm by being too tight and contained—in effect, underusing my power as a
Teaching ethics to psychotherapists brought me to the idea that ethics is actually, right use of
power. This changed ethics from learning a long list of rules and committing to abide by them
to learning about the dynamics of relationships where there is a power difference, like
counseling, teaching, spiritual direction, medicine. I wrote a book and developed an embodied
learning program. Ethics from the inside out, rather than the outside in.
So back to power. The actual definition is the ability to have an effect or to have influence.
Neutral. It is how you use your power that makes the difference between good and ill. It is not
automatically greedy, controlling and harmful.
Ability to have an effect or influence. Yes, we all need to have an effect or influence to have
meaningful relationships and lives. Think of the amount of influence a baby has when they cry
or when they smile.
There are many ways we can use our influence positively. Here’s a way you can do your own
inquiry. Imagine or draw a continuum line on a piece of paper and respond to these questions by
putting an x on the place where you tend to land. Of course, we all need to be flexible in our
influence in different situations, but usually there’s a most familiar place on the continuum. I
want to point out that many or maybe most misuses and abuses of power happen when people
are using their influence at one extreme or the other, for example being completely directive or
Do you tend to use your influence by being more:
This last one is particularly interesting because we often think we have to choose between
being strong and compassionate. A misconception. It’s challenging to use power with both
strength and compassion, but it is what’s needed for using power wisely and well.
Martin Luther King says it so well.
“Power, properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength
required to bring about social, political and economic change. What is needed is a realization
that power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and
anemic. Power, at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is
power correcting everything that stands against love.”
King is talking about a Socially Responsible operating system for power, as compared to the
more usual Dominator operating system. Let’s advocate for power used wisely and well.
It seems that bad news sells better than good news. It also seems that in people’s experiences,
the hurt and trauma caused by misuses and abuses of power by people in positions of authority
are like velcro—they stick and stay, whereas right uses of power tend to slide off and away in
So, practice saying “yes” to your power—your ability to have an effect or to have influence.
Use your yes to being a positive force for good. Stand in your strength while staying in your
compassion. Power with Heart.