“The exercise of power is not simply a relationship between partners, individual or collective; it is a way in which certain actions modify others.”
Power is a tricky thing to talk about. Typically, when I bring up the notion of power, I unintentionally raise the level of discomfort in the room—whether it be a room full of therapists or family members. This is because power, as an idea, has a bad reputation.
In the larger social discourse, power is usually discussed in terms of its abuses. Our news headlines often make reference to scandalous leaders who’ve used their power to fulfill self-interests or harm others. We watch movies and television shows where cautionary tales about the danger of power abound. As an idea, power is seen as dirty, corrupt, or greedy.
The problem with this view is that it misconstrues what power actually is. By itself, power has no positive or negative attributes. It’s not good or bad on its own. It just is. It’s simply a force that makes something happen. Without power, all things—humans, objects, events—remain idle.
Power in Family Therapy
In the family counseling world, we’re a little obsessed with power. We want to know who has it, when they have it, how they use it, and what happens when it’s lost. We’re curious about how it was originally distributed, whether it changes as members get older, and which members take over when a power position is vacated. Without assessing and fully grasping the power dynamics in families, a therapist can’t effectively intervene.
Mapping these power dynamics is an effective tool family therapists use all the time. We create depictions that map out the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of power distribution within a given family.
We use these maps to carefully plan and time our interventions. In a way, it’s our own “superpower” that gives us x-ray vision into the inner-workings of a family machine. With it, we can make necessary and appropriate changes at just the right time.
About ten years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my therapy superpower was useful to me in other arenas as well—namely, the California legislature.
Taking on Conversion Therapy
A few family therapists, including myself, were approached by a gay-rights lobby interested in proposing a new law regarding mental health in the queer community. A legislator had recently learned about “conversion therapy”—otherwise known as “reparative therapy,” “sexual orientation change efforts,” or “straight camps.” Their goal was to create legislation that would ban this practice in California.
This was a controversial proposal for a number of reasons. Conversion therapy, or some form of it, has existed for decades. Despite the growing ethical concerns around actually using it as a treatment method, it was still viewed as a legitimate option by a considerable amount of the public. It’s also extremely difficult to pass a ban that restricts an entire profession from using their own professional judgment regarding what they think is best for a given client.
This was going to be a battle.
I was in unfamiliar territory. I didn’t have the same amount of advocacy experience as my peers. I found myself in early meetings with some of the smartest and most politically-savvy people I had ever met. My lack of knowledge and know-how was glaring. At first, I was intimidated. But as I observed and gathered information—learning as much as I could about the issue, the players, and the game—something felt familiar.
Using My Superpower Outside of Therapy
I realized that I was conducting an internal assessment, the same way I would if I were meeting a family for the first time. When this dawned on me, I pulled out my trusty pad and markers, and began to create a power map.
Rather than focusing on my anxiety and self-consciousness, I began to listen for clues around power dynamics and distribution. We all wanted to effect change—a big one—and so we needed to know what any family therapist needs to know. Where is the power, and how is it used?
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my counseling tool could be so useful. In the process of crafting—and ultimately passing—a major piece of legislation, I discovered that power dynamics in Sacramento are not at all what they appear to be. Like families, power can be hidden in the most unexpected places.
I learned that more was accomplished during a five-minute hallway conversation between staffers than in formal hearings or meetings with higher-ups. I learned that a short email to the right staffer at the right time leapfrogged us through committee votes that could have otherwise shut us down.
I was amazed to realize that Sacramento was one big family—complete with all the same roles, rules, and procedures.
Power Mapping Can Be Used Anywhere
California’s ban on reparative therapy for minors was signed into law in September 2012, and now serves as a model for other states considering similar legislation. As of this writing, a total of 20 states have adopted laws to protect children from the dangers of reparative therapy.
My experience ten years ago led to repeated use of my power-mapping tool. I found myself relying on it a few more times in Sacramento—and then tested it out with a university department that had recently hired me.
I wondered whether it applied to simple irritations like dealing with my insurance provider, or getting my IRS refund. Sure enough, I’ve been happy to learn that a power map can be used pretty much everywhere. And when I use it with discipline, I’m able to effect change on both small and large scales.
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