Yesterday I took my son for a walk in his pram. He is 5 weeks old and so won’t be taking in the sights too much, but I love to get him (and me) out in the fresh air at least once a day. It is a peaceful time while he either sleeps or looks around, perfectly content to go with the flow.
I walked past a woman walking her dog and we exchanged smiles and continued on our way. About fifteen minutes later I came across the same woman again. This time she smiled and said ‘taking him for a walk to get him to stop crying aye?’ and I replied ‘haha, hopefully!’ and carried on my way.
I reflected on this and asked myself ‘why on earth did I say that?’ he wasn’t crying or fussing – I took him for a walk because I enjoy doing it and he is perfectly happy to lay there taking it all in.
So why did I do it? I did it because I let go of the personal power I had in that conversation. The woman held the power and so I conformed instantly to the narrative she constructed. She made an assumption and I confirmed it – because I felt I had to.
This is a small and unimportant example of the dynamics of power that exist in any transaction between people. It has far greater consequences for us in different situations.
Take a visit to the GP for example. We may go to the see them because we have pain in our stomach. We have the list of symptoms in our heads, we decide what we want to tell them is really worrying us and we have an idea of what we would like the GP to do about it.
We walk in, sit down and the GP asks us why we are there. We tell them we have a pain in our stomach and may start to give some details. The GP interrupts to ask a string of questions we try to answer. How long have we had it? Where is the pain? Is it sharp or dull? Have we had a temperature? Does it hurt to cough?
The GP then taps away on the keyboard whilst telling us what they are going to do about it. They rip a prescription from the printer and tell us to come back in two weeks if it is no better. We stand up, thank them and walk out.
Then, as we are walking back to the car we get that feeling that we were not quite heard; we didn’t say all of the things we wanted to say. We didn’t get to tell them what we were worried about or ask that question we really wanted to know the answer to.
Because the balance of power in the room was weighted towards the GP. We decided they were the powerful person in that dynamic and so handed our power over to them. We did not feel we could challenge, or take up more of their time, or interrupt their flow of questions to ask a question of our own. We gave our personal power away.
If we think of our personal power like a tennis ball we carry around, we have a choice in each interaction as to what we do with it. Do we keep it? Or do we give it away?
And that decision can have a big impact on our mental health. If we are constantly giving our ball of power to the person in front of us: our GP; manager; mental health nurse; social worker; partner; children; friends; colleagues, parents – we will begin to feel powerless. Like we are not able to ask for what we want, not able to say no, not able to push back on things that are not making us feel good.
And when we live in that powerless state for any length of time, our resilience can begin to get eaten away, to the point we may experience low mood, anxiety or other mental health problems.
Holding our own boundaries is essential for good mental health. They are the way in which we protect ourselves emotionally and ensure we can sustain our resilience and overall happiness. Our boundaries let us know when we are taking on too much, when we need to take a break, when we need to say no, when we need to ask for help.
But we need to retain our personal power to keep those boundaries in place. We need to feel strong and empowered and able to feel okay with what we are saying or asking for.
We need that ball of power firmly in our own hands. It is ours to keep.