Of all the beliefs and values by which we must live our lives for universal benefit, respect is the most vital. By this, I mean both respect for others, and self-respect. I mean respect from the heart, as well as from the head. Especially in a therapeutic situation, each person knows instinctively the quality of the respect he receives from the other. At its best, authentic respect creates the internal ambience for trust.
From trust evolves the opportunity for ‘new experience’ and transformation of maladaptive patterns. Often, patients may be individuals with less self-respect, who accept and expect less, although they are in great need. Equally, the therapist may suffer the same deficit, his vulnerability is superficially and ostensibly cancelled by the social status and credentials that accompany his position. It is however possible that a therapist’s insecurity will cloud the authenticity of the encounter, and hinder the evolution of trust in the patient-practitioner relationship.
One medium for a destructive expression of that insecurity is a misuse of power. An opportunity for that misuse can come in the form of a power struggle between self-esteems, in which a therapist may use his natural social advantage alongside the conceptual club of “overcoming resistance”. We must, therefore, turn our attention to the subject of power as a significant variable, upon which the realization and manifestation of respect and trust depend.
Power serves all living things as the potential force which, when polarized, creates the movement essential to life. It is not inherently evil. Rather, it is ‘fear of the unknown’ that transmutes this power of life (or creation) into the power of death (or destruction) before its time. Insecurity is an inevitable condition in individuals who live on a ball of matter hurling through space, with no clear explanation of who they are, why they are, or to where they’re going, and this insecurity engenders in many people the fantasy that the more power they possess, the less insecure they will feel.
Fear drives some to accumulate power over the unknown, and in many cases the ‘unknown’ includes those who are seen to be different. Enlightened faith, love, and trust (all essentially the same), and the understanding they impart, rescue us from this fearful preoccupation with controlling the unknown. In reality, few of us are rescued absolutely; the majority of people struggle to achieve some semblance of peace with their insecurity. We are caught in the drive for, or escape from, power. Overall, two types of people tend to evolve: those who expect to feel secure by clinging onto power, and those who hope for security through giving their power away. However, neither path is a solution for existential insecurity.
Some classify the abandonment of responsibility for creative power as faith. I call this ‘blind’ faith. It must be distinguished from an enlightened faith, in which we completely and cheerfully accept the inevitability of endless insecurity, believing that life does have purpose and meaning though they may never be clear to us. Love can be seen as the same leap into the dark.
Power struggles seem ubiquitous, not only in our modern society, but also in the histories of both East and West. From Kingdoms to governments to our everyday lives, we are perpetually confronted with the complex interplay of individuals and their fears, and in these situations respect features all too infrequently. In our professional teaching institutions, for example, the life-giving creative energy with which we are endowed is confused by some with the preservation of an idea that works. When something works, its creator feels less vulnerable through the recognition and power granted to him for his achievement. This security is reassuring, and so the preservation of the accomplishment becomes critical. Others, uncertain of their power, sense security in this institutional ‘bank’, and so invest themselves in its perpetuation. Each investment further reinforces the creator’s security, causing him to cling even more to the original, potentially stagnant formulation of his idea. An internal power struggle ensues between the fragile man-animal ego – which pursues safety – and the man-god aspect, which pursues creation. Freud is a perfect example of a genius whose increasingly-sophisticated public written works tenaciously abided a basic concept, while his actual practice, according to the private records of those whom he treated, was often outrageous by his own standards and highly innovative.
Sooner or later, another power struggle ensues, this time among the ‘investors’. Those who were inspired by the creative transformative process by which the workable idea was generated require change, but those who are unwittingly dominated by the need for the security of the original idea, require stability. In my experience, the power struggle in our psychotherapeutic and analytic institutions has been uneven, and entropy has triumphed. Wherever I have sensed and pursued innovative and creative teachers, I have had to withdraw quickly from the knowledge and inspiration before it became institutionalized and neutralized by the teacher, the followers, or both.
Avoiding the easy comfortable solutions to the pitfalls of power and fear is difficult. For myself, I follow creative individuals, rather than institutions, when possible. I am on guard against institutionalizing myself, as well as contributing to the institutionalization of others, though I succeed least well with myself. Here, respect is the safety net between perception and deception, not only of self, but of others as well. I also attempt to maintain the position, both with my own ideas and with those of others, that it is inadvisable to take both a person and his ideas seriously at the same time. Between the creator and his ideas lies the perspective-generating humor which makes life creditable and, perhaps more importantly, abidable. When the creator and the creation become fused, perspective and distance are eliminated, destructive power and institutionalization triumph, and art cannot flourish.
As a practitioner of a healing art, it is critical that I keep prominent in my consciousness the fact that there is no ‘resistance’ over which a power struggle need commence. The intention of patients is to survive and to heal: to stay intact while they stay in contact. Mal-adaptive contact is a part of many patients’ life history – the reason they are coming for help – and not a form of mischief to frustrate hard-working therapists. The architecture of our identity is grounded overtly and covertly in the art of saying, and meaning, “no”. Healing begins and the power struggle ends with respect for this reality.
When intention is separated from behavior, respect becomes a reality which returns power to the powerless in the form of self-respect. One stops hating his behavior, and begins to love the life of his intention. It is the therapist’s real power to be the first person in the patient’s life to give this most important gift.
Respect is therefore my sword and my shield until, as I become accustomed to being afraid, I am blessed with enlightened love, faith, or wisdom. Perhaps this is most relevant to my own struggle as a therapist and person with power and insecurity.
One could begin and end this discussion of respect and power, and of the power of respect, with the timeless observation by the statesman Lord Acton that, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I prefer to end with the hope that all healers and practitioners will be the alchemists who transmute Lord Acton’s message into the gold of true understanding: Power can empower, and the power of respect empowers absolutely.