A Social Psychologist Explains the Importance of Powerfulness

Are you going to pull your own strings or let someone pull them for you?

Courtesy of  Austin Neill/Unsplash

 Cassidy, a woman trying to break into the real estate business, sent me this e-mail: 

For fifteen years, I was a national and collegiate- level track and field champion, and my whole life that is how I identified myself. Since graduating college and retiring from sports, I have been really struggling with not being able to call myself an elite athlete. I have since wondered, “Well, now that I’m retired and have joined the ‘real world,’ what and who am I?” I find myself embarking on new career paths and quickly becoming discouraged and unable to see myself in these new roles. I feel like I’m smart and have potential but there’s not one thing anymore that I’m really good at, that I consider myself to be an expert on. I’m often consumed with feelings of defeat, anxiety, and insecurity. My body language is almost 100 percent powerless — hunched over at my desk. I have no confidence. I’m too afraid to take the risks I know I need to take to gain my footing, certain that if I fail, I’ll be judged as incompetent. So I avoid challenging situations, passing up opportunities because they feel sort of threatening. 

I hear or read stories of personal powerlessness every single day — in e-mails from strangers, in conversations with students, and during meetings with employees of all ranks in various organizations. Although the details differ, the basic sketch is so often the same: a change is accompanied by a self- perceived loss of power and strength and followed by feelings of insecurity, anxiety, discouragement, and defeat. Then come physical manifestations of powerlessness along with loss of confidence and ambition. 

This depleted state, which can result from a small setback or even just the normal life changes we all go through, convinces us that we lack the power to control the situations we’re in. Then, as Cassidy said, opportunities take on the aspect of threats to be avoided, and feelings of fear further reinforce our sense of powerlessness, keeping us locked in an exhausting cycle. 

Social psychologist Dacher Keltner and his colleagues shed light on how this cycle works: they propose that power activates a psychological and behavioral approach system. When we feel powerful, we feel free — in control, unthreatened, and safe. As a result, we are attuned to opportunities more than threats. We feel positive and optimistic, and our behavior is largely unrestricted by social pressures. 

On the other hand, powerlessness activates a psychological and behavioral inhibition system, the “equivalent to an alarm- threat system.” We are more attuned to threats than to opportunities. We feel generally anxious and pessimistic, and we’re susceptible to social pressures that inhibit us and make our behavior unrepresentative of our sincere selves. 

When we’re deciding whether or not to do something — ask a person out on a date, raise a hand in class, even volunteer to help a person in need — we focus on one of two things: either the possible benefits of the action (e.g., a new relationship, expressing ourselves, or the gratification of having helped someone) or the possible costs of the action (e.g., having our hearts broken, sounding foolish, or looking foolish). If we are focused on the potential benefits, we’re likely to take the action, thereby approaching the positive. If we are focused on the potential costs, we’re likely not to act, thereby avoiding the possible dangers. 

Power makes us approach. Powerlessness makes us avoid. 

Power affects our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and even physiology in fundamental ways that directly facilitate or obstruct our presence, our performance, and the very course of our lives. When we feel powerless, we cannot be present. In a way, presence is power — a special kind of power that we confer on ourselves. (Recall Julianne Moore’s observation when I asked her about presence: “It’s power. It’s always about power, isn’t it?”) 

Should we be troubled by the presence- power connection? I mean, power corrupts, right? 

Maybe so, but power can liberate, too. In fact, I’m going to make a bold claim: powerlessness is at least as likely to corrupt as power is. 

How the lack of power distorts and disfigures us is important to understand. Equally critical is knowing how the possession of power — a certain kind of power — can reveal our truest selves. I love what Howard Thurman, the author and civil rights leader, wrote on the subject: “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” 

Are you going to pull your own strings or are you going to let someone else pull them for you?

Excerpted from PRESENCE Copyright © 2018 by Amy Cuddy.
Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

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