At a party some years ago I noticed a guy across the room with a big personality. Like a strong double-ended magnet, he appeared to either attract or repel everyone around him. Eventually someone introduced us. He was a successful and intimidating businessman, and for some reason he seemed to like me.
At one point he leaned in with a sly grin as if he were about to confide something in me. Then he said, “You know what I love to do at parties? I meet someone, find out what they believe in, and then I explain why they’re wrong about all of it. I systematically tear apart their whole worldview. They walk away like they just lost their compass!” He laughed like he genuinely relished those moments.
Although I was disgusted by this admission I also found it fascinating. Of course, it’s not unusual to witness power struggles for dominance – especially between men, between dogs, between couples, and between parents and children.
But most power struggles begin with a disagreement, and – on the surface, anyway – that seems to be the cause of the struggle. What was less common in this case was that this fellow was consciously setting out to dominate others he didn’t yet know and was looking forward to the satisfaction he’d feel when he “won.”
Though a psychologist might say the guy’s social behavior was pathological, in a way it was just a more obvious and one-sided expression of something many of us engage in on a routine basis.
When absorbed in a power struggle we may believe that we’re just righting a wrong, correcting a mistake, or doing the right thing. But if we were to stop and ask ourselves honestly where we’re coming from, the truth is often that we just want to win and/or that we can’t bear losing.
In the book The Courage to Be Disliked, authors Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga argue that rarely are our arguments about the topic we believe; mostly they’re driven by the desire to prove our power and make the other person submit. They advise that when we recognize we’re in a power struggle it’s best to step down without reacting.
“Admitting mistakes, conveying words of apology, and stepping down from power struggles – none of these things is defeat,” they write. “The pursuit of superiority is not something that is carried out through competition with other people.” The term superiority here simply means personal excellence, not superiority in comparison to someone else.
Kishimi and Koga (summarizing the work of psychologist Alfred Adler) explain that power struggles hinge on the belief that one’s stance on an issue makes them right. “The moment one is convinced that ‘I am right’ in an interpersonal relationship, one has already stepped into a power struggle. At that point, the focus of the discussion shifts from the rightness of the assertions to the state of the interpersonal relationship.” Then it’s no longer a conversation. It’s a contest.
Though he doesn’t use the term “power struggle” Author Vadim Zeland makes a similar point in Reality Transurfing. He describes the energy behind these struggles as “pendulums.” Like the giant swinging pendulum of an enormous clock, they’re fueled both by collective adherence or opposition to an issue. When you’re presented with a pendulum, whether you jump aboard in agreement or fight it tooth and nail, you’ve jumped aboard it and are being taken for a ride.
He advises stepping back (mentally) and disengaging, imagining you’re like a ghost – so the swinging pendulum doesn’t trigger you or affect you in any way. It just swings right through you.
I encourage you this week to notice the power struggles and pendulums in your life. What happens when you engage with them? What happens when you attempt not to engage? Are you able to? Is there a part of you that desires the conflict? Does it feel disappointed if you step back? If you engage in a power struggle and “win” how does this feel? If you notice a power struggle between others, can you witness the energetic conflict beneath the words? Do you feel called to bring light to it? What happens if you do?