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On the Nature of Power: The Choice Between “Real” Power or Illusion, 1 of 2

images-819The concept of power is widely misunderstood, yet how we conceptualize “power” — our own and others’  — shapes our innermost values, and thus the neurochemical processes that decide the direction of our behaviors, relationships and life.

As human beings, it is our nature to attribute meanings to our world through the use of language and symbols. These meanings in turn shape our lives, especially when they are hidden from view.

Our view of “power” forms a core belief system.

Several top psychological theorists of the 20th century, such as Alfred Adler, Rollo May, William Glaser, Abraham Maslow, Virginia Satir, Victor Frankl, Carl Rogers, William Glaser, among others, describe power as a healthy inborn striving. When it comes to power, however, our cultural values highlight a narrow view that overall associates power with money, status, authority, performance, and so on.

Here are some ideas to consider in exploring your beliefs about power.

  • Power is firstly an ever present choice.

In its purest form, power is simply the exercise of choice. At any moment we always have a choice of how we respond, what we think, say, do, and so on.

In the main, power in relationships is regarded as an ability of one person to impose their will on another. Merriam Webster’s dictionary, for example, describes power as “the possession of control, authority, or influence over others” more typically, sovereign states or groups, or those in positions of authority.

This view regards power as:

  • A right or entitlement, something earned, based on proof of might or status.
  • A privilege approved for persons with authority, strength (physical, monetary, etc.) or ‘superior’ status to hold or exercise, but not for those deemed with ‘inferior’ status.
  • A commodity or “will to power” that human beings naturally compete and fight over to possess.
  • A dangerous force in the hands of those deemed “inferior,” weak, nonconforming, etc., viewed as competing for “authority” or “power over” another.

This view of power is not only divisive, but also an illusion. It leads us to think in ways that compare and divide one another into arbitrary categories of superior versus inferior, good versus evil, deserving versus undeserving.

Power is a choice in what type of emotional energy we activate in and around us. When we respond to a trigger with relative calm, for example, the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system remains in charge, the operations of the body are geared toward balance, and thus the brain remains in “learning” mode. In contrast, when we react defensively, we activate our body’s survival response, and the sympathetic branch takes over operation, activates our survival response, and shifts the body and brain to “protective” mode. Each of these “modes” produce dramatically different behavioral outcomes.

  • Power is a quest to matter.

One of most influential psychological theorists in the fields of psychotherapy, social work, family counseling, as well as psychoeducational training for parents, teachers, school guidance counselors, Alfred Adler (1870 – 1937), was perhaps first among modern psychologists (he was a huge influence on theoretical giants such as Maslow, Frankl, Carl Rogers) to view human beings optimistically as purpose-driven with a “social interest” to meaningfully contribute to society. He was ahead of his times, and so was his theoretical framework, Individual Psychology.

He regarded the “lust for aggressive power” over others as “neurotic power,” and emphasized the importance of equality and democratic family and school structures equality in family relationships to prevent neurosis. To Adler, dominating children with harsh parenting practices was the root of pathology, and his methods were about the prevention of various forms of pathology.

From his perspective, power was an inner drive to influence one’s life as part of the human quest to self-actualize, a natural human striving, a dynamic exercised to mutually empower one another’s highest growth and potential.

He regarded this inborn seeking for personal agency to self-actualize as part of human nature, and described behavior patterns associated with aggressive power as pathological in nature, a result of harsh environmental factors in the upbringing of children, such as neglect or harsh treatment.

  •  Power is a perception.

Power is a belief that shapes our choices and how we relate to our self and others as we seek to fulfill our inborn drive to matter in life.

Existentialist psychologist Rollo May described five levels of power, three of which are healthy. The first power is “to be,” the exercise of creating possibilities. The second is self-affirmation, the power to affirm one’s own being, and the third self-assertion, the power to be recognized by others. The last two dimensions were aggression and violence, and May believed these occurred when the power for self-assertion and a sense of personal significance is not achieved or feels blocked over a period of time.

May also defined power as an interpersonal process, and identified five types of power. Integrative power was the ability to be aware and exercise win-win interactions with others, and nutrient power was the act of taking care of another human being. A third type of power was competitive power, a quest to win either through fair or unfair means. He labeled the last two types of power as manipulative, the act of seeking to get someone to do something against their will or without their knowledge, and exploitive power, the act of using others destructively for own gain.

  • In sum: It’s impossible to not have power. 

Ultimately, how we define power is no small matter. Whether conscious or subconscious, it decides how we interpret life around us, more specifically, the actions and responses of others.

Psychiatrist and founder of “Choice Therapy,” William Glasser also viewed power as an inborn universal need, positing that human beings were born with five universal needs of belonging, power, enjoyment, freedom and survival. An ardent critic of the mental health field, he published his critical review of the industry in his book, Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health

He defined power as the ability to make choices one the basis of honest self evaluations of wants, choices and options, and viewed relational difficulties and the symptoms described in the DSM-IV as caused by misguided or misinformed attempts to satisfy their innate need for healthy “personal power” by instead using force, or “external controls,” to get others to do something against their will. Glasser broke from the field of psychiatry to develop his ideas for Choice Theory when, in the 1980s, he concluded that human beings above all were social beings, and that emotional distress was related to their inability to form satisfying relationships with those they most care about most. For example, he noted the toxic effects of  prevailing learned behavior patterns, such as ones based on “I’m right and you’re wrong” mental schemas, which blocked the formation of healthy relationships.

In sum, the form of power we value structures the choices we make and the actions we take to fulfill what may be the strongest motivating force within us, that is, our inner drive to matter.

In Part 2, the attributes of “real” power.


On the Nature of Power: The Choice Between “Real” Power or Illusion, 1 of 2

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2013). On the Nature of Power: The Choice Between “Real” Power or Illusion, 1 of 2. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 May 2013
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