Changing the Balance of Power in Relationships

Relationships with other people tend to be unequal in power and control. One individual will take a more dominant position even though the difference may be small. In the past, this inequality was the norm. In today’s world, there is a struggle for equality in most relationships except for the medical domain. Here, we focus upon mental health and specifically the realm of psychology.

In this realm, there are cultural mores that support the power imbalance and perpetuate it.  It is accepted that, the clinician is the “expert” who is perceived as the authority. This power imbalance is part of our cultural heritage that prescribes that individuals should strive to be strong individuals who are self-responsible, independently functioning and highly motivated to achieve personal goals.

The person who is seeking help, according to Western culture is dependent, unable to resolve his problems, and in a weak or sick condition that requires help in managing his life.

These type of power imbalances interfere with growth and change.

Growth occurs in an environment where the person feels he has the strength and the ability to actively transform his life. When people perceive themselves as passive and ineffective, there is less chance that they will take an active part in the process of making the difficult transitions in thought and emotion that are the core of achieving life satisfaction.

Relinquishing Power

Relinquishing power is not an easy task in Western culture, but it can be done in the interest of empowering others. My journey in this regard has been supported by the teachings of Buddha and Eastern holistic cultural traditions that have greatly influenced my approach to clinical practice and relationships in general.

Buddhism is a philosophy with an aim of empowering people. Its central premise is that all people have  the innate capacity to triumph in any circumstances in which they find themselves, to work together for the happiness of all and to free them from suffering.

In any field, a person who aids the development of another may be regarded as a mentor. In Buddhism, which is concerned with human happiness and development, the mentor-disciple relationship is fundamental.

The foundation of the relationship between mentor and disciple in Buddhism is the shared pledge to work together to achieve healing.

Eastern philosophy also posits that individuals who are in emotional pain seek relief even when they perceive that that pain is more physical than emotional.

When there appears to be resistance to the helping effort, whether it’s because of a fear of the process or shame of the condition, the six elements that follow create the conditions for the person to actively collaborate in the healing process in order to reduce that resistance and facilitate participation.

 The Six Elements–Part 1

  • The six elements begin with control and the ability to shed the mantle of “expert” that puts other individuals on an unequal basis. People who come for help as well as others seek a degree of mastery and the knowledge that their thoughts and actions can produce desired results. A collaborative approach will stimulate the other person to more freely share feelings and thoughts.
  • The second element is silence. Non-verbal communication thrives when the air is not filled with chatter or the clutter of interpretations and explanations. Silence also promotes reflection and is conducive for people to bring up memories that contain important information.
  • The third element is acknowledgement.  It is vital to accept without judgment or rapid interpretation the other’s bare feelings of distress even when they are emotions or thoughts that are difficult to hear.
  • The fourth element follows closely on the heels of acknowledgment and it is respect without pathologizing. This element applies primarily to feelings of grief but also to shyness, rebelliousness and frustration that tends to be shifted into diagnostic categories.

Labeling and diagnosing weakens the individual’s will to act and to master the overall situation. The stigma attached to labeling may feel oppressive. The reality that many “emotional symptoms” are reactions to life experiences and not signs of an illness can be liberating to many people.

Focusing upon the experiences themselves and not symptoms is essential for promoting adaptive and satisfying changes. In cases of depression and anxiety, for example, the individual is often overwhelmed and preoccupied with his symptoms and the self-focus perpetuates his holding onto the belief that it is his fault and because of his own weakness. Shifting the focus relieves the burden.

  • The fifth element is transformation. A crisis or change in the status quo may be a time for positive changes and sharing this belief is central to the other person’s view of the situation as opportunity rather than loss and a source of shame.
  • The sixth element is action   Encourage and reinforce individuals to be active rather than passive participants in their own transforming strategies.

Balance concept image available from Shutterstock

Changing the Balance of Power in Relationships

Margaret Altman, LCSW, MSW

Margaret Altman is a crisis intervention specialist and has intervened in many explosive situations within jails, emergency rooms, suicide prevention centers and psychiatric units. She is a featured writer on the Mad in America website and has more more than 35 years of experience as an LCSW in psychiatry, corrections and private practice. Her book, "Developing Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence" is on Amazon. Margaret currently focuses on issues of minority and marginalized populations in order to give them a voice in the mental health domain.


APA Reference
Altman, M. (2015). Changing the Balance of Power in Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 31 Aug 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 Aug 2015
Published on All rights reserved.