What is Power Really?
Power is a basic human need, but personal power is optional.
“This world is the will to power—and nothing besides!”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
The word “empowerment” has gotten a bad name. It’s overused and undefined. What is the power that “empowerment” refers to?
Therapy presumes the therapist has the power you lack. Follow my directions, the solution will emerge, and you’ll have power. In coaching, the coach presumes you have the power but it’s latent. I will help you find it, but you’ll know where it is and you will bring it out.
Much of therapy is advertised as directing you back to health but it’s really directing you to being normal. Therapy has gotten a bad name because it asks you to accept the idea that you’re ill. Therapy puts you back in the box.
Some people are disabled and others are dealing with growth. Therapists have a teacher’s mentality: they know what’s good for you. Most of us are putting the pieces together. Anyone capable of learning can perform better.
Coaching looks for the power that therapy leaves on the table. Rather than freeing you from prejudice, suffering, or bondage, coaching supports achieving your goals. It’s behavioral therapy for those who don’t need therapy, sold to people entering, in, or retiring from work and relationships.
“For those who wanted to become coaches, there was Life Coach School Certification, a six-month online course initially priced around $15,000. The model was essentially a simplified version of cognitive behavioral therapy with some power-of-positive-thinking thrown in.”
— Rachel Monroe (2021), in The Guardian
We want the freedom to succeed but some of us confuse freedom with success or success with freedom. Achieving freedom is a success, but it does not assure success in other things. Success may offer freedom at least from struggle, but this freedom is temporary. We often find ourselves trading one for the other where the real work is accomplishing both together.
Gaining both freedom and power is a different balance. Rather than alternating between seeing your glass as more than half full or less than half empty, finding this balance means no longer fixating on the glass. It is a redefinition of your sense of value. It’s a stability that comes from letting go.
Ballast holds you down; it keeps you from tipping over. It works in life as it works in a sailboat allowing you to find energy in turmoil. The wind isn’t always going in your direction.
Sailing gives you the contentment of the downwind, the euphoria of the crosswind, and the frustration of struggling upwind, but it doesn’t free you from the race. You’ll still be moaning like the wind as it passes through the rigging.
Having power is not the problem, it’s needing it. All needs remind you of scarcity. We don’t consider breathing to be a need until our breathing is restricted. My being sick with covid made breathing a struggle and the power to breathe became a goal.
I don’t want to spend my life struggling to win the breathing race, and I don’t want to spend my life struggling to win the money or the affection race either. If I struggle to gain the power of money or the contentment of affection, then I’ll spend my life watching the weather and trimming my sails without any destination.
The sailing metaphor illustrates the illusion of power that doesn’t take you anywhere. The wind will take you across the ocean, but what does money or affection take you across? They don’t take you across anything, at best they sustain you. But as long as you need to consume them, then that’s what you’ll spend your life doing. They won’t bring you anywhere.
A story from Anthony de Mellow’s book “Awareness” (de Mellow, 1990) reflects the lack of freedom when you have no power. Most of us were treated this way when we were little.
Little Johnny was considered retarded. One day in modeling class he was given a piece of clay, whereupon he retreated to a corner to work by himself. Concerned that he was not rising to the occasion, the teacher approached him and said, “Hi Johnny, what are you doing?” And Johnny said, “I’m playing with a piece of dung.” “Oh, well what are you making with it?” And Johnny replied, “I’m making a teacher.”
Taken aback, the teacher called to the principal who approached and said, “Hi, Johnny, what are you playing with?” I’m playing with a piece of dung.” “And what are you making?” asked the principal. “I’m making a principal,” Johnny replied.
The principal agreed little Johnny had a problem and informed the psychologist. The psychologist, an expert, approached and said, “Hi Johnny. I see you’re playing with a piece of dung!” “Right,” said Johnny. “I know what you’re making,” added the psychologist. “What?” replied Johnny. “You’re making a psychologist!” “No,” said Johnny, “not enough dung.”
I’m not sure that we have “freedom to” as much as we have “freedom from.” When you have the freedom to breathe you live with the satisfaction of breathing, but when you are free from the struggle to breathe it becomes a nonissue: you use the power that breathing gives you.
I don’t want to struggle to maintain another person’s affection, I want to take it for granted. One does not struggle to achieve joy, joy comes from not struggling. Learn from your pets. They are at peace in your presence without the burden of insecurity.
A cat slumbers in contentment; a dog noses around. Occasionally they check your presence but they don’t question your loyalty. Unless they become mentally ill, which you can cause by acting psychopathological, they cannot imagine you would betray them.
The animals that bond to us are concerned with losing us, and so they check our location, but they do not question our intent. We are constantly questioning each other’s intent. We question our own intent. We question ourselves.
As long as self-confidence, self-love, and self-sufficiency are scarce resources, you will live life as if breathing through a straw and constantly struggle for oxygen. If love was like food you’d need to constantly replenish it. You would not live a loving life, you would live a life that was always consuming love. It’s not the sustaining of power that you need, it’s the release of your need to replenish it.
De Mello says, “When you hold on to anything, you cease to live.. happiness is not the same as excitement, it’s not the same as thrills… A thrill comes from living a desire fulfilled… and sooner or later it brings its hangover… You’re feeding yourself with thrills.”
Balance is misunderstood. We think it’s a good thing but the word implies instability. You would not call a rock or a tree balanced unless it was in danger of falling. This kind of balance maybe what we want if we’re addicted to excess, and are we addicted to excess? Unless we’re looking to balance joy with suffering, we’re just looking to find joy. That’s not a balance, that’s stability.
If all you’ve known is extremes, if your joy has always been fleeting, then stable joy is something you have not experienced. Most likely, it has never existed for you. You’re actually looking for something you’ve never had.
If you’ve spent your life on a tightrope then you’ll fall over when you step onto the ground. If you’ve spent your life aboard a swaying ship, then you’ll have headaches as you try to walk a straight line on the unmoving earth.
How do you recognize stability if you’ve only known balance? How do you cope with something that does not vary? You must let go of the distinction. As long as you only know joy in contrast with suffering, then unceasing joy will become meaningless and disorienting. It’s not a lack of joy that prevents you from finding stability, it’s a lack of contentment.
To be content you must let go of struggle. To be content with breathing you must stop struggling to breathe. To be content with love you must stop struggling to give and get love. To be content with yourself you must cease the need for constant affirmation and endorsement.
Between balance and stability, there is change, and change of this sort is a change in kind and not a change in quantity. I will not consider change here because it is a thing in and of itself. Knowing where you’re coming from and going to does not explain the process of change. I will consider change somewhere else. Here I’ll consider stability.
Stability only comes from yourself. You will not find a stable world. You will be perceived as a changing person as situations around you change. People’s perceptions change as their situations change. You are not what others claim you are. No label is you and no attempt to attach or remove a label from you will grant you stability.
The world is not stable and that is no accident. There are stable places and times, but we don’t inhabit them. When change stops, consciousness stops. Our awareness awakens only where there is change, and if we should find ourselves in a constant and unchanging environment, then our mind generates a stream of changing thoughts.
All living things position themselves at the intersection of energies and events. That’s where things happen. If your environment is not moving, then you move through your environment. Stasis doesn’t support life; life ceases in places where energy stops and over timescales where change is not apparent.
The stability you’re looking for is an internal condition, not an external environment. You are looking for a stable state of mind in a changing world. Too often our environment becomes static and we have to change. When our environment becomes stale our state starts to oscillate from joy to suffering. We are pumping energy through us instead of finding a place and a relationship that flows naturally.
As young people, we’re looking for stability in a changing environment. As elders, we relish change in a stable environment. Few youths know a stability they can comfortably commit to, nor can many elders manage change well.
Moving from being unstable to being stable seems to be built into our genetics. We’re expected to gradually acquire the ability to discern, settle, and commit. Generations of relationship problems stem from partners’ inability to manage and synchronize their change.
We focus on problems, issues, and conflicts without recognizing the obstacle is our inability to discern. You cannot discern the right path or commit to anyone if you have not found yourself. You cannot grow a relationship if your own chemistry is unstable.
Personal stability is being grounded. Most young people don’t have it and are not expected to. Most elders are too grounded and are expected to be. Yet in both cases, the challenge is to gain self-control for what’s appropriate; to find your ground when your environment is unstable, and to be flexible where change is needed.
Awareness is key. Honesty is crucial. Doing your best may not be enough.
Your immune system is a model. It has a memory and it can retain knowledge, but it also can learn and adapt. Just because you strive to be healthy doesn't mean you’re healthy enough. Just because you try doesn’t mean you can. Your environment will tell you. Give yourself to the struggle and learn from it. Victimhood is not a weakness, it’s a doorway.
You are the most aware when you are the most open and your filters are down. You will see the most when you allow the most of yourself to be seen. Awareness grows when you make yourself vulnerable. You are your most grounded when you’re not shielding your fears and no preconceptions hold you up.
Balance, stability, and ground are essential for building any healthy and successful state of mind. They are not issues of illness and diagnosis and they are not issues of coaching and performance enhancement. The distinction between therapy and coaching is one of delivery and not substance. One does not need one or the other, one is only sold one or the other. To be healthy and able is just one thing.
“The higher man is distinguished from the lower by his fearlessness
and his readiness to challenge misfortune.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
De Mellow, A. (1990). Awareness, the perils and opportunities of reality, Image Books. https://www.auro-ebooks.com/download/anthony-de-mello-awareness/
Monroe, R. (2021, Oct. 6). I’m a life coach, you’re a life coach: the rise of an unregulated industry, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/oct/06/life-coaching-brooke-castillo-unregulated-industry