Reality Check: When We Lose Power

Dr. Wm. Glasser included power in his list of five basic human needs. As the word “power” can be interpreted in different ways, first let’s consider what power might mean here.
I don’t know how you spend your vacation, but Dr. Glasser spent one sitting on the beach with his dictionary, categorizing words according to the five needs. He found that words related to power, such as “important” or “achievement” far outnumbered words related to the other needs. Like it or not, power—and lack of power—plays a big role in our lives.
My interpretation is that we have a need to know that we matter. You might call it self-esteem, a need for recognition and respect.
If we lose power and can’t figure out how to meet that need, we’re unhappy; even miserable. As we humans don’t always choose effective ways to satisfy our needs, sometimes we behave counter-productively.
For example, if we feel vulnerable and disrespected, we might lash out, argue, refuse to cooperate, even with people who are genuinely trying to help us.
That response doesn’t help, of course; especially if the caregivers are friends or volunteers. They may find it more satisfying to spend their time and energy with someone who is cooperative and appreciative. So where we were vulnerable but not alone before, now we’re vulnerable and more alone. A lose-lose scenario.
Yet those behaviours are understandable. If we are fearful because we feel we’ve lost control of even basic day-to-day decisions, we might grasp at anything to try to regain a sense of power. In some cases, acting out is the response we use to help us feel better.
Glasser points out that at birth, we cry, fuss, and thrash about as “…our way of trying to force our mothers to care for us…” As we grow up, hopefully one of the lessons we learn is that screaming and fussing isn’t the most effective way if we want genuine friendships, success in school or workplace, or honest progress toward constructive goals.
However, even as grownups, we might occasionally respond to an unmet need for power as if we’re two years old. We might not stomp our feet and slam the door, but we might use insults and sarcasm to deliberately belittle someone we profess to care for.
We may know this behaviour isn’t appropriate, but the misery and frustration from an unmet need for power can be strong. We want to feel better. If we haven’t figured out a constructive way to feel better, we’ll try something else. And that’s not always pretty.
My hope for this column is that should you find yourself at wit’s end because you care for someone who is “difficult,” consider the possibility that they feel powerless. Remember, power is a basic need. If they perceive that their choices are gone—that others are running their life—then they are frustrated. It’s understandable.
What to do? Recognize that the person, no matter their current state, is human and worthy of respect and dignity. Give them time to speak, genuinely listen, and let them know that they are heard. Wherever possible, offer opportunities for them to make their own choices. Consider that if you were in their position, you would want no less for yourself.
Personal power is essential for living a satisfying life. What do you think of this interpretation and response to the need for power?

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