Of bullies & victims. Are we giving people the power to hurt us?

August 7, 2009

“If I let you have power over me can we go to the mall?”

There’s an axiom: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” It’s often used to quiet the nerves of overburdened people, a religious opiate essentially saying don’t worry you’re in good hands. Underneath that placation, however, is a more aggressive message, a call to action, basically demanding that we stop complaining about our burden. Buck up. God won’t give you more than you can handle.

When you think about it most of what we can or cannot handle are people. The other big categories, places and things are fairly finite. For example a thing you must handle: cancer; a place you must handle: prison. But mostly we’re talking about people. A boss, a neighbor, a child, a parent, a roommate, and so on; these are the burdens that threaten to break our backs.

Certain people assert power over us, often cruelly. Everyone has a story about an evil boss or client. In those cases we feel we must submit to abuse in order to preserve our livelihood. Maybe. But why do we give so many other people the power to disturb us? A neighbor parks his car on your lawn, over and over again. It’s wrong. It’s obvious. Yet you agonize over telling him for fear he’ll take it poorly. After all, he wouldn’t be parking that way if he knew it was wrong. Therefore, the neighbor must perceive his actions to be acceptable. Under these circumstances, your telling him otherwise would be interpreted as aggressive and petty.

Nonsense. There are no “circumstances.” You have built a story in your head based on fear (he’ll get pissed) and insecurity (I’m being petty). In other words: you have given him power over you.

I see and experience this phenomenon every week, if not every day. For example, I am in psychological turmoil with certain loved ones and, because of my own abstract fears and guilt I allow them the power to hurt me. Why? Without going into specifics, deep down I fear they are right. Maybe I blame myself. Who knows?

At work I am the Chief Creative Officer of a mid-sized advertising agency, which means people report into me versus the other way around. That doesn’t mean I don’t give certain colleagues and clients unreasonable power over me. It’s not common but it happens. Say a power hungry member of our management team has designs on a bigger title. I don’t think he deserves the promotion. I perceive his ambition as a threat but I am afraid to say something. My reluctance to ask tough questions effectively put the other man is a position of power and he hasn’t even been promoted yet!

I’m not Dr. Phil (Thank God) but I think this is what new age docs mean by enabling. We let others assume power over us even when they are not looking for it. Your cousin is visiting. He is a self-absorbed jerk. You want to put him in his place but your wife doesn’t want you making a scene. You end up seething, making yourself and others miserable. Feeling powerless over your cousin and wife is debilitating. But it’s purely psychological. Nothing real is at stake. Why does one man have to be a victim and the other a tyrant? Just let go, right?

Were that it were so easy! As human beings we are fraught with defects. Outside of high school, nowhere are these more on display than at the office. At work, power struggles often are confused with careering. If I say/do this another person will say/do that. We managers constantly tell staff not to worry about such things; rather, we say to them: stay focused. Keep your eyes on the prize. Ironically, to the recipient of this advise that prize usually means a bigger title, office and salary. And, of course, we managers tend to forget our own good counsel when it’s our fat asses were talking about!

Bully my Twitter!


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