Power and identity


Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Most things in this life come down to power and identity.

Whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, our actions are a response to our perception of where our power lies and what our identity is. This can drive people to act out in anger and violence because it’s the only form of power they have access to. And over time it becomes embedded as part of their identity. They begin to believe that “My power is violence because that is who I am.”

Some of the heaviest topics of 2020 and 2021 come down to power and identity. Racism and privilege go hand in hand. Your privilege is part of your power no matter how you see it, and as “un-racist” as you intend to be, anti-racism and pro-minority movements are a threat to the power and identity of majorities. Either because they need to have advantage over another to feel empowered and define who they are. Or because they worry that they will be thrown in the same boat as those who take advantage even when they want to use their power for the benefit of those who don’t have enough. It takes a strong person to hold their power with enough humility to not react to threats, whichever side of the debate you are on.

Now, these are big topics. But the identity-power dynamic plays out in arenas with less media attention. For micromanagers, often their power is their attention to detail and when the detail is in the hands of someone else, they feel their power -- and their identity as someone who has attention to detail -- slipping away. This is a classic trap for someone highly skilled at the technical aspects of their craft who has moved into management. (I know, I was one)

Now I am not painting this picture as a treatise that we must all give up our power and our identity. It takes one look at the state of gender politics to understand that identity and our right to define ourselves runs too deep in the core of who we are as humans to give it up. We hate when someone else makes decisions about who we are based on factors we don’t believe are indicative of the truth of us – gender, skin colour, religion, sexuality, job title, suburb.

Power is just as necessary. We need the power to influence our surroundings and the people who surround us to meet our needs – have a roof over our head, food on the table, a network of support and fulfilment. And we seek out that power whether our avenues for gaining it are constructive or destructive and whether society gives us any power or not.

What’s the answer then? What can we do about the havoc that broken power and identity dynamics have on the people around us and our own lives?

As with most things, I believe the answer begins with the individual. And the only individual you truly control is yourself.

Reflect on your day today. Think about the moments when you feared someone else’s power. Now can you identify a moment when someone else feared yours? Think about moments where someone misunderstood who you were. Now can you identify a moment where you misunderstood someone else’s identity?

By finding these analogous moments between your life and someone else’s, you are applying empathy, beginning to understand what it is like to have your power and identity at stake, even if usually you consciously worry about your power or your identity.

Finally, once you understand where your power and identity are rooted, you can identify opportunities to hold your power or your identity more loosely to give space for the humans around you, who need their power and identity just as much as you do.