Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What's Your Relationship with Power?

When I was a teenager, my uncle (a bold and confident school superintendent), asked me about my relationship with power. He said that most people had issues with personal power. I replied, "I don't have an issue with power----I don't have any power." I wasn't joking. I sincerely didn't think that perceiving oneself as powerless constituted an issue.

Many years later, after having multiple life experiences that left me feeling angry and taken advantage of, I realized that I had a problem with power. I'd been a nice girl who had grown into a nice woman, but I didn't know how to be assertive, say no without feeling guilty, or extricate myself from bad situations. I would stay in a ridiculous relationship or job until it came crashing down around me like a crumbling building. I didn't know how to walk away---all I knew to do was sabotage the situation until it went away.

When I think of personal power, three words come to mind:  passive, assertive, and aggressive. There are other ways to think of power, but these three styles of relating do a good job of summing things up.

1.   When we're passive, we wait for things to happen because we don't know how to pursue what we want in a direct way, or because we believe we will be punished if we do. Often passive people don't know what they want, and/or have grown up under the thumb of an aggressive parent or other authority figure who stifled their natural assertiveness. (Note that when passive people get tired of not getting their needs met, they may become manipulative or lash out by behaving passive-aggressively.)

2.   Aggressive means that we believe we can only get what we want by overpowering others. Aggressive people have control issues, and believe that if they don't control life, life will control them.

3.   Assertive means that we clearly state our wants or needs so that they are known, but we don't use our power to control others. Genuinely assertive people respect their own rights and those of others. (Note that many aggressive people see themselves as assertive, even when bullying and manipulating others).

So where do you fit in? Personally, I've run the gamut from timid and quiet as a church mouse, to fierce and ruthless as a tiger. I've perfected passive aggression (which makes me cringe to admit), and I'm no stranger to emotional strategy and manipulation. Yes, dear uncle, I've known power issues!

This week, please join me in working toward that "happy place" called assertiveness. If you don't know what you want or how you feel, find out. If you need something, ask for it in a direct and respectful way. If you're in a bad situation, know that you have the right to change it or leave it. And if you've been guilty of overpowering others, get in touch with what that's about, and work on changing your ways.

Good luck, and have a great week.