What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’ve been having some interesting discussions recently about power. Power is fascinating because it is often unacknowledged or ignored until it is lost. The power of privilege and status especially fits this dynamic. An employed person doesn’t really see the power of that until the job is lost. A man might not have understood the power of the title ‘husband’ until he is separated or divorced. An only child immediately loses agency upon the birth of a sibling.
Power is taken, assumed, transferred, inferred. It is malleable, temporal, fickle, cyclical.
What I’m interested in is how power plays out in the therapeutic space, between a therapist and a client. From the outside, it may appear to be stacked in favour of the therapist. The meeting is transactional, with money exchanging hands for service. The therapist has time slots available at their own discretion that the client needs to select from.
But power does not necessarily bow to money or time – it is a more subtle beast, one that stems from the interplay of the people present. It will ebb and flow depending on the context. It’s different with your spouse, your best friend, a stranger, a police officer, a shop assistant. It can also be experienced as benevolent or paternal (Hutton & Cisco, 2020).
It can be, and often is, gendered, political, economic, and cultural. It’s ubiquitous and systemic, and this is part of the challenge. This dynamic in therapy can be understood through three key lenses, the role of the therapist (publicly sanctioned and the therapist having expertise), societal, and historical (Overend, 2021).
In the therapy room, any power I have is mitigated by the care I must take. I am in service to the needs of my client. Of course, there is societal privilege – I am white, male, middle-aged, English-speaking, and educated. But those things do not make me any better as a therapist.
The measure for me is found in the way I meet the client where they are, which includes where they are in terms of power – powerful or powerless? Empowered or disempowered? Overpowering or overpowered? For example, society, economy, gender, age, race, sexuality, and body are all determinants for mental health and all play a role in the clients’ sense of agency and personhood. This topic highlights for me the tension between my theoretical understanding of Foucault and his discourses on power with materialism, individualism, and free will (Guilfoyle, 2014).
There’s this phenomenon called transference – see words by Alex and Polly – which essentially means I experience a lot of what a client is going through because they will subtly or not so subtly transfer the feeling to me. To protest a perceived power imbalance, they might lash out, retreat, or even sever therapy. And that’s ok – it’s part of being human, and a part of therapy.
My work with clients often involves working with them to identify their unique resources, abilities, and talents and to recognise and balance the power dynamics they are experiencing both in the room and in their lives. I aim to help them be more adaptive, creative, and resilient to power. We can then begin to “co-power”, working respectfully and acknowledging our unique perspectives and personhood.
Sometimes it is useful to try and name this experience in therapy, and this technique/intervention is called immediacy. It’s a wonderful way to co-power; however, this opportunity sometimes presents as too little too late.
But it’s never really too late in therapy – even in goodbyes and endings – it’s all still “grist for the mill” for both client and therapist.
I wrote this article because power is a thing, and it’s hard to talk about it when its influence is overwhelming. This article is a way for me to broach the topic safely, to let you know that I’m aware of my power and powerlessness, and that I try to use any agency I have for our mutual benefit, steeped in those enduring and grace-giving human qualities of compassion, kindness, and understanding.
Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if this article resonates for you in light of your own story and situation.
Guilfoyle. (2014). The person in narrative therapy : a post-structural, Foucauldian account. Palgrave Macmillan.
Hutton, & Sisko, S. (2020). Multicultural Responsiveness in Counselling and Psychology: Working with Australian Populations. Springer International Publishing AG.
Overend. (2021). Working with Power in Existential Therapy. Existential Analysis, 32(2), 309–321.