Understanding the Quest for Power

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW


Inherent in human nature is an aggressive egocentric need to attain power and control. Throughout history imperialist pursuits have been accompanied by genocide, slavery, and eugenics. The current abuse of power on a global scale is all too evident in the free license afforded to mega corporations to recklessly plunder and pillage.

Politicians are grafters in collusion with foreign nationals perpetrating crimes against humanity. Torture and drone murder is touted as necessary vehicles towards peace. Financial criminals are bailed out. Coups are engineered like theater.

Accordingly, the rampant historical recurrence of abuse of power supports Lord Acton’s maxim,

Absolute power corrupts absolutely

Effectively managing the raw potential of power frequently presents itself in psychotherapy sessions. Ambitions to succeed, acquire wealth, status, admiration, and even the acquisition of love reveals whether we lean towards aggression or balance in pursuit of what is desired.

Since “human nature is potentially aggressive and destructive and potentially orderly and constructive” (Margaret Mead), harnessing one’s authority and strength can either destructively conflict or constructively converge with ethical tendencies.

Depending on the driving forces fueling one’s appetite, the stimulus to power can span a wide spectrum from the quest for fame, amoral control, recognition and limitless greed to wanting nothing more than to retreat to a haven of safety and predictability devoid of any risk or challenge.

Somewhere in the middle of this vast panorama resides a balanced perspective, yet typically what is most prevalent is an indecisive struggle with this polarized mindset.

For adult survivors of child abuse the identification with aggressive maneuvering or self effacing passivity and the abdication of power is an ongoing struggle. Often this vacillation from aggressive maneuvering to patterns of victim posturing can occur within the same individual.

What ensues is an insidious manifestation of ruthless acquisition and self imposed sabotage.

This pattern is most starkly evidenced in adults who were habitually treated as narcissistic extensions by their disordered parent. Specifically, the narcissist parent devoid of empathy is malevolently driven to annihilate the child’s sense of self by tyrannically objectifying and reducing the child to narcissistic supply. The insatiable parental narcissist is seeking adulation, fear, and intractable control.

Consequentially, the children of narcissistic parents may become adults who either deny their personal power so as to cater to the emotional needs of others, or act out their narcissistic wounding by perpetrating others in the same way they experienced.

Psychologist and author Alice Miller wrote,

“All the childhood histories of serial killers and dictators (Hitler, Stalin, Mao) I have examined showed them without exception to have been the victims of extreme cruelty, although they themselves steadfastly denied this.”

As Miller contends, whether it be a psychopathic leader, a serial killer, or a trauma survivor, the compulsion to repeat traumatic violence involves behavioral enactment as either victim or victimizer.

This compulsive pathological fixation on blame of self or blame of other defines and informs the individual’s pursuit of power.

Psychologically, the essence of the self emerges when one is willing to undergo a terrifying primordial process, which brings one’s shadow into conscious awareness for the purpose of integration.

For those whose lives have been beset by abuse and exploitation, repairing one’s brokenness so as to reclaim one’s genuine power requires a brave excavation of heinous memories.

Carl Jung remarked, “there is no rebirth of consciousness without pain”.

Bringing the Shadow out of exile allows for an unearthing of vital aspects of the concealed self, in which mysterious gifts and talents and sources of creative potential seeks realization. It allows for an assimilation of our libidinal power. We meet our darkness and it humanizes us and allows us to actualize our buried potentials.

Remembering and connecting to one’s intrinsic worth is the trajectory to true power.

To have one’s Self precipitates an expanded sense of consciousness offering efficacy and agency, wherein the ego is ready to attach to the abstract plane beyond the sensory world. From this place one’s sense of identity is raised to a higher level and the Spirit hidden in matter reveals itself.

Great spiritual leaders, pioneers of science, artists and activists courageously sublimate their power by improving the world. This is evidenced in the works of Christ, Buddha, Hildegard of Bingen, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothea Dix, Albert Schweitzer, and countless others.

It is only if we can individually and collectively accept and take responsibility for our human fallibility and woundedness, that our insatiable appetite for control and domination will be eclipsed by the source of our greatest power; Love.

As Gandhi said, it is only when

“The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.”

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY

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