Someone asked me the other day what the hardest situation I dealt with when I was a therapist.
I had clients who suffered terrible hardships, childhood abuse, and chronic physical pain that made everyday functioning impossible.
But what sprung to mind was a young man of incredible wealth.
He had endured no hardships. Suffered no abuse at the hands of others. Was physically healthy and had endless resources at his disposal. Yet his struggles, and my struggles with them, still loom large in my mind.
His parents were permissive and uninvolved—a terrible combination it turned out, which was magnified by their wealth. This meant, in the absence of any hard stop or meaningful goalpost, decision-making became a tortuous möbius strip for him.
For months we wrestled with a decision to attend a six-month intensive training in a topic he was passionate about. But he lacked parameters for the decision. He didn’t need the certification, because he wasn’t going to have a job in the field. And though he was interested in it, he could just have easily read books or hired experts to teach him.
At one point, he paid for the course, reserved his lodging, and booked a plane ticket. I was relieved that he had made a decision. But he came in the next day, as undecided as ever. Why? Because paying for the course isn’t a decision when money is no object.
Where real-world consequences would normally be, for him, there was only empty space. With every choice being equal, it became virtually impossible for him to assess what was important.
And because he had never been truly challenged, never had to exert himself beyond what was comfortable, he couldn’t tell whether the discomforts associated with unfamiliarity, potential failure, or pending hard work were signs telling him “wrong way, go back,” or just part and parcel of the process.
This is a story of power. A power that both enables and constrains. My client had almost unfathomable freedom, but it came with a terrible cost.
His freedom came from the power of his wealth but for others, it could be positional power, seniority, or social status.
I once coached a CEO who got terrible feedback from his peers and subordinates. It was clear they found him difficult, arrogant and disengaged. His response?
“I know this about myself. It’s my style. I’m not here to be liked. I’m here to get results.”
His position inside the company comes with the freedom to disregard feedback.
But at what cost? Well, you might say there is no cost. People in power get away with it. It’s true. Up only up to a point. There is a price to pay. And while the cost of power’s freedom might not be immediate, it’s going to come due. What are some of the costs we pay?
The cost of not having consequences
It’s become a cliché to take risks and not care about consequences or failures. But actually, caring about failure, or loss can be a good thing.
By having to negotiate choices, risk making a mistake, and interrogate ourselves about our desires, goals, fears, and needs we improve our problem-solving ability.
For my client, the price he paid for not having to care about consequences was that he never got the feeling of exerting control over any outcome. He lacked any sense of agency or self-efficacy or the ability to impact the world around him in meaningful ways.
The cost of not having reciprocal relationships
My CEO client didn’t care what others thought or felt about him. His positional power, sitting atop a successful company, enabled that. He had no need to be liked and no interest in what others thought of him.
He lacked genuine, reciprocal relationships with others. He was surrounded by people, but they were dependent on him, opportunistically hanging around for the benefits they could get. But these aren’t real relationships, nor are they honest.
Obviously, caring what someone else thinks can be taken too far—but needing others’ approval and having others about whom we genuinely care benefits our emotional and social development.
Struggling to reconcile our needs with the needs of others and caring for the well-being of others builds empathy as well as insight into ourselves.
The cost of not getting feedback
The client in my first story spent endless hours focused on himself, unable to make decisions, resulting in an endless loop of self-absorption and an inability to act.
The client in my second story was also self-absorbed, blind, or uncaring about the consequences of his actions on others, which resulted in making decisions without input from others, disregarding advice, and developing an inflated—and wildly inaccurate—view of himself and his capacities. The consequence?
As he became increasingly unmoored from outside input, he made increasingly terrible decisions. And like so many others without a feedback loop, he grew more and more insular, even cultish, as he doubled down on his direction.
While it can be easy to bemoan those who seemingly get to act without consequence, the truth is that every bill eventually comes due—for everyone. No one, no matter their privilege or position is immune from the consequence of power.
The trick is to recognize the blindspots our power creates—that’s true power. And it takes personal power.
And that recognition, that awareness, that willingness to struggle, push through, and learn, is the fertile proving ground we all need to grow, improve, and use our power well.
Thanks for reading!
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