Many people come to me with examples of the power struggles that take place in their lives on a daily basis. They want me to give them some tools to get in control of these situations. The problem is that there are no tools to get in control here. That is because the source of the problem is the need for control and dominance. It is by letting go of control that we can gain freedom from these issues. In short, the only way to win a power struggle is not to participate in it.
One of my students offered this example of a regular power struggle in her life. Every morning she would get up and make breakfast for her family. Her husband and teenage daughter would not arise until she had badgered them over and over again about getting out of bed. It was a constant battle in her family. She wanted me to tell her how to make them get out of bed. I told her that this was not the appropriate question. The question that would get her out of the power struggle was “How can I remove myself from this equation?” My suggestion was to relinquish responsibility for them getting out of bed. She should go home and announce that she was no longer accepting the role of den mother in the morning. If her husband and daughter wanted to get out of bed and get to work or school on time, then they would have to set their alarms and do it themselves. If they wanted breakfast, then they would have to be at the table when it was ready, or make it for themselves. If they failed to show up at the table for two mornings in a row, she would cease to make food for them because it was clear that they did not want it and they could fend for themselves.
The woman expressed a concern that her daughter was only a few missed days of school away from having to repeat the year. I told her that her daughter was 16, and this was certainly old enough for her to understand the consequences of her actions. Let her be responsible for them. If she missed the days, she repeated the grade and she learned a valuable life lesson. If she picked up the torch of responsibility and made it to school so she didn’t have to repeat the grade, then she learned an even more valuable lesson. But if the mother continued to take the responsibility onto herself, then there was no lesson to be had for the daughter.
I warned the woman that following through on her promise to not wake up her family would be difficult for her. She had a habit of doing it. More importantly, she had a habit of taking responsibility for their actions around getting out of bed. This was something that would take discipline on her part as well. She would have to bite her tongue every time she thought to yell at them to get up. She would have to control her frustration about them not meeting her time schedule. She would have to let them be the maters of their own time. I suggested that she might also look at what that morning routine meant to her. Did she have memories of morning breakfasts with her family that she was trying to recreate? Or an ideal based on “Leave it to Beaver” that she wanted for her family? What did she get out of being the person in charge in the morning? Was it a sense of being a good mother? And if so, could she get this feeling in some other way? I suggested that she look carefully at her motivations for creating this situation and deal with those issues as well so that they didn’t creep back up in another form creating another power struggle to take the place of this one.
So, in dealing with a power struggle, we have to look at all of the issues. Not only do we have to look at the fact that there is an imbalance of power in the situation, but we have to see why. Who is taking responsibility for something that is not theirs? Why are they doing it? Once this woman determined her reasons for propagating the issue, it was easier for her to let go of it. By relinquishing responsibility for her family’s morning routine, this woman had removed the source of the power struggle. It was only a problem because she had tried to control it. Once she laid down the new rules, her family started to pick up the ball for themselves. And what was once a stressful morning routine became a more peaceful beginning to the day.
A woman who taught at an alternative high school had the following story to relate about how she avoided a power struggle with one of her students.
“I was in the time out room with this student and he was trying to get out of the room. I was blocking the door with my body and he was leaning up against me trying to intimidate me. He said “Do you really think you can keep me in here? Do you think you’re stronger than me?” He was trying to engage me in a struggle over which of us was stronger, which he obviously was. So I said “No, I’m certain that you are stronger than I am. If you want to impress me, be smarter than I am.”
This is a classic example of the way to defuse a power struggle. Sidestep or admit to the issue that is the subject of the struggle and go to the core issue instead.
Update 2014 – As a shaman, personal power is a primary issue in the work I do with people. Struggling over who is in control is an illusion since there is no control other than over yourself.
* This is part of an ongoing series of posts detailing what happened on a spiritual pilgrimage that I took in 2002. To start from the beginning, go to July 2, 2013. To see the entire spiritual journey as it gets published, click on the category “You Want Me To Do WHAT?!!?” to see all of the posts.