Ethel Person

Feeling Strong

VTR Date: December 3, 2002

Guest: Person, Dr. Ethel


The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Ethel Person
Title: “Feeling Strong”
VTR: 12/03/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And you should know that whenever my guest today speaks or writes, I listen up or read quite intently.

For Dr. Ethel Person, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University is a major and masterful contributor to psychiatric and psychoanalytic literature who speaks and writes in ways we all can understand and identify with.

Indeed, just as one reviewer wrote about an earlier Ethel Person book, Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters, that any reader who has ever loved or failed to love will recognize him or herself. I suspect we’ll all find ourselves there somewhere in her compelling new William Morrow volume Feeling Strong, The Achievement of Authentic Power.

First, however, I’d like Dr. Person to explain two particularly intriguing comments with which she begins Feeling Strong. One is short, though perhaps not so sweet that “It’s easy to conclude that the longing for power is hot-wired into our psyches.”

And the other that “Despite the depth and duration of our interest in power, many of us feel ambivalent, if not downright uncomfortable about its pursuit.”

I’d like Dr. Person to expand on what she refers to also as, “This whiff of evil we catch when the subject of power is in the air.” What about this “whiff of evil”, do you really feel that way, Dr. Person? That we feel that way?

Person: Many people feel that way, I think, because they define power too narrowly. Power is often used as a political term, as power over someone else, and so we look a little askew at dominance as being synonymous with power. I think that really misses the real meaning of power and the role power plays in all of our lives, those of us without titles and appointments and high positions in hierarchies.

Heffner: You mean power over ourselves as you relate in the book.

Person: Well there are two kinds of power as I see it; one is interpersonal power, so that even in the most loving relationships the two partners hit disagreements where they have to negotiate decisions. And those are power relationships. How we make our points know. How we get our way. How we fight for one thing and not another thing. And sometimes we don’t know its power because some of us use weak power, what I call “weak power.”

Heffner: What do you mean “weak power?”

Person: Oh, you sort of cajole and plead and manipulate and cry and the point is to get your own way. Now you may feel weak in the process of using those maneuvers, but in fact those maneuvers are designed to affect and control and direct the decision that somebody else is making. So they fall into the category of power maneuvers. Just as the powers of the strong, whether you bully or threaten or decide that you’ll walk out or give an ultimatum are the powers of the strong … you know, raise your voice, yell, demand … those are more clearly power maneuvers, but both the powers of weak and the powers of the strong are used to get our way; to persuade somebody else to our point of view; to come to a decision. And therefore, even in our intimate relationships we are deep into power.

Heffner: And do you feel that there is something that provides the “whiff of evil” about that?

Person: Not at all. No. I think that seeing power as dominance is a misperception. I think that certain kinds of dominance, or the need to control other people can be evil. But I do not think that power is evil. I think power is necessary in each and every life.

Heffner: You mean power is what we get.

Person: Power is what we get. Power … let me put this another way … as a psychiatrist I see people who come to me because they have problems of powerlessness. They can’t stay on a diet, they can’t control their children, they can’t keep a job, they don’t know how to ask for a promotion. They feel inhibited, or they feel depressed, or they feel anxious. And all those are really forms of powerlessness. So in a sense, when patients come to psychiatrists, one of the things they’re asking for is a cure to their powerlessness and that cure is one or another form of feeling strong, of feeling that one has some power, some control, some agency in the world.

Heffner: That phrase of yours about “hot wired into our psyches. How does that relate to this patient’s search for powerfulness?

Person: Well, it’s a … that’s a complicated question and I’m going to give, I think, two answers. One … I think we see it’s “hot wired” when we see a little child who’s two or three years old … let’s say two because of the “terrible twos” … you already see that child insisting on his or her own way. And that’s a statement of power that is so universal, that you see that ability to be in control is so important even in the life of a two year old. And that’s why it’s called the “terrible twos” because parents, who really don’t understand it and have a hard time with it, are really threatened by the “terrible twos”.

You see it in a hundred different ways with little children. That they want their way. I like the example of the little boy who insists that his mother take him to the playground and he’ll do anything he has to, to get his mother to take him. He’ll plead with her, he’ll tease her, he’ll beg and then he’ll stamp his little feet. But he wants to go to the playground. Once he’s there though, he doesn’t want to control his mother. He really wants to show his prowess, he wants to climb up a tree or a sliding board, he wants to express his feeling about himself in the world. So we see it in all children.

The other way we see it, we see it in power … the other side of power. There’s dominance and there’s obedience and I think one of the ways that we see it was hot-wired are in the experiments of Stanley Milgram. Those experiments that some people now think were extremely immoral. He had a group of students and he … they were supposed to have learning experiments … they were supposed to help other people learn better. And so they would shock them if they gave a wrong answer. Now the subjects happened to be actors. But the students who were hired to shock them did not know that. Yet they were obedient to Milgram even when they were … felt abhorrent about shocking other people. So we see that obedience is wired into the system as well as dominance.

And in that sense we are very akin to certain kinds of animals where there are hierarchical relationships within the herd or the group. So that we’re probably wired both to dominate and to submit. And that is one form of power.

Heffner: Are we hot wired also to love, to go back to a subject that you’ve written about and we’ve discussed.

Person: We’re hot wired to have affection and to bond. And whether or not we’re hot wired to love, in the sense of romantic love, is an open question. I mean some people think that romantic love, as we now understand it, is a cultural invention of the Troubadours … coming from the Troubadour culture.

Heffner: And you? Do you feel that way, too?

Person: I think that all the pieces are there, but I think romantic love has a special flavor that probably is human. Not that there aren’t tight bonding relationships in other species, but I think romantic love as such probably is more related to us. Maybe not exclusively.

Heffner: Ethel, should I be despairing because of your characterizations here. Power is hot wired into our psyches. Love may not be.

Person: Romantic love. Love …

Heffner: Devotion.

Person: Oh, devotion is. Sure. I mean animals bond, they take care of each other. I … see I don’t think power is a bad thing. Power … there are many misuses of power, just as there are many excesses in love. Somebody who is in obsessive love is going too far, love is no longer a good thing. To say that there are perversions of power is not to say that power is a bad thing. Power is a necessary thing.

Heffner: What do you mean “necessary”?

Person: The reason animals have hierarchies is really to cut down hostility and to lead the group. And it’s really why we have governments. Government exert power, presumably by the people for the people. Nonetheless, there are different functions and levels of control that make for the ease of a community living together.

Heffner: But if, if we go back … it’s interesting what you say about government. Because if I think of Hobbes and of The Leviathan, the all powerful government, which is a function of Hobbes thought about his understanding of the nature of human nature. And I was going to ask her about that, but that’s what we’ve been talking about. Are we, are we atomized so that we’re all seeking for ourselves only, and that we are seeking power in that way. And therefore we need …

Person: No.

Heffner: … government to control us?

Person: No. That’s why I divide it into different kinds of power. And there is interpersonal power which can be either personal love, which is very nice, parental love, love of child for parent … they’re still power relationships, but they’re not bad. They’re good. They give loyalty, care, etc. So there can be bad power relationships, but there are very good power relationships.

But the power I’m talking about which is personal power is not hierarchical power, it’s the power to do, to create … the little boy who wants to go down the sliding board is expressing, not power over people … he’s expressing the exuberance of his power to do something that he didn’t know that he could do before. Part of it is mastery, part of it is autonomy, part of it is choice. Power creativity … I mean …

Heffner: Yes, but you say you’re talking about two kinds of power.

Person: Three kinds.

Heffner: All right. All right. The third?

Person: The third is the kind of hierarchical power which probably is endemic to most social organizations. Otherwise there would be no order. But within … depending on the nature …

Heffner: Why would there be no order?

Person: Well, who would decide when to build a road, or how to build a road or how to pay for the road. I mean there has to be some central authority in anything larger than a family group.

Heffner: That’s a, that’s a … a … not a necessity, is it, Ethel, it is a conclusion that you’ve arrived at. And that I’ve arrived at. But there are those who say that our lot in life has unfortunately been determined by that point of view … that we must have, for the sake of society, of men and women in society, have that kind of organizational power.

Person: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I guess, the only answer I can give you off the top of my head is the failure of so many communes. The idea of the …of that movement was to get rid of hierarchy and didn’t. They failed in a variety of ways. But it was not the utopian hope that it was expected to be.

Heffner: How does your sense of power relate to your political philosophy? How does it affect your sense of the appropriateness of capitalism, perhaps.

Person: Oh, no.

Heffner: Socialism, perhaps.

Person: I don’t go there because …

Heffner: Why don’t …

Person: … I don’t feel I’m a real authority on that. I feel I’m an authority on the way power works in individual lives. But the political realm is slightly different. And so I feel that power is essential to each and every individual both in terms of mastering relationships. And having the courage and the self confidence to follow one’s true bent, to express something deep and inner, not to be seen as strong, but to feel strong.

Heffner: But if one follows one’s bent …

Person: Yes.

Heffner: … doesn’t one almost inevitably come smack up against the person on the other side of the table who is following her bent, or isn’t it likely?

Person: Ah, if you’re a painter who wants to paint, or a writer who wants to write, you’re expressing an individual kind of creativity.

Heffner: And now you’ve moved over to the side and embraced as good, that power over self.

Person: Yes.

Heffner: Yeah. But that, too, is a cop-out isn’t it because you’re abandoning your notion that there are at least these two kinds of power.

Person: There is political power.

Heffner: Okay.

Person: But I wasn’t writing a treatise about the pros and cons of the system of government we have in the United States, though I would like to defend it against certain other forms of government alive in the world right now.

I was talking about within that system how each of us experiences ourselves as having some command, enough command to make us feel authentic, to make us feel that we’re expressing something of ourselves. And that’s what the book is about. And that’s where I feel my expertise is.

Heffner: I can’t ever, ever … no matter what the book is that you write … I can’t ever lead you where I want to take you.

Person: You want to take me into the political realm.

Heffner: … you’re too strong.

Person: [Laughter]

Heffner: You’re too strong; you’re too powerful to be lured.

Person: No, no. I have a good sense of the limits of my power. I don’t want to be lured to a place where I speak as an authority when I’m not.

Heffner: But this hot-wired notion is … it seems to me of such importance.

Person: But I mean it hot wired in the terms of agency. And jostling for position. I do say someplace in the book that I believe in an ethnologist could walk into a kindergarten and pick out a power hierarchy. The difference between humans and animals is that there are mediating factors so that someone can be loved because he’s funny. Somebody else can teach someone how to read. So the power isn’t the only factor … the establishing social organization in a human being. But I think that it’s there. I mean I think some people are more dominant by nature than others. But it’s not …

Heffner: By nature.

Person: By nature. Yes. Yes.

Heffner: Explain that please.

Person: If you look at babies as people have done, you know …

Heffner: Pick them out, pick …

Person: Al Thomas Stoachist (CHECK SPELLING) who ran studies, all the prospective studies that people who observed babies from infancy through, you know, through 12 years or later. Notice that there are certain characteristics that differ between babies. Some are more active, some are more passive. Some initiate more, some are more fearful. And those seem to be, for whatever reason, characteristics that are stable to some measure from birth, over a number of years.

It doesn’t mean that that’s implacable. It doesn’t mean that they’re not modified by what happens to the child, by the experiences, by the parental input, by what happens to them in life, but it does suggest that there are emotional and temperamental differences between us.

In the same way that some of us grow to be 5’ 2” and some of us grow to be 5’ 6” and some of us grow to be six feet tall. Those are inherent differences, but that doesn’t limit the whole palette of being, so to speak. They are tendencies.

Heffner: Tendencies.

Person: They’re tendencies. Yeah.

Heffner: But then the identification of infants … you seem to be talking about more than tendencies.

Person: No, because you can’t track it into what eventually happens to all of those people, I mean because I think the ethnologists and the biologists and the people who talk about what we’re borne with have a point. But the people who talked about how we’re reared in families, who we identify with, what our values are, these are all mediating influences that are different in us from in animals. So it’s not a one to one paradigm. I think when you’re talking about human beings, you’re talking about a much more complicated system of development internally. You’re talking about opportunity … but you’re talking a lot about family and about cultural values. You’re also talking about the child’s gifts.

Heffner: Gifts?

Person: Sure, gifts. Not all children have the same gifts. Some kids are very verbal; some kids are very musical. Some kids are born to be athletes, they have the coordination, they have the stamina, they have the limbs. So, of course, biology plays a factor, but not the essential factor in whether or not somebody will have the opportunity to hone those gifts into something that makes them feel expressive of themselves and their qualities and gifts.

Heffner: When a patient comes to you …

Person: MmmmHmmm.

Heffner: … you’re … you see your function as a liberating function? As enabling, enabling those gifts to be developed?

Person: It depends on why somebody comes to me. People come for all different kinds of reasons. But I do think that people come because they feel stuck in confronting one or another problem. So I do feel that part of therapy is to confront whatever that block or inhibition or conflict is. So I see that as unblocking the system so as to let the patient make choices.

What I do believe … that each and every one of us has to face what frightens us. What makes us anxious, what makes us feel helpless. And so, yes, those are things that I think have to be confronted in any therapy.

Heffner: All right. Can the block be and attitude toward power?

Person: Yes. Absolutely.

Heffner: Very negative … that “whiff of evil”.

Person: Oh, absolutely. And it can be … having been intimidated by a powerful parent. I mean it can be attitudinal that “power is bad, you should not exert power.” But it can also be because one feels frightened of a dominant parent. It can be because one identifies with a parent who’s been afraid to express their own power. “Stay hidden, don’t get into trouble, don’t express yourself”, so sure, a lot of different things go into inhibitions of power. But it’s remarkable how widespread it is. I mean the astonishing thing for me has truly been that people in positions of power do not feel powerful.

Heffner: How do you explain that? Or do you explain it in terms of each individual?

Person: Look, in part it’s true. I mean … for example reading Caro’s book on Lyndon Johnson, he opens with a wonderful segment on the Senate, where it’s clear that our most powerful Presidents could not control the Senate. This is true in business that there are structural, organizational artifacts, that someone who appears to have absolute power or pretty close to it, really does not. And in any business the guy at the top is not only worried about promoting the business, he is also worried about maintaining his place in the business

Heffner: And how do you deal with Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.”

Person: Ah, if he were here

Heffner: Is that that “whiff”?

Person: … if he were here we could have a conversation [laughter] Absolute power probably is corrupting. But none of us that I know is in a position of absolute power. I think it is one of the differences in certain cultures and other cultures.

Heffner: A cultural difference?

Person: Political differences. Organizational differences. Differences of concepts of state and the organization within.

Heffner: You of course quote, as I knew you had to, Henry Kissinger. The ultimate aphrodisiac

Person: Aphrodisiac …

Heffner: … is power. Political power. Right? Isn’t that what he meant?

Person: The … ahhhhh … well, it doesn’t have to be political power. Power can be an aphrodisiac in many different situations.

Heffner: In terms of money.

Person: Absolutely, in terms of prestige, in terms of connections; in terms of family. I mean ….

Heffner: And why is it so?

Person: Well because it’s a way of securing power vicariously; that if one can … if one does not have it in oneself, one can get it with coupling with somebody who has it, and therefore it is conferred.

Heffner: So that the seducer or the seductress needs to exploit those who feel they have no power.

Person: No.

Heffner: I mean the powerful seducer.

Person: The powerful seducer … I would say that the one who has to exploit what he has is the one who feels powerless.

Heffner: Ahhh.

Person: Powerful people come by it naturally. And there is such a thing as someone who feels powerful without the trappings. There is this quality of inner power. And I think I write about it … I think it comes fairly late in life. I don’t think that it’s a gift of the very young. I think that it’s hard won, but I think there are those who achieve it.

Heffner: Won how and achieved how … through what? Through what agency?

Person: Through what agency? Through … first of all through one’s work, through one’s productivity, through the sense of having accomplished something. And that can include having children, raising children and doing something one thinks is important in the world. It is not confined to making a lot of money, or climbing the hierarchy. It is much more attached to fulfilling some purpose which one thinks of as value. So I think into the concept of power you have to say, it’s power in relationship to one’s values. I think the common distortion is to see it in terms of political power or social power or money. And I think that’s really the wrong framework. Too many of those people feel powerless and feel that they’re only liked or wanted because of their external attributes, it’s not always from within.

So I find that people achieve power either in their relationships in feeling that they’ve done a wonderful job in their families, with their spouses, with their children. Or in the expression of, of fruition in work or creativity. And for some people it comes from a belief system.

Heffner: Ethel … half minute … that’s all we have left.

Person: Half minute … all right.

Heffner: Which of your books … love or power … is, do you think, more understandable? More reachable?

Person: The people who have read my power book are divided. I mean there are some people who seem more drawn to the love book and some people who seem more drawn to the power book.

Heffner: The answer is, they should read both.

Person: Thank you.

Heffner: You’re welcome, Ethel Person.

Person: I accept that answer.

Heffner: Thank you for joining me today.

Person: It’s such a pleasure to see you … always.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.