Like many of us, I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with power. Experiences as a child of feeling controlled by those in authority, and the sense of being at risk of being shamed and punished if I stepped outside the lines resulted in a powerful conditioning. Though it often meant being in conflict with my natural impulses to speak or act, generally my coping mechanism led me to being helpful, and small. I cared and wanted to make a difference, but didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself. I neither wanted to risk the shame of being seen and censured if I wasn’t doing things the way those in power considered ‘right’, nor did I want to be seen as being powerful.
In my mind at that time, being powerful meant being associated with those exercising power over others without consideration of the impact of this. I wanted no part of that, and at that point change seemed impossible. There was little trust or connection built here. The ‘big’ people had power, and the ‘little’ people kept their heads down. Having a ‘good’ life meant living within the proscribed lines – getting by the best you could, while staying out of trouble.
Judith Glaser in conversation on trust and distrust with Dr. Angelika Dimoka
There were, of course, those who rebelled against the authority figures. Those who, often at their own personal risk, pushed against those lines. My young mind looked at their courage to act with a combination of horror and awe. The pain I felt when I saw the consequences they often suffered served to deepen my conditioning, and reinforce my cardinal rules of survival – stay small, don’t draw attention to yourself.
Sometimes their actions resulted in beneficial changes to the system. But even in these cases, the changes felt to me to be a result of power over – there were ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The cultural power struggle continued, as did my distrust in the us/them dynamic. So even though I appreciated and often benefitted from these changes, this way of being just didn’t feel resonant for me.
Looking back, it’s clear that though, as I was growing up, I didn’t have the awareness, emotional maturity, or sense of legitimacy to stand for creating RICH relationships and systems in our world, I knew in my bones that something was missing. There had to be a better way of relating to each other.
Only in retrospect could I see the ways my surviving those painful situations where I felt powerless, limited, and constrained actually served my development.
In order to be good and stay out of trouble I needed to make sure I was following The Rules – those rules set by others that often didn’t make any sense to me. This meant I needed to become creative. I practiced being exquisitely attuned – both to the situation I was in, and to what others were thinking and expecting. I honed my skills of being present to the moment, of listening to others and cultivating containers of trust in extraordinary ways.
It took longer for me to develop the capacity to stand and speak powerfully about what I’ve felt for years in my bones to be true. I needed to develop trust in myself, and cultivate power with myself first. I (and all those who’ve attempted to keep ourselves safe by keeping ourselves small) need to honour our own pace and rhythm – at first taking baby steps. In this way we develop a capacity for powerful action.
The fear, uncertainty and distrust in our world are like the water we swim in, and our bodies are often triggered into high alert in our world. Understandably, our instinctive response is to find ways to feel safe. Some, like the proverbial ostrich, bury their heads in the sand. They turn to some form of numbing or distraction in hopes that things will calm down. Some, like I did as a kid, try to make a difference, but keep a low profile. Some look around and try to find someone to blame for what’s happening.
Dr. Dan Siegel shows what’s happening in our brains when we “flip our lids”, and how even naming what’s happening can help us to calm ourselves here
We’ve all experienced moments when the stress continues, building to the point where we do what Dr. Dan Siegel calls “flipping our lids”. This can show up as an expression of frustration, or an active lashing out at another, and can be scary for us, and those around us.
In his studies in Interpersonal Neurobiology, Dan Siegel has found 3 things that when combined really make a difference here. Having a practice of reflection where you cultivate the capacity for emotional and social intelligence, including naming and being with your feelings. Being in relationships where kindness and compassion is toward yourself and others – this has actually been shown in studies to be the #1 factor contributing to mental and physiological health, longevity, happiness and wisdom. Engaging this kind of reflection, and nurturing these kinds of relationships stimulates growth of the integrative fibers of brain. These are the fibers that allow us to build resilience and expand our capacity for trust – of ourselves and others. And this makes the development of partnerships that honour and appreciate the unique contribution of each one much more likely. And – even in the face of difference – a willingness to risk shared power.
Are we facing big challenges? You bet! But together we can and are creating a different story. We are reflecting on what no longer serves us, and risking creating new ways of being together. We are building resilience, and continuing to develop our capacity for powerful action, grounded in powerful presence and RICHer relationships! Want more of this in your life? Please be in touch.