Power and Powerlessness

Power is a broad concept that is used in many contexts, including sociological and psychological realms. The term power has become so expanded and widely used that some believe it has lost strength in its use and value. Diverse conceptualizations of the power construct exist, which are based on the differing theories and philosophies that are present in research and literature. Power may be described as the ability or practice of exerting control over others or as the capability to influence others. Power is also presented as an innate ability to take action to make changes in one’s life or in a community, nation, or the world.

Three identified types of power include force, influence, and authority. Force may be put forth through physical power, psychological power, or social power. Influence suggests the exercise of personal power, and authority includes traditional authority, legal or rational authority, and authority based on a person’s disposition. Power has further been described as being a strong influence in the exercise of oppression; that is, those who are in power are able to oppress those with less power. Conceptualizations of power are also demonstrated in self-efficacy, as power may influence the extent to which an individual believes he or she is able to carry out a particular task or goal. Power is viewed by some as an object and a possession to which some have ownership of and others do not. Others view power not as an object but rather as a position in a relationship or social milieu. Power may be viewed in various contexts as either real or perceived, and it can be described as either a fixed construct or a variable aspect of a social relationship.

The opposite of power is powerlessness. Powerlessness refers to the expectancy that people’s behaviors cannot determine the outcomes or reinforcements that they seek. Powerlessness may further be explained as the lack of strength or the absence of power. People experiencing powerlessness may feel out of control and have no solution to regain control. Subsequent to feeling out of control comes the lack of capability to be in command of most aspects of one’s life. Powerlessness also can be considered as the absence of complete authority or status to affect how others will act toward others. It is viewed by some that, when confronting powerlessness, individuals may be able to affect or change the negative behaviors (e.g., compulsions and addictions) of either themselves or others. Confronting and addressing powerlessness is believed by some to be what helps people to change past events that have had a negative impact on people’s current lives, or to help people change things that they may have attempted to change in the past with little success. People may experience feelings of powerlessness when considering areas where they feel a lack of strength, competence, or skills to overcome realities in life that have no solution or answer. For example, people may feel powerlessness when considering persistent problems facing society that are not currently solvable, such as widespread violence and war or a cure for AIDS or cancer.

Powerlessness can be a learned feeling or response that occurs when individuals are kept in powerless positions repeatedly and over long periods of time by others who are in positions of power. These powerful others are able to exercise their power via money, social position, or physical strength. Power may also be exerted over others through legal status or military force. Powerlessness may further be felt by individuals who are targets of racism or ethnic discrimination. When individuals feel powerlessness, they may feel hesitant, afraid, or unwilling to express their feelings, fearful that what little they have will be taken from them.

The externally imposed powerlessness of racial, class, and gender oppression may be enforced through various means including economic, social, or physical ways. People in positions of power may have control over others in determining, for example, who gets jobs, who is given opportunities in education, and how help is given to those with financial needs. When those in powerful positions are exercising control over less-powerful groups, collective power and direct action may be used to facilitate empowerment and overcome the feelings of powerlessness. Collective power refers to the power generated by an organized group. An example of collective power would be the formation of a union. An example of direct action to address powerlessness would be the development of a lawsuit or the arrangement of a strike. A powerful formula for effective action against powerful others would be one that combines the collective power with direct action, such as the formation of a workforce union that works together (collective power) and coordinates a strike effort (direct action).

People may also experience feelings of powerlessness if they have been abused. When powerlessness becomes a chronic and repeated occurrence, these continuous, persistent feelings of powerlessness may lead people to become afraid to feel and express their needs. This may result in people becoming immobilized or developing feelings of helplessness. People may unwittingly become immune to the feeling of powerlessness, possibly leading them to experience hindered growth and development. When powerlessness is learned, people may feel that they are responsible for their powerlessness. People with whom powerlessness is learned may remain in powerless positions, even when the external forces of power have decreased or diminished. These continuous feelings of powerlessness may lead one to then enter into situations that repeat experiences of powerlessness, such as engaging in a relationship with an abusive person. Powerlessness may also become internalized and lead people to self-abusive behaviors, compulsive behaviors, or depression. It has been suggested that one of the most harmful forms of powerlessness occurs when external forms of powerlessness are combined with the learned feelings of powerlessness, which may lead individuals without power to a position in which they feel insecure or unable to assert their rights.

Power in Counseling Relationships

Therapists and counselors are equipped with an array of skills to work effectively with clients. In counseling, it is not unusual for imbalances of power to surface. The historical view of therapy is similar to the medical model of illness, in which those seeking mental health services are seen with regard to symptom presentation and are subsequently prescribed a treatment to reduce those symptoms. This view of mental health focuses on mental health disorders as illnesses that require a cure to solve the presenting problems. Thus, with regard to power, this traditional medical model and approach to mental health treatment puts the therapist in a dominant role of a healer, with the client in a position of needing to be fixed or cured. From this traditional perspective, power differences may present in the relationship between the counselor and the client because of the perceived roles of the counselor and client. Additional imbalance of power between the counselor and the client may occur due to characteristics of either the counselor or client, such as racial, gender, age, and education differences. Some theorists believe that a power imbalance may be beneficial in a counseling relationship, suggesting that a counselor’s power and perception of expertise lead to less resistance and more engagement from the client. Furthermore, some imbalance of power may be viewed as unavoidable. Because some imbalance of power may be inevitable and is considered by some as beneficial to therapeutic change, counselors ought to practice caution and awareness when exploring the dynamics of their relationships with clients. This may be accomplished by working to address and confront power positions and possible feelings of powerlessness, both outside of the counseling relationship as well as between the counselor and the client. This is particularly critical when the counseling relationship includes a cross-racial or cross-gender dyad.

Most theories of counseling often present information as being appropriate for all populations, suggesting that it is fitting to treat all clients of various racial, cultural, or ethnic backgrounds the same. This biased approach attempts to universalize the experience and social context of the White middle class. In clinical settings, psychological conditions may be better understood when issues of power, such as powerlessness or helplessness, are considered. The tendency of those in privileged positions to ignore, disregard, or pathologize the experiences of marginalized people can have damaging effects on the counselor-client relationship. In counseling, therapists may work to focus on patient’s strengths, which can be a way of knowing and problem solving that relates to modification of this tendency to pathologize targeted people. For example, expression of resistance can be identified and validated, the resilience that clients use to manage oppression can be acknowledged, and the ethical implications of the client’s struggles can be identified. Counselors may work with clients to address power imbalances. Working with clients to recognize and address feelings of powerlessness—within and beyond the counseling session—may possibly lead clients to experience thoughts of empowerment.

History and Development

Several theorists describe various thoughts regarding the concept of power. Friedrich Nietzsche is commonly viewed as a contemporary theorist with reference to the power construct. Nietzsche coined the concept of “will of power,” which refers to the domination over others and over environments. From a social and political perspective, Keith Dowding’s explanation of power differentiates between outcome power and social power. Dowding describes outcome power as the ability of individuals or groups to bring about change, and social power is referred to as the ability of groups or individuals to change the structures of other individuals or groups in order to bring about change.

Michel Foucault and others have argued that power should not and cannot be interpreted as a possession, an entity, or an object; rather, Foucault suggests that power is present only from its exercise within the structure of society or a particular point in time. Foucault contends that power is available to everyone but has different effects depending on who is acting and the context of that action. From Foucault’s perspective, control and resistance to power can occur at any time and in any place. Foucault critiques the concept of oppressor and oppressed and instead offers the idea of power as stemming from relationships that are always dynamically changing. Foucault’s contention was that people in power roles, such as psychologists, use their positions to oppress individuals who diverge from the norm. This is demonstrated throughout historical conceptualizations of mental health, in which psychologists are regarded as authorities in defining and reinforcing standards of normalcy and aberrance, thus exercising control and power through their positions.

In literature, multiple forms of power are presented. In sociological literature, power comes in two forms: as coercive and as choice. In its coercive form, power is the capacity to act in a manner that influences the behavior of others even against their wishes, possibly with the use of force. This type of power is also known as primary power and is considered the most destructive form of power in society today. Power as choice refers to the capacity to act in a manner that influences the behavior of others without violating free moral choice. To practice this form of power is described as the height of self-control. Other literature describes several types of power that are manifested in the following five forms: coercive power, reward power, legitimate power, expert power, and referent power. As described in the previous paragraph, coercive power refers to the type of power in which a punishment exists. The second type of power, reward power, involves the power one has to provide rewards. Legitimate power is the power that is gained via legitimate means, such as a law enforcement position. Expert power refers to the type of power that is gained through educational or experiential endeavors. Lastly, referent power refers to the power gained by an individual due to respect.

Examples of Power and Powerlessness

Race and Power

Dominant groups have a tendency to disregard injustice or fail to recognize the persistent systems of inequality that exist in their societies. Dominant discourse is a term that refers to the recognition process that people often encounter when they begin to explore ways in which they have disregarded issues of oppression. Dominant discourse describes the manner in which dominant groups may begin to acknowledge their previous failures to recognize that oppression exists. Dominant discourse occurs as people start questioning what would ordinarily be regarded as unbiased. People then search to explore the underlying values embedded within their perceived cultural norms. The analysis that occurs through dominant discourse shifts attention to the specific contexts that shape culturally appropriate beliefs.

The subtle approval of certain arrangements of racial privilege and power is an especially important implication. The biases embedded within dominant discourse are hidden by their exceeding normalcy, and this sense of order allows this subtle approval to persist in society and communities without questioning. The construct of dominant discourse can be used to investigate how unrecognized cultural assumptions surround counseling theory and the practice of therapy. People’s examination of their own biased realities and practices influences the shaping of larger social contexts and the underlying values of those individuals. The understanding of this concept is critical to the professional development of counselors and counselors in training, particularly those who are from dominant cultures in society, such as White counselors. Multicultural awareness that results from deconstructive inquiry and analysis may create knowledge and understanding that help future therapists look beyond their own learned views and beliefs.

Addictions and Power

Individuals with addiction concerns are often drawn to particular kinds of mood changes or highs. There are specific addiction highs to which individuals are attracted, such as arousal, satiation, and fantasy. Arousal causes sensations of strong, unchecked power and gives the individual feelings of being all-powerful and untouchable. This arousal often comes in the form of taking substances such as amphetamines, cocaine, and ecstasy, and from gambling, sexually acting out, spending, stealing, and behaving in other risky or unsafe ways. Arousal gives those with addictions the sensation of omnipotence and overcoming any feelings of powerlessness. Yet people with addictions may eventually lose all feelings of power, and to get additional power they may return to the object or behavior that provided the arousal, ultimately becoming dependent upon it. People who are addicted to arousal become engulfed by fear, as they fear their loss of power and that others will discover how powerless they are.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and the other 12-step programs based on AA principles teach that individuals with addictions are powerless over alcohol or drugs and that recovery necessitates acceptance of powerlessness. Some argue that this may be a convenient paradigm for some people, such as those who have been given to believe that they are responsible for controlling the world and everything in it, namely White, mainstream, heterosexual men. Promoting a sense of powerlessness may aid in easing the discomfort regarding areas over which they may have little or no control. However, other individuals utilize 12-step programs, namely, individuals from varying socioeconomic classes, women, racial and ethnic minorities, individuals from various sexual orientations, and other populations. Feminist theorists, in particular, have described the endorsement of powerlessness among women in various contexts as a confinement method meant to make certain that women remain depoliticized and as a part of a pattern of degradation of women. Some have argued that the theory of addiction, which asserts individual responsibility, is harmful to women because the theory denies the political, social, and economic realities that organize women’s lives.

Disability and Power

The history of counseling people with disabilities originated following World War I after the vast demand for services for veterans with acquired disabilities. The beginning of services for people with disabilities included the development of post-World War I rehabilitation and social agencies for people in need of assistance. The industrialized economy garnered the creation of a select number of adaptive devices that were of significant help to people with disabilities who were capable of work. Today, people with disabilities may experience societal barriers of independent living. Societal barriers may include governmental policy, minimal accommodation, negative attitudes, or discrimination. People with disabilities may feel that the barriers and negative attitudes toward them serve to augment their disabilities, decrease their independence, and enlarge their sense of powerlessness. Thus, the dimension surrounding power and disability may put people in positions of needing help while also feeling resistant to accept help from others. Counselors working with people with disabilities may work toward empowerment of people with disabilities, advocacy, and assisting people with disabilities in areas of accommodations and work.

Sex/Gender and Power

There is general agreement that men and women differ in the degree to which they hold powerful positions in certain fields. Although various cultures may value the different kinds of power differently, male heterosexual power is almost universally respected. Males typically have more power than woman in the public arena outside the home and in leadership positions. Men usually control powerful institutions that sustain the social hierarchy, such as the government, military, and law. Women typically have far more responsibilities in the home than do men, often in daily caretaking activities. Though women may have more power in the home than men may have, this power is not analogous to public power. Although the distribution of power between men and women in the United States has changed over the past few decades, men continue to hold distinct power over women. Westernized culture has traditionally linked women’s economic and social power with appearance. Within current gender-power relations, women’s access to power is connected to their acceptance of mainstream beauty ideals.

In some racial/ethnic groups, gender roles are clearly defined. For example, in traditional Latino/a families, males are considered to be in superior roles within a well-defined family hierarchy. The male is the head of the household who sets the rules within the family. A macho concept of the exaggerated importance of being male is instilled in male children from a very early age. Marianismo, sometimes viewed as the submissive and obedient female, permeates the conventional role of wife imparted upon the Latina.

Age and Power

Age is one domain in which power differs across groups. In general, children have less control over their lives and the lives of others than do adults. Various cultures differ in how they distinguish age-related obligations and power, yet most cultures do make a distinction between the power of adults and the power of children. Some societies have a strong focus on the hierarchies related to age, specifically that older individuals have more control and power. In certain racial/ethnic minority groups, older-age individuals are often given a significant amount of respect and authority. Cultural values play a major role in the treatment of the elderly. In the Native American culture, elders are respected for their knowledge and experience, and they are considered to be invaluable community resources. Elders traditionally hold positions of power in their communities and are valued for their experience and wisdom. In traditional Latino/a culture, older adults are generally given great deference. The Latino/a elderly continue to hold a central role in the family and are treated with respect, status, and authority. The elderly are thought to have an inner strength so they can be a resource for the younger generations and are links to the past. In many Asian cultures, age is associated with many positive features, as age often denotes wisdom, authority, and the freedom to be flexible and creative. A conventional Japanese ritual is the kankrei, which acknowledges the release of the older person from the responsibilities of middle age and recognizes new freedoms and capabilities. In a majority of African societies, old age is believed to be a sign of divine blessing, and in some of African languages the elder is the “big person.”

With regard to age as it relates to gender, researchers have demonstrated a shift in the perception of interpersonal power of women with age. In these studies, power included both the personal characteristics of self-respect and empowerment and the interpersonal component of influence over others. The disparity in power between men and women appears to shift over the life span. Studies have documented an increase in the perceived strength, confidence, and interpersonal power of women later in life. Likewise, studies have also demonstrated a decrease in the perceived power of men in older age groups. In many African societies, women who reach middle age experience the elimination of restrictions in an often gender-typed society. As women reach middle and older age, their power is approximately the same as that of men.

Multicultural Considerations

The question of how to address inequality is often presented, especially when considering this issue with people of privilege and those in controlling positions. The concept of power becomes a part of this question. Differences in power are less apparent to people in privileged positions, because people in privileged situations are more willing to accept a view of American society as classless and color-blind—supporting what literature describes as the myth of a level playing field. However, this viewpoint ignores the experience of marginalized groups and people in less-privileged positions. This view would discount issues such as discrimination and injustice that marginalized groups frequently face. The social differences can become extremely relevant to some, while remaining obscured to those who view the world as equal.

When power differences are not addressed, the likely disconnection between oppressed and privileged groups remains. Through educational and training opportunities, along with experience, people may begin to recognize and acknowledge their cultural biases. Acknowledgment of cultural biases leads people to become more aware of their endorsement of Eurocentric attitudes and behaviors. These attitudes and behaviors could be represented in styles of communication, nonverbal behaviors, and beliefs and values about society, family, and individuals. A deconstructive examination of one’s own views can help one to move beyond a one-sided description, such as a “them” and “us” viewpoint, and more toward a dialogue in which one’s cultural assumptions are questioned.

This may lead to self-awareness, multicultural competence, and personal and professional growth.


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