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The Price of Powerlessness


“Powerlessness and silence go together."

-- Margaret Atwood

As we’ve read through this book on how we gain and lose power in our everyday interactions, we’ve come to define power as the ability to influence and make a difference in the world around us. While I firmly believe that we always have some measure of choice, the reality is that there are those who are powerless, which directly impacts their ability to influence and make a difference in the world.

Regardless of the circumstances that contribute to the powerlessness of others — socio-economic status, gender, race, background, etc. — those who experience this state are vulnerable, hurting, fearful, and hopeless, which is often perpetuated or contributed to by those caught within the power paradox.

“Powerlessness and the power paradox cannot be separated. In some ways, how a society does or does not respond to its most powerless people is a direct measure of its vulnerability to the power paradox. Understanding the causes and consequences of powerlessness catalyzes our awareness of others and immunizes us against the power paradox, just as allowing ourselves to be indifferent or blind to the consequences of powerlessness can give rise to the power paradox.”

Keltner identifies four principles that help us understand the pervasiveness and price of powerlessness. He connects the problem and the solution to threat, stress, health, and ability to contribute.

Power Principle 17: Powerlessness Involves Facing Environments of Continual Threat

Often, when we think about an environment, we think about the physical space we occupy, and while this is a contributing factor of powerlessness (“The physical conditions of life are more threatening for the less powerful.”), but we must also consider the environments our attitudes, assumptions, and behavior patterns create. Whenever we respond to people in a way that ignores, rejects, excludes, or marginalizes them, it creates an environment of continual threat. In the workplace, this could be the harassment of a woman working in a male dominant industry, the rejection of an applicant because of harsher judgments based on the color of skin, the angry outbursts of an employer for a mistake, or being rude to a customer because of their appearance or attire. Any abuse of power or the negative use of influence creates an environment of continual threat for those with less power. While those who feel powerless are less likely to speak up, express their emotions, or take action, they are hyper-vigilant about the threats around them, which leads to a constant state of stress.

Power Principle 18: Stress Defines the Experience of Powerlessness

The experience of threat (real or perceived) releases a chemical known as cortisol into our bloodstream. Cortisol is responsible for our defensive reactions, activating our flight-or-fight behaviors and immune system to protect us from threats. “Threats that devalue a person’s social identity are particularly potent triggers.” This means that when someone experiences a constant state of stress brought on by powerlessness, they are more likely to withdraw, make themselves small in their posture and verbal responses, and seem disengaged or unmotivated.

"Power is only important as an instrument for service to the powerless."

-- Lech Walesa

Power Principle 19: Powerlessness Undermines the Individual’s Ability to Contribute to Society

"The human stress response is a dictatorial system, shutting down many other processes essential to our engagement in the world. As a result, the chronic stress associated with powerlessness compromises just about every way a person might contribute to the world outside of fight-or-flight behavior." Beyond just the physical effects stress has on the body, such as digestion, sleep, and mental ability, powerlessness deeply impacts a person's sense of purpose and enjoyment of life, or in other words, their sense that they can make a difference in the world around them.

Power Principle 20: Powerlessness Causes Poor Health

Research also shows that powerlessness has an increased effect on long-term health, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, headaches, stomach problems, back pain, and premature aging. The health impact of powerlessness and stress on young children is particularly harmful since it can result in development disorders, rapid onset of various diseases, and shortened lifespan.

Despite the sobering nature of Dr. Keltner's findings, there is hope for society's health and well-being if we can rise above the power paradox and make space for those who are powerless. We can

  • Reduce the threats to the identities of the less powerful,

  • Give voice and opportunities to those who have been disenfranchised in the past,

  • Increase the value that the powerless feel they have in society and communicate that they are worthy like everyone else,

  • Other measures centered on generosity, empathy, gratitude, and unity.

This week, reflect on your experience with power -- at home, at work, in your community.

  • What can you do to reduce these principles for those who are powerless in your life?

  • How can you give power to those who are powerless?

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