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Feeling Strong: The Achievement of Authentic Power

Feeling Strong: The Achievement of Authentic Power

by Ethel S. Person

In Feeling Strong, noted psychoanalyst Ethel S. Person redefines the notion of power. Power is often narrowly understood as the force exerted by the politicians and business leaders who seem to be in charge and by the rich and famous who monopolize our headlines. The whiff of evil we often catch when the subject of power is in the air comes from this one


In Feeling Strong, noted psychoanalyst Ethel S. Person redefines the notion of power. Power is often narrowly understood as the force exerted by the politicians and business leaders who seem to be in charge and by the rich and famous who monopolize our headlines. The whiff of evil we often catch when the subject of power is in the air comes from this one conception of power — the drive for dominance over other people, or, in its most extreme form, an overriding and often ruthless lust for total command. But this is far too limited a definition of power.

Pointing to a more fulfilling sense of self-empowerment than is being touted in pop-psychology manuals of our time, Feeling Strong shows us that power is really our ability to produce an effect, to make something we want to happen actually take place. Power is a desire and a drive, and it central in our lives, dictating much of our behavior and consuming much of our interior lives.

We all have a need to possess power, use it, understand it and negotiate it. This holds true not just in mediating our sex and love lives, our family lives and friendships, our work relationships but in seeking to realize our dreams, whether in pursuit of our ambitions, expression of our creative impulses, or in our need to identify with something larger than ourselves. These separate kinds of power are best described as interpersonal power and personal power, respectively, and they call on different parts of our psyche. Ideally, we acquire competence in both domains.

Drawing from her expertise honed in clinical practice, as well as from examples in literature and true-life vignettes, Person shows how we can achieve authentic power, a fundamental and potentially benevolent part of human nature that allows us to experience ourselves as authentically strong. To find something that matters; to live life at a higher pitch; to feel inner certainty; to find a personality of your own and effectively plot our own life story — these are the forms of power explored in the book. To achieve and maintain such empowerment always entails struggle and is a life-long journey. Feeling Strong will lead the way.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
While the jacket copy suggests a self-help title, this latest book from Person (The Sexual Century) is really a history of theories of power, as revealed through close readings of psychoanalytic theory, literature and popular culture. According to Person, a physician and professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, Western culture is enamored of a "pornography of power"-in love with images of dominance and subordination. But really, she argues, power works more subtly. According to Person, there are two major kinds of power: interpersonal (the kind we exert over others, or feel exerted over ourselves) and personal (the kind we experience as strength, self-confidence and, in trendy parlance, "empowerment"). Drawing, with varying degrees of efficacy, on sources as diverse as Freud, The Sopranos, Eugene O'Neill, Hannah Arendt and Edith Wharton, Person's book seeks to explain why we are relentlessly seduced by the image of holding power over others and less able to draw on its strength for ourselves. She argues that intimacy and power are not, as we generally like to believe, mutually exclusive, but rather interdependent, as evidenced in both everyday personal relationships and--in its most explicit form-- sado-masochistic ones. Person is at her best when musing on less obvious exercises of power, such as the tense, ambivalent power relations that exist between mother and child, or the way in which games like Pok mon allow kids, if only in the realm of make-believe, to experience the thrill of holding control over others. "Authentic power," she writes, "is the ability to live fully, with few regrets and fewer recriminations"-a sentiment readers may welcome in a world where corporate and political recriminations are common by-products of power. (Oct.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Psychoanalyst Person (clinical psychiatry, Columbia Univ.) renders a weighty intellectual account of empowerment, a topic often plumbed in self-help circles. Filled with research findings, life stories, and thoughts from the books of best-selling authors (e.g., Judith Viorst, Deborah Tannen, Susan Faludi), this work covers types of power (e.g., creative, coercive, charismatic), how people's interactions foster or negate the use of power, and enlightenment, or "authentic" power. Person clearly explains that the inner struggle between wanting power and feeling powerless is rooted in our psyches and carries over into adulthood, ultimately determining our intestinal fortitude. Compassion toward ourselves plays a major role in resolving this tug of war. The book is not practical enough for the task of building self-empowerment skills, but the author's notion that the resistance that grows in the disempowered must be addressed to bring about global communication rather than global unrest is an important tack not typically explored. Recommended for larger public libraries in a category bridging self-help and mainstream psychology.-Lisa Liquori, M.L.S., Syracuse, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.33(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Seeking Authentic Power

"We are lived by powers we pretend to understand."
-- W.H. Auden, "In Memory of Ernst Toller"

What constitutes power, who has it, where it comes from, and how it is played out in the real world are much more complicated matters than we generally think. Our desire for power is often far from transparent, our longing for it deeply rooted in the mysteries of our existence such as Auden captures in his remarkable phrase, "We are lived by powers we pretend to understand." Power originates from a deep psychological source, from the very center of the self.

But what exactly is power? The word derives from the Latin posse, "to be able." As the dictionary defines it, Power is the ability to mobilize, "the strength and potency to accomplish something ... the vital energy to make choices and decisions." While some people restrict the meaning of power to dominance, the ability to compel the obedience of others, power is more fundamentally the ability to act, to effect whatever goal we have in mind. It is the vehicle through which we exert some measure of control over the course of our own lives, but the way we express it takes many forms.

The essence of power is found in the phrase the power to do something not -- as commonly thought -- in the phrase the power over someone else. John 0. Whitney, a management consultant catches its protean character: "Power is a freighted idea, filled with shifting cargo: power to build, power to tear down; power to hasten, power to delay; power to inspire, power to frighten; power to give, power to withhold; power to love, power to hurt; power todo good, power to do evil." It is the ability to say "yes" or "no," to act or refuse to act, to make things happen or to keep something from happening.

Power is the ability to exert command over the self. Self-control encompasses control of our voluntary actions, but it also entails self-regulation over what are sometimes thought of as our vegetative functions -- our appetite and sleep patterns -- and over the maintenance of our health. Moreover, self-control encompasses the ability to manage our time, to do our chores, to fulfill our obligations, to order our lives based on the paths we choose and the demands we face. Taken together, self-regulation, selfcare, and self-determination constitute agency. And agency is the prerequisite to freedom.

Power is also the ability to maintain relationships, the capacity to mediate the inevitable power clashes that arise in our personal and professional relationships, and to exert influence on others. It is the ability to forgive, to work at our relationships, and to accept the fact that our self-interest may sometimes conflict with that of our loved ones. Overbearing behavior, excessive compliance, and unnecessary defiance are all distortions of interpersonal power.

Power in and of itself is neutral, neither good nor bad, nothing more or less than a force or an energy. While the power of electricity lights up our lives, a tornado has immense destructive power. Ideas have the power to change the world for good or evil. Similarly, the power we exert individually may be constructive or destructive.

In contrast, weakness -- the inability or failure to exert power in any significant way whatsoever -- can be a major corrosive force in our lives. Not surprisingly, our longing for power is sometimes driven by the powerlessness all of us experience. Feelings of weakness and helplessness can be intensified by neuroses and mental maladies (inhibitions, phobias, major anxiety, or depression) or by limitations in our life circumstances (poverty, poor health, low status), but they are also intrinsic to our experience -- our helplessness as infants and our knowledge of death. Unless we have developed some capacity for control over our day-to-day lives, we feel inert, at, the mercy of external forces. Seen this way, our impulse to exert power or to form alliances with people who are more powerful than we are is an attempt to combat our feelings not just of personal weakness and vulnerability but also of existential fragility. Seeking power, then, is an antidote for vulnerability. But it is also something more.

The impulse to power is a kind of life force that propels us into the world to sing our song. To experience ourselves as the author of our own actions, based on our own desires, expands our sense of self-identity and self-worth. Power is made up of acts that enable us to feel that we are the creators of our own experience. Almost from birth, we seek power as a way of defining ourselves and our needs in a world that seems bent on shaping us to respond to its demands. As the author and editor Michael Korda has written: "Without power, we might as well be trees, rocks, oysters, whatever you like, estimable objects in the sight of God, useful even, obeying the complex laws of nature but without the capacity to alter the world, to control our own lives." Although Korda's book Power dispenses plenty of power-mongering advice (for example, positioning your desk at a slight elevation so that people literally have to look up to you), here he is depicting power in a more general, philosophical way, proposing that it enables us to define ourselves and our needs, to shape our own destiny.

Our desire to direct our day-to-day experiences is evident in early life. Years ago, the psychologist Robert Whyte identified this desire in what he calls the "battle of the spoon." A tiny child, still in a high chair, insists on feeding himself even though the baby food ends up everywhere but in his mouth. But power in the form of agency extends beyond day-to-day choices. Ultimately, it entails being independent enough to frame our own ambitions and to take the responsibility for seeing them through to the finish line. It encompasses our ability to act independently and to appraise our chances of success in our undertakings.

Childhood teaches us a range of different power ploys. We begin to develop a repertoire of interpersonal maneuvers ...

Feeling Strong. Copyright © by Ethel S. Person. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Ethel S. Person is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University and a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. A major contributor to psychiatric and psychoanalytic literature, she is author or editor of ten books, including Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters: The Power of Romantic Love and By Force of Fantasy: How We Live Our Lives. She lectures frequently here and abroad. She lives in New York City.

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