When power empowers and when it does not


By Janina Gomes

Walking through an elephant camp, a man observed that pachyderms were neither kept in cages nor held by the use of chains. All that was holding them back from escaping the camp was a small piece of rope tied to one of their legs. As the man gazed upon these elephants, he was completely confused as to why these mammoth creatures didn’t use their strength to break free. Curious, he asked a trainer nearby, why these elephants never tried to escape. The trainer replied, “When they are very young and much smaller, we use the same size rope to tie them. And at that age it is enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe that the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.”

No matter how much the world tries to hold you back, continue with the belief that what you want to achieve is possible. Believing you can become successful is the most important step in actually achieving it.

This kind of ‘power within’ is related to a person’s sense of self-worth and self-knowledge. ‘Power within’ allows people to recognise their strength and believe that they can make a difference. It is also ‘power to’, which refers to the productive and generative potential of power, or the new possibilities and actions that can be created, without any relationship of domination.  American novelist Alice Walker says: “The most common way for people to give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” The exercise of these two types of power empowers us as well as others.

But ‘power over’ is the way power is commonly understood. This is built on force, coercion, domination and control and motivates largely through fear. This kind of power is a finite resource that can be held by individuals, in that some people have power and others don’t.

By contrast ‘power with’, another form of empowering power, is shared power that grows out of collaboration and relationships. This is built on respect, mutual support, solidarity, and influence. ‘Power with’ helps us build bridges with groups and across differences.

According to Gandhiji, power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.

Psychologist Adam Blanch believes that when we feel threatened, we usually try to have power over others by controlling them through violence. This type of power may or may not involve physical violence, but it’s definitely violent psychologically. And it is not because perpetrators are evil but because they are afraid. The essence of all acts of control is an attempt by the person doing it to avoid vulnerable feelings like fear, shame, sadness, hurt and powerlessness.

Empowerment lies in building confidence and eliminating barriers that underpin exclusion and powerlessness. It is all about individual discovery and change whereby participants question their roles and the world around them, according to American researchers and activists, Lisa Veneklasen and Valerie Miller. So, much depends on the kind of power we exercise, whether it results in domination over others, or in cooperation and collaboration that is beneficial to all.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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