The mind is naturally drawn to threats and often acts as though the world is filled with powerful dangers, this bias towards threat-seeking makes the practice of noticing your power essential. Without conscious effort we run the risk of acting in ways that are self-destructive. This is the powerful insight of psychologist Jim McCullough about people who have experienced repeated episodes of depression. They don’t notice the power they do have and as a result they act in ways that cause pain.
Two people come in to consult with me. They both have wrestled with long-standing depression. One of them, a young man, makes the assumption that I want to help him and will do everything I can to help him. He is honest about his situation and what he needs. We have a candid discussion about options for treatment and he tells me about his concerns in a way that makes it possible for us to come up with the treatment plan that we both feel good about.
By contrast, a young woman who I see on the same day is quite wary of me, and although she has gone out of her way to make an appointment to consult with me, it is clear from her attitude and how she answers questions that she doesn’t trust me. It quickly becomes clear that she has had other experiences with psychiatrists that were similarly affected by mistrust. Because of her mistrust it is extremely difficult for me to see clearly what she wants and needs.
Your Unconscious Power
The second story illustrates the destructive potential of unconscious power. I’m quite sure that this young woman would say that I am the person in the relationship who has the power and she is the one who was powerless. But in fact, the situation is quite the opposite. Her mistrust threatens to overwhelm my natural wish to help people. By not noticing your power you may find yourself creating similar situations in your life.
Harnessing Your Power
There are several practices that can help us harness our power.
Notice automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts are the practically undetectable immediate and irrational responses that we have in conversation with others, particularly in important or emotionally charged conversations. With effort, especially if you have someone who can help you, such as a skilled therapist, you can see those automatic thoughts in action. And once you are able to see them it becomes possible to change them, to substitute more realistic appraisals.
In my conversation with the young woman, I could practically see the automatic thoughts in her eyes whenever we talked about emotionally charged topics. For example, she came to me for help with her depression, and expressed a wish for a medication to assist her, but whenever the topic of medications came up, her expression showed me that she was thinking that I was “pushing pills” on her for reasons of my own. Because these thoughts were not visible to her, she felt that what was happening in our conversation was a reflection of my wishes. The conversation continually tended to move in a direction that would confirm her mistrust of powerful others in her life.
See how others react. The power that I’m talking about is not an absolute power. It depends on seeing clearly what is happening in our relationships. If I want to have a moment of intimacy with my partner, I need to notice if he or she is upset by something that has happened to them. In the words of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”
Have a clear sense of direction. It is so important to know what it is that we want in life. What are the things that are most important to us. One of the most powerful tools in psychotherapy is helping someone to clarify their values and then working with them to make choices that are based on those values.
By knowing what matters to us, and really noticing how others are feeling, as well as by noticing our own automatic thoughts, we can live in a world that is much more satisfying and in which we experience authentic personal power, rather than powerlessness and fear.