Practicing to hold our selves safely in the face of resentful responses to our acting from our empowered fullness in a world in which power is typically perceived as power-over, as limited in availability.
Vulnerability of Power
To be openly empowered is an act of vulnerability.
During my first year in private practice (1967, my second year out of graduate school) one of my former mentors called to refer one of his male patients to me for diagnostic testing. The mentor was a well-known, highly regarded elder psychiatrist who had taught our psychotherapy practicum. He had also become, outside the confines of that seminar, an odd sort of friend and emotional-overseer to me during one summer when my first therapist (a close friend of his) was out of the country on vacation.
Dr. X offered the referral as a grand gesture of faith in me at the start of my career. He said he "was trusting" me to do the testing and write the report. But, he stipulated, I must, "in light of your inexperience," consult on the results with Dr Y, the woman who had trained my class in advanced diagnostic testing techniques.
Dr. Y, an elder of some considerable reputation in her field, had consistently astonished my class with her capacity to uncover the bones of the people we had examined. She never failed to weave our piles of test results into living breathing beings revealed in their complex, nuanced vulnerability. In her seminars I had often felt mystified, clod-like in my bumbling attempts to follow her trance-like flights into the unconscious symbolic language of our clients. I felt uneasy about returning to consult with this woman with whom I had never felt quite comfortable.
Still, once I had set up the testing time with the patient, I called Dr. Y to arrange the consultation. She was surprisingly warm and cordial with me, so I relaxed and prepared for our meeting. We had a marvelous time working together on the materials and preliminary conceptions that I had brought. I felt none of my earlier cloddishness. Delighted with my reflections on the test results, she enthusiastically applauded the richness and depth of my understanding of this patient's psyche as we laughed and played with the materials.
I returned several days later, bringing a draft of my report for her review. In this second hour together, I sought her counsel on how to charge for my work. I was paying her for two hours of consultation time. I'd spent almost two hours testing the person, another two hours or so ruminating and pondering the results and yet another two hours working up the two-page report. She told me that it was appropriate for me to bill the client for my pondering time, my composing time and my time consulting with her as well as for the consulting fee I was paying to her. While the final figure of $250 ($160 for my eight hours, $90 for her two) seemed fair, I felt a bit uncomfortable with it.
In addressing my discomfort, Dr. Y reminded me of something that she thought I already knew. Apparently, Dr. X had first called her to do the testing for him. When she'd told him that she was no longer doing testing, he'd asked for a referral to someone "who'd do the kind and quality of work you would." Dr. Y had immediately recommended me to him as her "finest protégé." Dr. X had also asked her if she would consult with me on the case. She'd told him that, though she thought that it would be unnecessary, she'd be happy to work with me again if that was what he wanted.
I sat there stunned: Amazed by the news that she had so respected my capacities that she would consider me her finest protégé and refer him to me as someone who could do the kind of job she could do. Astonished that I'd never had any sense that she had noted or valued what had felt like my clumsy efforts in our seminar.
I felt even more stunned by the realization that this man – whom I had considered a benevolent friend/mentor – had, by the way he presented the referral and his request that I consult with Dr. Y on it, misrepresented the truth, neglecting to disclose both the fact and the content of his conversation with Dr. Y. Such disclosure would have involved him in acknowledging her respect for my expertise, her glowing recommendation of me as a stand-in for her and her acceptance of me as a full colleague. Instead, he'd presented his referral as a boon he, as grand pooh-bah, was generously bestowing upon me – the very green, inexperienced, not totally qualified novice who would need an expert's consultation to assure the quality of the report produced.
I went home to type the final draft of the report (essentially unchanged by the consultation with Dr. Y) feeling perplexed by this new view of Dr. X. The next day, I hand-delivered the report to him at his office before I began afternoon hours seeing my own clients. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with the new perspective I had on the episode, so I said nothing. As agreed, I mailed the bill for my services directly to his patient, a corporate CEO living in an affluent suburb north of New York City.
A week later, at 7:00 A.M. one morning, Dr. X's call woke me from a sound sleep. (A habitual early riser, he never considered that other people might not be awake when he was.) Sputtering in a fulminating rage, he was shouting so loudly that I had to hold the phone well away from my ear. Standing there in my nightshirt as he ranted like a man possessed, I slowly got the gist of what had so infuriated him. The more I understood of what he was saying the more appalled I became.
His patient had, the evening before, told him about my bill for $250. Apparently the patient's wife had simultaneously been psychologically tested by "a very well experienced" male psychologist in the affluent suburb in which the couple lived. That psychologist had charged $250 for his evaluation of the patient's wife. That psychologist's report had been typed "without any strikeovers or erasures on an IBM Selectric typewriter" (a rather classy electric typewriter fairly new in those days). Dr X was enraged that I had the audacity – with my "inexperience, short skirts, long hair and poor typewriting"– to think that I had a right to charge $250 for my work.
Dr. X raved on about how he'd had to struggle, suffer and pay his dues. How he'd had to live on a pittance for many years while making his way up through the ranks as a medical intern and resident before he could begin to be paid reasonably for his time. He was furious with me for having the temerity, at this early point in my career, to ask to be paid the same rate as the much more senior male psychologist.
I listened with shocked disbelief. This man had been my proud mentor: an outspoken supporter, frequently articulating his appreciation of my skills and development as a clinician. Now, after lying by omission about the circumstances surrounding the referral and consultation with Dr. Y, he was acting like a raving lunatic, saying things that were unconscionable and deranged.
Though the intense energy of his raging left me physically trembling, the absurdity of its content left me clear-headed enough to respond immediately with a cold anger of my own. When he'd finished blasting at me, I calmly pointed out that what I wore, how long my hair was, how proficiently the report was typed and how long I'd been in the field were totally irrelevant to the quality of the insights offered in my report. I told him that I believed, and Dr. Y concurred, that the quality of these insights was excellent and highly pertinent to the questions he presented to be addressed in the testing.
"That the harsh protocol of medical training required financial sacrifices from you," I told him, "has absolutely no bearing on my decision to charge a reasonable fee for my time. I'm my own sole source of support; I can't afford to give away my professional time. Besides, why would I even consider doing such a thing?"
I told him how despicable I thought it was of him to treat me as if he were doing me some great favor by offering me the referral. I told him how appalled I was by his deliberate misrepresentation. I informed him that Dr. Y had told me that when he had asked, she had recommended me as her choice of the best person to stand in for her.
I informed him that $90 dollars of the $250 fee was to pay for the consultation time with Dr. Y, time that he had stipulated. I told him that I now knew she thought that that consultation was unnecessary. I informed him that the fee I set for my time had been arrived at in the consultation with Dr. Y who thought it was a reasonable fee for the number of my hours involved.
He responded saying that if I were "going to act in this way, to charge these rates," he'd surely "never again refer anyone to" me. My response was immediate: "If you're going to act and talk to me in this completely unacceptable way, you can keep your referrals." Then I hung up. We never spoke again.
The whole situation had been a minefield. A psychiatrist in the position of having to request psychological diagnostic expertise to help him to understand the psyche of a patient was, in those years, rarely happy about needing such assistance. That it was a female, considerably junior psychologist who'd actually been a recent student of the psychiatrist made the situation even more fraught for him. That the patient involved was an outwardly imposing, traditional, powerful male whose psychological profile revealed an inner life of extreme fearfulness, insecurity and emotional stunting along with a desperate yearning to be taken care of by a mothering figure – well, that put it all over the top.
I chewed for a while on what had happened between my mentor and me. Obviously, he was unable to tolerate my fledging into my own fullness and competence. His message was straightforward: were I to choose to step into my own authority rather than to defer to his, he would no longer be willing to mentor my professional evolution and would completely withdraw his support of me.
Earlier that year, when I had sent out formal announcements of the opening of my private practice, both my other primary mentors had reacted in parallel and equally shocking ways. One of these mentors was the professor who had been the chair of my dissertation committee, my research mentor through all four years of graduate school, the person for whom I had run a research lab before he invited me to enroll into the graduate program he chaired and a man who generally introduced me as his professional protégé in a variety of research settings. This mentor mailed back my formal announcement with a handwritten note penciled on it: "Et tu Brute!"
I never saw a way to respond to this, to his feeling betrayed by my choice to practice as a clinician rather than as the research/experimental psychologist he would have had me be. We never spoke again.
The second of these other mentors was the woman professor who had helped me to find my first therapist. She had been a significant influence in my decision to expand my academic concentration from experimental psychology into clinical psychology. She had hired me as her teaching assistant for the laboratory sections of the Rorschach course even before I had officially changed my major. She was ardently vocal about my creativity and intuition as a clinician, always lobbying for me to make a commitment to honoring those skills.
She, extremely distressed, called me the day after she received my announcement. She told me she couldn't believe that I would presume to be ready to set out on my own at this stage of my development. She told me that I had "no business" starting a private practice until I had, as she herself had had, several years of postgraduate training under my belt, that there was still so much for me to learn. I agreed that there was still an enormous amount to learn. And, I reminded her of our many discussions of how much of the learning came from just doing the work and having some quality supervision/consultation available. I explained that postgraduate school felt like boot camp hazing in which I had no interest. "Well," she exclaimed, horrified, "there's absolutely no way I'd ever refer anyone to you if you didn't enroll in a program!" That ended our relationship. We never spoke again.
In these experiences with my three official mentors, I learned a stark, painful lesson about how vulnerable we can become when we act confidently from our own inner authority inside a system where such empowerment is viewed as a threat to the existing power structure.
In the patriarchal white male paradigm, power is measured by the degree of one's authority over others. One is seen as powerful in the exact measure that one can command and direct the behavior of others hierarchically beneath them, under their jurisdiction. In most settings, this power (power-over) is viewed as a limited commodity in a closed system. The more power one person claims the less there is available for all others in the system. One's power, thus construed, is guarded jealously.
When someone lower in the pecking order attempts to take up their own authority, those in power experience this as a threat to their position. Typically they respond suppressively to such attempts. Invalidation – undermining the credibility of the person they see as a challenger – is frequently the form that suppression takes. Invalidating others becomes the way of revalidating one's challenged self. This "I have it, you can't get it!" "You're less therefore I'm more" stance is a power operation. Power operations are the acts and stances by which insecure people, unable to authorize and empower themselves, move repeatedly toward diminishing others to enhance their own illusion that they are more powerful.
In the Sacred Feminine paradigm, power is construed as self-empowerment, emerging from and expanding with our growing capacity to authorize our selves, to give our selves permission to own and to manifest all of who we are as beings. When we have our own permission to be and to be becoming all of who we are, we recognize power as an unlimited quantity. We have room for those around us to claim all of their own authority as well. Their self-authorizing behaviors do not in any way limit our own. We are in an open system where, in fact, one's empowering her self can encourage and engender the conditions under which others feel freer to similarly empower themselves, claiming their own authority.
When we are empowered, we have no need for power operations: everyone's truth and everyone's being matters. We can and do rejoice in others' fullness. My experience with Dr. Y's delight in and encouragement of my fullness and competence was a perfect example of the Sacred Feminine paradigm in motion. The world-at-large, regrettably, does not yet generally reflect this paradigm.
When we authorize our selves to act from our own fullness in a world where power is still primarily perceived as power-over and limited in availability, our behavior may call forth unpleasant responses from those around us. Perceived as having something others may not feel themselves to have, we may become vulnerable to their resentment, envy, and/or attempts to cut-us-down-to-size. On the other end of the continuum, we may be subject to their idolization, adulation and the uneasy objectification that comes with such idealization.
In the midst of such challenge, we learn to continue to practice acting from our deepest selves; we practice being openly vulnerable and openly empowered. We keep learning about how to hold our selves more safely at these edges. We commit to not dimming our lights. And, as we continue, we are lighting the way for each other. For those at the edge of birthing themselves into their own fullness, our continuing gives hope and kindles belief in the possibility of a world in which we are each and all empowered and safe.
A footnote to this tale: It was actually many years before I finally recognized that I had been abandoned by all of my significant mentors at the moment I fledged into my own independent practice as a psychologist. Sadly, the repeated, similarly unrecognized abandonments by my mother throughout my childhood and adolescence had prepared me to take these events in stride. I experienced them as unpleasant but not really unexpected responses to my choosing to listen to my own heart. Like so many of us, I had figured out, early on and by necessity, how to go on by my self when no one outside me was there to support me.
My first psychotherapy practice actually grew easily from word of mouth through friends and then though the people who'd become my clients. I've always been grateful that I chose not to pay the price required to stay connected with those mentors. Still, as I've come to recognize the repeated abandonment to which that young, ebullient me was subject, I have grieved deeply for the losses she never quite felt on a conscious level. And, as I've been writing this piece, so many years later, I've found my self experiencing an even deeper layer of sorrow than I'd yet felt for that dear, courageous young woman that I was.
Consider holding your empowered self gently and with great care.