One Way to Deal With Someone on A Power Trip

Hint: Many who throw their weight around don’t feel all that powerful.

Posted Sep 17, 2019

Aleksander Kaczmarek/Getty Images Pro
Source: Aleksander Kaczmarek/Getty Images Pro

Sure, there are people out there who like to use power to control other people—that’s pretty much the definition of a power trip. But is your boss, coworker, ex-friend, or estranged relative really one of them?

Not necessarily.

Not everybody who seems to be on a power trip actually is. Even the most controlling, domineering person in your life may simply be… protecting herself.

Self-protection isn’t the only alternative explanation for an apparent power trip. But it’s one that’s often overlooked.

If you can spot self-protection in action, you’re more likely to respond effectively and even potentially help the person heal.

The Power of Self-Protection

Most of us, if we’ve been hurt badly enough in the past, will prioritize doing whatever it takes to stay emotionally and physically safe.

Some of the behaviors we use as a shield can easily be mistaken for something more aggressive. Here are just a few examples:

  • Dictating the details of how things play out to make sure we don’t get hurt again
  • Requiring lots of information upfront before we agree to do things
  • Changing our minds after agreeing to something that makes us nervous
  • Reducing or eliminating contact with people who feel dangerous

All of these behaviors can come across as power-tripping. But self-protection is not about enjoying power; it’s about trying to ensure safety.

Sometimes, self-protection requires us to remove ourselves from certain relationships. There are various ways of doing this, ranging from “ghosting” (disappearing without explanation) to having a respectful conversation in which we clearly state our needs and boundaries in a way that others can choose to act on, or not, with the understanding that we hope they’ll be able to do so.

Mostly, when we’re in self-defense mode, we’re not especially polite. We might come across as unreasonable, stubborn, or even aggressive.

Think about it: If you’re at a backyard barbecue, and your shorts catch fire, you’re going to make a beeline for the swimming pool without concern for whose Coke you knock over. While you’re dashing to the pool, your only thought is for your own safety.

Even if we don’t feel especially powerful, our self-protection can make us look like power-hungry control freaks.

Refusing to return someone’s phone call, from their point of view, is just rude. Even if the truth is we’re scared of what might happen if we talk to them.

Leaving relationships, or acting inconsistently within them because of our own ambivalence, can come across as a power trip because we’re controlling the contact schedule. Sometimes we’re available; other times, we’re not. We decide from moment to moment what we can tolerate.

To the person on the receiving end, we’re just messing with them.

How to Respond

If you’re on the other side, looking at someone who appears to be on a power trip, there are some questions you might consider. To your knowledge…

Has that person experienced physical harm, emotional pain, or deep disappointment in relationships?

How secure does he seem, in general? How’s his overall self-image?

Is it possible that the “power trip” is really just a need for safety?

If the relationship is important to you, don’t skip over self-protection as a possible explanation for behavior that appears power-driven.

If it might be the case that the person is protecting himself, how can you help him feel safer, especially in the relationship you share?

Here are a few ways to provide safety for people who’ve been hurt and/or traumatized in relationships:

  1. Ask permission. Ask about timing, locations, activities, topics that are OK to discuss… anything that the person seems anxious to control. These are important to her, so let her decide what feels OK.
  2. Offer choices. Same as above, and let the person know you’re open to hearing her ideas and preferences. Respect her choices, as long as they don’t directly violate your personal boundaries.
  3. Don’t push. Fear of being dominated often goes hand in hand with concerns about safety. Never try to coerce someone who’s been traumatized into doing what you want them to do.
  4. Be patient. Intrusive self-protective behaviors stem from past harm, not malice. People need time, understanding, and acceptance in order to heal.

These behaviors represent the opposite of what most of us feel like doing when someone is throwing their weight around. It’s human nature to want to push back against anything that feels like an inappropriate power-grab.

So if the relationship is not that important to you, you may choose simply not to deal with someone who seems to be on a power trip.

But now that you know it could be something deeper, you can make an informed choice about your own response.