A common clinical problem is the adult client who finds him or herself repeatedly overpowered by others. In this post, I’m sharing some thoughts about what we, as therapists, can do to help.
Choosing between survival and power
From TIFT #72, I want to repeat two points. First, children have a basic imperative to survive, and if that means giving power to the other, they will. The second is that those who overpower children are generally people who, themselves, have not internalized basic trust, and who overcome their insecurity by making others feel powerless. The result of these two principles is that learning to give up one’s power is one of the more common solutions developed by children’s “non-conscious problem solver.”
Here’s how it works. Capitulating is painful every time, so children over age three (because that's when the superego becomes functional) are able to take back agency by turning against their own power instead of having it taken from them. (Regarding my use of the word, “superego,” please recall, also from TIFT #72, that Freud’s term is a less value-laden and more accurate term than “conscience” in this context). The child's solution is to internalize an attitude or value of unworthiness. The superego then provides a deterrent to further assertiveness through the power of shame. Since those internalized values are essentially indelible, we therapists often find ourselves working with adults who experience chronic low self-esteem and are unable to challenge the power of those who dominate.
Making change even harder, these clients may also rationalize their self-disempowering values. Allowing the other to take charge may have brought with it a merger with the partner’s expressed beliefs and difficulty imagining who they might grow into once on their own.
The client’s sad and dysfunctional values need to be overridden by new ones (or healthy old values reactivated), leading to positive feelings about the self. Here are the steps:
The first principle is that the client needs to have full clarity that their internalized values are unhealthy because they are based on the expressed or implied attitudes of people whose opinions should absolutely not to be trusted. This may require a more active stance on the part of the therapist, rather than simply pointing out the error.
Next is the important principle that behavior patterns are among the most powerful reinforcers of unhealthy attitudes. Without changing behavior, the client is unlikely to build a healthier attitude towards the self. Here, too, a traditional “hands-off” therapy style may lose effectiveness.
And it may be important for the therapist to share concrete ideas about new skills the client can bring to bear on the status quo. Below, I’ll suggest a number of them.
One consequence of going through life with a negative attitude about the self is expecting to be treated as the lesser person in any relationship, be it with a spouse, partner, boss, or anyone. Some partners, in turn, are attracted to a person who is unlikely to challenge their need for power. Other partners may not seek out power but passively become “spoiled” by having it chronically given to them. Either way the partner will usually show some resistance to giving up the comfort of a superior role.
That resistance, of course, will trigger powerful schemas on the part of the client. The response might be to cave in, but it might also be feelings of outrage and impassioned but unsuccessful attempts to make the other recognize that they are being unfair. Importantly, to our client, the unequal relationship may seem entirely the fault of the partner, with an accompanying sense of outrage. That isn’t really fair, in that the client’s abandonment of power is partly to blame for the inequality. Either way, blame will only make things worse by bringing out the dominator's most powerful defenses.
Those who try to change the other may be giving up power
When children try to solve big problems, their first and main approach is to try to get the grown-ups to change. Similarly, changing the other is often the approach triggered when an unequal relationship begins to feel intolerable. Trying to change another inevitably leads to giving up power. This important principle holds because the one we are trying to change will simply refuse to recognize the validity of our point and we are defeated, leaving the other with the last word.
So what can our client do?
Here is the meat of this post. The ten approaches below can be successful in initiating change in the power balance. They change the self because they challenge the inner conviction of unworthiness and they influence the other by creating tension that humans naturally seek to relieve by making adjustments.
- Disengage: Partners who are used to establishing and defending their superior power often use the technique of provoking and engaging our client in futile arguments. The answer is declining to participate in an unwinnable debate. To begin with, the powerful one will define the battlefield so as to guarantee a win. “Of course what is most important is spending less money.” Engaging in the discussion automatically implies acceptance of the premise, which may not be at all what the client considers important. The powerful partner will inevitably win. How can one avoid engaging in an argument or discussion?
- State your position: Instead of arguing (which is trying to change the other and will result in loss of power) one can state a position.“My view is…” “Here is what I am seeing.” “I’m not going to do that.” Technically these are “I” statements. They express a personal view of the situation or even of the other person but they are acknowledged as personal views. Stating your position is unarguable. It does not invite questioning or debate because we are the experts about our own feelings and views.
- Refuse to argue: Just saying I don’t want to argue is fine. The partner will probably respond by escalating provocativeness, so this takes nerve and commitment. It is ok to say “I don’t think this will help either of us.” Or it might mean simply remaining silent.
- The Adult Time-out: This is a very powerful strategy because humans are excruciatingly sensitive to being cut-off in a relationship, even if they deny any need for the connection. Doing so triggers the most primitive fears, so it has to be done thoughtfully and with limits. Children can be ordered to stay in a room, but adults can’t be ordered around. The client must be the one to distance. The key to keeping this from triggering a violent response is to give the reassurance that “I’ll be back in…,” then specify a time or, in some way, indicate that the separation is temporary. With that reassurance, the client can leave, either physically, or, if that is not feasible, distance implicitly by ceasing to be emotionally responsive.
- Honesty has limits: If the other person doesn’t “play fair,” then there is no obligation to be open or disclose what one is up to. People who have been in abusive relationships may think they are being abusive if they don’t disclose all. But too much honesty can give a dishonest other an unfair advantage. Honesty is wonderful between healthy partners and “self-honesty will save your life.” But one-sided honesty, even if it seems the right thing, should be evaluated realistically according to anticipated results.
- Hold up a mirror: Spoiled people don’t feel proud of their behavior, even though they will hotly justify it. An accusation will trigger a furious defense, but a thoughtful and objective description of the powerful one’s techniques is a significant deterrent. This has to be done with an attitude of understanding and even compassion for the other, who actually has little control over patterns of behavior. And don’t forget, this needs to be framed as a personal view rather than a general truth. “It appears to me that you are starting from a premise that I don’t share, so this discussion isn’t going to go anywhere.”
- Sometimes you can’t win: I’ve seen this especially with older parents and in-laws, who are habitually self-centered and manipulative. For example they may use medical symptoms to force the younger relative to provide services without regard to the weight of what they are demanding. The client may rightly choose to lose the battle because it wouldn’t feel right to refuse the other. It’s a choice to follow one’s own values and sleep better at night.
- Own your weakness: Matter of fact openness can block the other from weaponizing our client's limitations and weakness. “When you raise your voice, it triggers a lot of pain in me, and I can’t really respond in any adequate way, so I’m not going to.” Sensing a loss of control over the situation, the other responds, “I’M NOT RAISING MY VOICE, I’M PERFECTLY CALM.” And the response is, “Well, I’m sorry, that’s not how I experience it and it shakes me up.” If the powerful one tries, “Yes, you are weak!,” the answer is an affirmative, “That’s right,” and the conversation ends.
- Going to the next round: Clients are often tempted to give up after winning one round. They have done something new and hard, and shouldn't that be the end of conflict? The partner can be expected to initiate a new provocation, where the client, taken by surprise, automatically reverts to the old pattern. It is important to anticipate this dynamic.
- Dare to disagree: This is a variation on stating one’s position, but it is so important that I’m ending with it. The answer to the partner’s authoritative and challenging assertion is to say, calmly, “I’m sorry, I don’t agree with you.” Full stop, because there is nothing more to say.
Taking back power is best done gradually and gently, for two important reasons. First, the person taking back their power will probably experience a wave of shame. Those old values standing against assertiveness are still there. The second reason is that the one who has been enabled (Yes, your client has colluded in creating this situation, albeit unintentionally), will feel ambushed and is likely to feel they have been unfairly attacked. They are likely to have justified the imbalance in their mind, so the client's new behavior will come as a shock. Modulating the rate of change will help both participants adjust positively.
A practical test
Not only are these techniques helpful in bringing about change, they are valuable as a test. If the client is able to hold firm and manage the pace (so as to avoid artifacts due to surprise), then the partner’s readiness to accept change can be assessed. This will help predict whether the relationship can be salvaged, or should be let go.
Risks and Informed consent
There are risks. The partner might be so committed to superior power that the relationship ruptures. In an organization, upper bosses usually favor the superior. Relationships can be destroyed. And the backlash might be so strong that it leads to self-imposed harm or simply discouragement from trying again.
This is a place where informed consent is not only appropriate but required. Informed consent may bring up images of documents to sign, but a two-way discussion is as good or better. A review of possible consequences puts the client in the driver’s seat, making the final decision, as they should.
Here, again, a fairly active stance is needed on the part of the therapist, both in identifying possible strategies, and in discussing what might happen. This is territory we know better than our client. Without the therapist being willing to discuss in detail possible new behaviors and skills, the client is unlikely to come up with these or other effective responses on their own. The answer is to discuss and evaluate the pros and cons jointly. From a therapeutic point of view, just as important as accepting responsibility for the results, the client gains ownership of lessons learned. In an active, coaching role, we provide a level of support typically required for successful internalization of a new attitude of self-worth.
Jeffery Smith MD
Photo credit, Maxime Bouffard, Unsplash
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