The Use and Abuse of Power 1

Woman on beach, sun behind her, raising her arms in joy - the power of being alive - by Catherine McMahon

Trauma and Power

Listening to Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, I am struck by how we, in the medical and mental health fields, too often use power to control those we deem sick or broken or crazy. As he worked in the field, van der Kolk came to realize that much of his professional training was geared to helping him and other doctors “stay in control in the face of terrifying and confusing realities.” [1] Being out of control frightens pretty much all of us.

Clinicians get scared, too. Those of us with authority are used to being respected, deferred to, obeyed. When patients resist or act out in anger or fear, we use our power to “take down” the resister or to subdue him with medication. Multiple times, when I worked at the Oregon State Hospital, I watched as staff barked orders to patients who were destabilizing, only to make the situation worse. Finally, the patient had to be forced into submission. I understand it’s hard to listen to a patient who’s shouting. We may have values that tell us her behavior is wrong, and she needs to stop. Yet what I found is that feeding back the patient’s concerns in a gentle, caring voice invariably helped her calm down.

The Abuse of Listening

Doing this is not easy. Besides, using power over someone can give us a disturbing sense of satisfaction.

That ‘s what van der Kolk discovered during his undergraduate years when he worked as an assistant at a mental health hospital. There he “was surprised and alarmed” to realize that wrestling a patient to the ground so a nurse could inject medication gave him a perverse sense of well-being. [2] Exerting power over others holds an allure. It makes us feel superior and successful. To justify our use of power, we often convince ourselves we are right, which only makes the abuse power more seductive, for being right feels good, too.

Woman on beach, sun behind her, raising her arms in joy - the power of being alive - by Catherine McMahon

Even something as benign as listening with compassion and kindness can be an abuse of power. During my chaplain training, I discovered I could encourage people to divulge more information than they really wanted to. One time I used my new-found skill to press a patient disclose something I wasn’t ready to hear.

I had wanted to help him. That’s not so bad, perhaps, but my ego was involved, as it usually is when we want to “help.” I figured I’d do this great job of hearing him, and he’d feel better, and my supervisor would commend me.

It didn’t turn out that way. The patient confessed to having tried to kill someone, information I had to share with my supervisor. In this way, I betrayed the patient. I hadn’t warned him of the limits to my confidentiality, yet I’d had pressured him into sharing something I then needed to disclose. My curiosity and my pride overwhelmed my duty to love and be present. Since then, I have been careful not to pressure someone into telling me something they hesitate to share.

An Addiction to Power

Some years later, I experienced the thrill of forcing my will on another. My dog fights with other dogs. This limits where we can go and what we can do together, so I wanted him to learn to get along. Working with a trainer, I tried various strategies, but none made a difference. Finally, she suggested I use a citronella collar with him. Although less upsetting than a shock collar, the citronella one is still unpleasant, shooting a burst of foul-smelling liquid onto the animal’s chin.

My dog immediately learned to obey my commands when he had that collar on. I could make him do just about anything. Having so much control over another being gave me a rush of pleasure. This rush scared me so much, I put the collar away and never used it again. The thrill of having power over others can become addictive, and I didn’t trust myself to manage it properly.

Trauma and Power Over

Our abuse of power can also arise from our past traumas. As a mother, I sometimes forced my children to behave. If they were hitting the dog, I caught their hands and showed them how to be gentle. If they were exploring an electrical outlet, I lifted them out of the way. As parents, we set limits for our children’s safety and the safety of others. That’s appropriate.

But sometimes our use of power has less to do with what is best for the other person and more to do with the irrational and often uncontrollable rage that comes from our own traumatic experiences.

For instance, I used to give my children piano lessons. One day, my eldest sat at the keyboard, but would not practice. I insisted. He refused. In the face of his resistance, I felt an overwhelming anger. My emotion was stronger than the situation warranted. I suspected it was related to fights I had had with my grandfather over my own piano practicing.

When we use power over others, we do so because someone else oppressed us with their abuse of power. In this way, we pass the trauma on. This is true whether the power we exert is physical, verbal, emotional, mental, or spiritual. Even minimal uses of power over can damage our psyches.

Not that we will shatter our children just because we occasionally yell or enforce irrational rules. A few minor traumas in life may even help them develop compassion and strength. If we always got our own way, we’d become entitled and abusive ourselves. Yet any time we force our will on another, we damage relationships. I regret the times I “made” my children do what I wanted, even if only by taking away privileges or offering bribes.

Power Over when Working with the Mentally Ill

What can damage our own children also damages those who are mentally and emotionally fragile. Sometimes it is obvious how our use of force can damage a person’s psyche. Van der Kolk gives an example of a young woman with a long history of sexual and physical abuse. For a week she refused to eat, so three medical staff members held her down while another used a syringe to shove food down her throat. The staff thought they were doing this out of their concern for the woman’s well-being, and perhaps they were, mostly. Yet the abuse of their power re-enacted the traumas that had led to her anorexia. In the long run, this probably made her illness worse rather than providing the healing she desperately needed.

At other times, our abuse of power is less obvious. In institutions and therapist’s offices around the world, kind and earnest practitioners label people with diagnoses and character flaws. To some degree or other, we all do this. To make sense of the world, we group things into categories. We do this with people, as well, because it helps us know who to trust and to avoid. In this way, we stay safe, and safety is important. Yet labeling tends to discount the fullness of a human being, for we start treating the diagnosis more than the person.

Trying to Help

Most of us also discount people’s feelings and thoughts. We minimize their pain, telling them it’s not so bad, or they don’t really feel that, or if they do, then they shouldn’t. Medical and mental health professionals do this, as well, deciding for a patient what level of physical or emotional pain is appropriate, possible, reasonable, and what is not.

Then, after all this, we give advice. But is advice so bad? After all, we want people to feel better.

A desire to help people feel better is fine, but giving them solutions rarely does that. Besides, I’m so sure we come up with answer because we want to help the other person feel better so much as we do it to help us feel better.

In our brains are things called mirror neurons that help us understand what other people are experiencing. When you hurt, I hurt; when I hurt, you hurt. Since we don’t want to hurt, we try to make you stop hurting. Or at least, we try to make you stop showing us that you hurt. So we pat your shoulder, we give you tissues, we make jokes. Or we give you exercises or diet recommendations and we teach you coping tools. This can all be useful, and it all has a place.

Fixing Versus Healing

Unfortunately, we aren’t God. We don’t really know what’s best for another. Besides, when we offer advice, we take away the other person’s power to find her own solution. We dis-empower her.

Parker Palmer, in his book A Hidden Wholeness, points out that when we explain another person’s problems, when we advise or even when we teach, we also violate a person’s integrity and send her soul into hiding. One of the “touchstones” for the healing groups he advocates, called Circles of Trust is, “No fixing, no saving, no advising, and no setting each other straight.” Instead of correcting someone or offering a lesson, he encourages us to ask “honest, open questions,” to “turn to wonder,” and to trust silence. [3]

Not that teaching and advising is always abusive. Of course not. At times, it’s totally appropriate and helpful and even necessary to provide tools and techniques and skills. When we do so, though, we need to remember that our suggestion is a gift. Once we offer something to another, we no longer have the right to dictate how the receiver uses that gift. If they don’t even use it, that’s okay.

The Wisdom of Our Soul

After all, we don’t really know what’s best for someone else. We only know what’s best for us, and we’re always projecting that onto our clients, our children, our neighbors. Surely if they did want we said, they’d be happy or successful or better. But do we fully understand why they do what they do, what barriers hem them in, what they need for healing and growth and empowerment?

One of Palmer’s assumptions is that within all of us is a soul that knows what we most need to become, to heal, to be whole. How do we access that wise part of us? Not by letting others tell us what to do. We access it by listening to ourselves.

Therefore, we most help others find their wisdom when we listen to them.

A problem with the kind of deep listening Palmer is talking about is that it takes time. He has shown that sometimes it takes years of respectful, gently curious listening before a breakthrough occurs and a person discovers a truth that allows him to make a sudden change. It’s a fallacy to think, though, that our diagnoses and prescriptions are much, if any, faster. When they aren’t listened to, people learn to cover up their problems. They stop being honest; they pretend to be “well.” Our quick fixes may even make a person feel a little better, but they cover up the pain that lies beneath.

Shaming and Blaming

To make things worse, when we force solutions onto others, and they still don’t feel better, we don’t examine where we went wrong. Instead, we shame them.

We like to feel useful, competent, successful. Most of us like to believe we have answers and that people get feel because of something we know or do. As clinicians, if client isn’t improving, perhaps according to some timetable in an insurance adjuster’s chart, we can blame the client. She isn’t doing the exercises right, isn’t following her diet, isn’t working hard enough. And maybe she isn’t.

If so, however, the work of the practitioner is not to chastise the patient, but to wonder why. Are the exercises the wrong ones? Is there something in the practitioner’s behavior that needs to change? Or is something deeper festering, a soul wound, a trauma, a pain the person can’t even articulate?

When we use our positions of power to blame the patient, we discourage healing. Indeed, we violate the trust we’ve built and cause more trauma.

Power Abuses Occur Everywhere

Of course, abuses of power occur not just in hospitals, institutions, and therapist’s offices. We find such abuses in families, schools, prisons, churches, courtrooms, corporations, the White House, the Senate, and everywhere humans come together. The thrill of controlling others, of being strong and in charge, is addictive. We also like the power of being right, of knowing the answer, whether it’s to a math problem or to the identity of God.

No wonder Grace Paley said “[s]he doesn’t like the word power, the idea of power.” [4]

Nonetheless, not all power is abusive. In Teaching and Religious Imagination, Maria Harris identifies five types of power she believes we ought to claim.

The Powers to Receive, Resist, and Rebel

The first power is the power to receive. By this, Harris means the ability and willingness to be still, to listen, to wonder, to wait on the flowering and opening of another. This power requires stillness and attention. When we receive information through our senses, we then have the opportunity to reflect, to consider, and possibly to understand what is happening around us. [5]

Next she talks of the power to rebel, the power to demand that Holocausts and genocides not happen, the power to hold “the rage and the grief of the world’s suffering” in our hearts and minds and vision, so that when we teach, and learn, and act, we do so with justice and mercy. [6] Our power of rebellion names the evils and the suffering in this world and declares them wrong.

From this power arises the power to resist. While the power of rebellion is “rooted in feeling,” resistance is rooted in the actions of our body. To grow up, we need to resist. Resistance allows us to find out who we are, to know ourselves in and against the world. This power starts, Harris points out, when we are children and we first say, “No!” How the child then grows and becomes depends in part “by the kind of authority and adult power they face.” [7] Do the authority figures listen to the resistance and seek to understand? Or do they become angry and righteous and punish the resister? As van der Kolk shows us, when a patient resists, such as by refusing to eat, she will usually be forced into submission.

Responding to Resistance

That’s why we are often afraid to resist. When we have been hurt over and over, especially by those who seem to care about us and mean well, we learn to hide.

On the other hand, it’s hard to tolerate resistance in others, especially when people yell at us or demand rights we have taken from them. Then our own traumas get triggered. We become frightened, angry, abusive. Unfortunately, we rarely understand what is happening inside us, so it’s hard to control our urge to punish, crack down, reject, chasten, set straight.

Harris explains that when the oppressed resist, the oppressor can’t accept that their aggression caused the resistance, so they label the resisters as violent, uncooperative, dangerous. They make them into the villain. To protect our image of ourselves, we discount, blame, and even destroy the other.

To do anything differently, we must use the power of receiving to look beneath the actions, to listen beneath the words, and see the story, pain, and misery that led to the resistance. Only then can we begin to heal the rift and meet the need so we can soothe the violence.

This is true whether the oppressor is a government, a therapist, a doctor, a teacher, or a parent. In the political realm, and in our personal lives, we are both the oppressor and the oppressed. When we are oppressed, resistance allows us to claim our humanity, be our true selves, and live with dignity. When we oppress others, their resistance gives us information that can help us transform our behavior.

Our task as people of faith, as leaders and citizens, is to learn to receive without defensiveness, then to use the power of reformation to make the changes needed to heal hurts and encourage growth.

The Power to Reform

This power to reformation is Harris’s fourth power. A living, growing, vital organism changes constantly. Over and over it recreates its identity, its needs, its goals. We reform our institutions as well as our own bodies.

If we fear this change, we will try to stifle it. This leads to oppression. Harris argues that citizens, students, children, the mentally ill, and any who live their lives without authority need claim this power to reform. If we do, and if those with authority can be secure enough to allow us this power, then together we will “create a world order in which freely chosen, interdependent, and mutual exchange is no longer hindered by narrow, authoritarian, dominating patterns.” [8]

The Power of Love

Which brings us to the power to love. Without that, the cycle of power is incomplete. We must care about and wish the best for others, Harris tells us. “We must love our crooked neighbor with all our crooked heart.” [9] The alternative, she warns, is terror, abuse, oppression, and ultimately death.

When my son refused to practice piano, and I became livid, I lost control. Fortunately, I didn’t hit him, but I yelled, I threatened, I tried every trick I could think of to make him do what I wanted him to do. I had an agenda, and I expected him to live it out. Not until I shoved his shoulder and he fell down did I see what I was doing.

In that moment, I realized I had a choice. I could use power over him, increasing my threats and my violence to his person and his soul, or I could use the power of love to let him make his own choices about his life. Whether or not he practiced was made important to me because of the minor, but significant, trauma I’d experienced as a child. Fortunately, I could use the power of receptivity to see, to listen, to understand, so I was able to let that go. That doesn’t mean I didn’t violate my children’s integrity at other times, nor does it mean I always get it right now.

The Power to Heal

But what if we decided to claim the power of receptivity? What if we learned to listen, to hear and see and smell and sense the stirrings of our own heart and soul? Would we then be able to midwife for another? Listen them into speech, to knowing? Allow them to hear their own longings and dreams?

Healing comes not because we provide answers and tools. Cure might come that way, and sometimes we need facts and figures to get by in the world. We need solutions sometimes.

But only through healing do we become whole, human, vibrant, joyful, and loving. Depending on what powers we claim, and which ones we use or abuse, we have can bring healing or suffering to the world. Which do we choose, and how do we make that possible?

In faith and fondness,



  1. Van der Kolk, Bessel A., The Body Keeps the Score, Ashland: OR, Blackstone Audio, 2015, Part 2 Chapter 2.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Palmer, Parker J., A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Ashland: OR, Blackstone Audio, 2009, from the DVD.
  4. Broner, The Telling, San Fancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 130.
  5. Harris, Maria, Teaching and Religious Imagination: An Essay in the Theology of Teaching, San Fancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, 85.
  6. Ibid 91.
  7. Ibid 92.
  8. Ibid 95.
  9. Ibid 96.

Photo by Catherine McMahon on Unsplash

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