The Human Experience

Creating a more meaningful life

Personal Power

There is a clear distiction between personal and negative power.

For centuries, philosophers, social scientists, and psychologists have struggled to answer ethical questions regarding the use and misuse of power. They have described both the positive and the negative effects that powerful individuals have had on the business world, politics, religious movements, historical events, and the lives of individual members of society.


Typically, power has been viewed with suspicion or given a negative or evil connotation. Pejorative terms such as "harsh," "exploitive," "fascist," "sadistic," and "Machiavellian" have been used to describe the ways in which power and influence have been exercised. Although this is too often true, power and leadership per se are obviously neither positive nor negative in and of themselves. However, the specific types of power that people tend to develop over time and the methods whereby they accumulate and utilize this power to either inspire, dominate, or destroy other people, can be evaluated from an ethical point of view.

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As described in The Ethics of Interpersonal Relationships (2009), there is a clear distinction between positive power, which I refer to as personal power, and negative power, which can take either a covert or overt form. From this perspective, there are three basic types of power:
Personal power is based on strength, confidence, and competence that individuals gradually acquire in the course of their development. It is self-assertion, and a natural, healthy striving for love, satisfaction and meaning in one's interpersonal world. This type of power represents a movement toward self-realization and transcendent goals in life; its primary aim is mastery of self, not others. Personal power is more an attitude or state of mind than an attempt to maneuver or control others. It is based on competence, vision, positive personal qualities, and service. When externalized it is likely to be more generous, creative and humane than other forms of power.


Covert negative power is based on passive-aggression and is manifested in behaviors indicating weakness, incompetence and self-destructive tendencies that manipulate others in the interpersonal world by arousing their feelings of fear, guilt and anger. Although different from overtly destructive power plays, these subtle manipulations can be equally destructive. This mode of control indicates a lack of accepting power over one's life and is manifested through childlike machinations such as falling apart, tantrums, and other self-destructive behaviors. Covert negative power can dominate and control the life of entire families; it represents a type of terrorism in which one person is made "accountable" for the misery and unhappiness of another. For example, people who lead chronically addictive lifestyles, or are self-destructive or threaten suicide are especially effective in eliciting fear responses in their loved ones.


Overt negative power is characterized by aggressive tendencies and is exercised through the use of domination, coercion, or force to control others. It can be manifested within a relationship or become a significant part of a political or social movement. Totalitarian governments and tyrannical leaders are examples of this type of destructive power. Leaders who use force or threats of punishment to accomplish their goals eventually oppress and demoralize their constituency. Totalitarian leaders and dictators play on the fears of citizens in order to establish, maintain, and increase their power base.


In many cases, the personality structure of people who actively and persistently seek power through destructive means reflects underlying psychological disturbance. This includes problems with anger, narcissism, vanity, and sociopathic tendencies. People who utilize overt negative power are generally compensating for inferiority feelings and for real or perceived inadequacies. They tend to be cut off from feeling for themselves and others, and to express the authoritarian, parental side of their personality by acting superior and judgmental.


Having control over others can become addictive for these individuals in that it produces feelings of elation and diminishes feelings of insecurity. By achieving power over other people, destructive leaders are also attempting to deny their feelings of powerlessness in relation to death. The fantasy of being immune to death supports their vanity and offers them a sense of being special and, as such, exempt from natural forces. Because this process never succeeds in completely eliminating the fear of death, the need for power becomes increasingly compelling, often leading to disastrous outcomes and crimes against humanity.


Unfortunately, in the political sphere, destructive leaders appear to have considerable staying power, often inflicting suffering on multitudes of people over many decades (e.g., Adolf Hitler, Mao Ze-dong, Pol Pat of the Kymer Rouge, Joseph Stalin). History has shown that many pathological leaders who assume positions of power early in their careers become increasingly authoritarian, paranoid, and punitive as they grow older. For example, in his later years, Stalin embarked on a program to purge the party of suspected political heretics that led to the murder of thousands, including his trusted lieutenants (Radinsky 1996).


The ideology underlying many political movements may be motivated by the desire for reform and the wish to create a more egalitarian society. In spite of a mandate to accomplish positive ends, the means through which leaders attempt to achieve these ends can be cruel and destructive. In these cases, benevolent goals and concern for the welfare of people are voided by narcissistic power needs and willingness to use any means to attain their goals.


In conclusion, understanding the components of personal power can help us identify specific qualities that one needs to develop in order to become a better human being as well as an effective and ethical leader. Similarly, an awareness of the diverse ways in which individuals utilize covert negative power in their personal relationships has the potential for ameliorating much of the disharmony and conflict within couples and families. Lastly, insight into the dynamics underlying the exercise of overt negative power is crucial to understanding social and political issues in contemporary society. The role played by psychological defenses in motivating political leaders and their agendas compels our attention and concern. I believe that a better understanding of the myriad defenses against death anxiety sheds light on the underlying motivation of power-struck individuals who comprise a major threat to societies and nations.

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Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D.is the author of The Fantasy Bond, Voice Therapy, Compassionate Child Rearing and many other books and articles.

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