Privilege, Power, and the Pull of Powerlessness

This post appeared first on my blog, www.juliediamond.net

In an ABC news interview on June 9th, 2014, Hillary Clinton said her family left the White House in 2001 “dead broke.” With that comment, she set off a firestorm of criticism and national dialogue on privilege and wealth. For me it has less to do with Hillary as a possible presidential candidate, but a lot to do with privilege and power. It seems that no matter how great our privilege, no matter how high our status, or how lucky we may be, feelings of pain and hardship can easily trump any feeling of privilege.

Hillary and Bill left the White House, perhaps not exactly broke, but broken — exhausted, humiliated in the public eye, their marriage under assault after years of accusations, civil suits and a lengthy impeachment process for Bill’s sexual misconduct. That would be hardship for any spouse, but having to endure it all in the public eye, I can easily imagine how emotionally broke and exhausted she must have felt.

Hillary’s no different from any of us. Do you remember the last time you suffered something painful? If you’re like most people, that shouldn’t be hard. Something probably immediately comes to mind. The hardest part might be choosing the one memory out of many that come to mind. But what about the last you time hurt someone else? Were unfair to someone else? Caused another pain? That just may be harder.

Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University co-wrote a little article in 2001 called Bad is Stronger than Good that explains why:

Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones.

Think about it for a moment. How long do you obsess over an insult? When you get feedback, do you anticipate positive feedback as much as you dread negative feedback? And when you receive an evaluation for your work, how much do you weigh the negative feedback, in contrast to the positive feedback? If someone you love hurts your feelings, does the memory of that linger as long as the last time they said “I love you” did?

When it comes to dialogue around social justice, getting people to “own” their privilege proves to be quite difficult. Debates rage over this, but what’s missing is this psychological truth: it’s easier to feel low rank than it is to feel high rank. And it’s not just defensiveness, unconsciousness, or bias. When comparing suffering to privilege, suffering has greater emotional valence.

When it comes to leadership and power, this accounts for one of the most common and difficult traps of power (which I’ve written about before): feeling powerless. No matter how high one’s rank, leaders at every level are quick to admit to a lack of power:

  • CEOs feel thwarted by boards, unions, or regulatory agencies.
  • Teachers feel threatened by a smart aleck student.
  • Doctors rush through informing patients of bad news because they’re afraid of emotional responses.
  • Bosses avoid intervening in a staff dispute, paralyzed by fear of conflict.

It’s much, much easier to experience oneself as the victim of someone else’s abuse of power than to see our own. In his piece in The Atlantic, “How I became an unfair teacher,” Ben Orlin writes:

A moment the teacher barely remembers might stick with the student for years. This was a frightening realization for me. Classroom lessons may slip quickly through students’ fingers, but the classroom experience lingers in memory. Each teacher offers students a different model of authority and justice. We set our own standards of fairness and sometimes fail to honor them. A teacher swings a heavy club, and we can leave big, purple bruises if we’re not careful.

Everything we do, in a high ranking role, is experienced by others through the magnifying glass of our power. That is a responsibility to hold with awareness. But compounding that is the psychological asymmetry between how we feel and how our actions are received. Inside that high ranking role, under the robes of our rank, we can feel small, hurt, insecure and threatened. If something happens to trigger a wound or constellate the feeling of low rank, whether actual, imagined, or historical, these feelings are so strong that we revert right back to that low rank identity, forgetting our high rank role, and acting only from our low rank state.

What to do? Well, what not to do is to rely on your feelings as an accurate barometer to gauge what’s happening. If we occupy a high ranking role, it’s important that we get to know the low ranking experiences that still haunt us, and be mindful of where, when, and how they might intervene. But along with that, and equally, if not more importantly, we need to consider how we come across from the other’s perspective. We need a sort of “hyper-empathy” that allows us to see ourselves and our actions from the other’s perspective. If normal empathy is the ability to see the world through the others’ eyes, hyper-empathy is to see ourselves through the eyes of others. If we do that, we might just see how large we loom, despite how small we feel.

Marshall Goldsmith calls my latest book, Power: A User’s Guide, “enormously helpful both to those in positions of power and those who wish to be.” Learn more and read an excerpt here.

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