Whether we admit it or not, power is an essential ingredient of life. It is present in every single human action and transaction; it is our ability to produce an effect, to make what we want happen. Usually, its presence is unspoken. Part of the problem is that when we think of power, most of us think of dominance—command and control. But that’s only one type of power.
Whatever else it is, that’s definitely not authentic power. According to Ethel S. Person, a well-known psychiatrist and author of Feeling Strong: How Power Issues Affect Our Ability to Direct Our Own Lives,authentic power arises strictly from within, an expression of personal will. It is contingent on our ability to trust our own instincts and hunches.
Many of us walk around feeling powerless. We procrastinate and fail to apply ourselves to the work before us. We fail to control our weight. We fear rejection and fail to start a conversation with a newcomer. We shrink from confronting others. As Person explains, we can’t even reach our full humanity without some exercise of power, the need for which is wired in, a basic part of our motivational system. We have a need for power.
How do we experience ourselves as authentically powerful? Authentic power is about self-governance, says Person. It “encompasses the ability to face adversity, to overcome fear and inhibition, to be sufficiently in touch with our inner lives that we are genuinely able to express ourselves and chart our life’s direction, to be open to a range of interpersonal relationships, to be assertive without being confrontational, and to create meaning in our lives.”
We aren’t born with it. And we don’t get there without struggle. And once we have it we don’t keep it forever; we have to continue to struggle to maintain it. The possession of authentic power, then, is an ongoing process.
“We often assume that worldly power confers inner strength,” says Person. Yet the feeling of authentic power, of inner strength, is not necessarily, and perhaps only rarely, associated with power in the external world. To establish a raison d’etre,whether in work or love or religious devotion, to commit to activities that one chooses, to be able to live in the moment without abandoning either the past or the future, to have a life relatively free of fear, anger or envy and filled with love and concern for at least a few others—these are all facets of authentic power. Authentic power is the ability to live fully, with few regrets and fewer recriminations. When we are internally free to pursue our goals, we experience neither excessive apathy nor doubt, and we remain untroubled by fear of failure or of success.
“Authentic power is not the same thing as worldly power. Like the proverbial needle in the haystack, it is often difficult to find those among us who feel authentically powerful, who feel anything like inner strength or a sense of being in command of themselves.
It’s perhaps even harder to identify people who experience themselves as genuinely powerful among those apparently powerful people who inhabit the headlines.
“Most of us are neither totally powerless nor totally powerful but have some combination of weakness and strengths. Dominance is not the same thing as authentic power; in fact those who rely on dominating others to establish their own self-esteem are often papering over an underlying sense of weakness and often doubt whether they are authentically loved or even liked. Nor should we view vulnerability as synonymous with weakness. To develop real empathy, we must at one time or another have permitted ourselves to feel frightened, overwhelmed or helpless. Indeed, a certain amount of strength is required for us to open ourselves up and express vulnerability,” says Person.
“Authentic power wells up from within, and it seldom appears full-blown early in life. Rather, it is an outcome of our ability to integrate our experiences in such a way that even adversity is ultimately incorporated into the process of growth. Authentic power is gained through vigorous participation in life, coupled with an openness to new experiences, emotional sure-footedness, strong ties to other people, the ability to find interest and pleasure in whatever we encounter and, most of all, the ability to construct meaning in our lives.”
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