If I ruled the world

When power becomes a problem

Go to the profile of Brian Martin Shand
Oct 02, 2019
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An Apollo astronaut recently spoke on TV about his conviction that if you’re determined enough you can achieve anything – absolutely anything.  Faced with someone whose determination had led him to be one of only twelve people in history to walk on the moon it’s hard to argue with that.  And the spirit of his words is admirable.

And yet I wonder….   Some years back I met a man stacking shelves in a supermarket who told me he was in fact a remarkable businessman.  He had generated brilliant entrepreneurial ideas that he had sent off to some of the most famous business minds on the planet but they had unaccountably rejected them.  One of these people, Elon Musk, had also been the recipient of letters from the man telling him how his business model was deficient.  The letters too had failed to elicit astonished gratitude.  Undeterred, however, the man was determined to press on in his quest to be a magnate.  He wasn’t interested in settling for anything less.

Now, this determination too may have been commendable and the big break may have been just around the corner.  But I somehow doubt it and in the meantime I suspect the determination was keeping the man stuck and unhappy.

Omnipotence is for kids

The belief that your wishes, hopes and thoughts will automatically change external reality is called omnipotence.  And like so many things it has its roots in infancy and childhood.  A baby probably experiences itself and the world as one and the same.  So if it’s feeling hungry and someone feeds it, it will assume that it has magically created the food itself.  The awareness that other people are separate centres of control and consciousness is not yet in place.

In time the child’s belief in their own omnipotence morphs into a belief that actually their parents are the omnipotent ones.  ‘My Dad’s stronger than your Dad’.  A little while later and the child comes to the inconvenient realization that nobody has unlimited power.

And sometimes for adults

At least, one hopes that happens.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s true that for most of us a bit of healthy omnipotence lives on into adulthood.  An example would be the buzz we get when we succeed in something by imposing our will on external circumstances.  Or there’s the sense that today’s our lucky day and, sure enough, everything goes right.  We have a string of lucky breaks and it feels terrific.

But not too much

However, for some people the need to be omnipotent is a way of life.  It’s not just psychotherapists who meet people who are determined to make them behave, think and feel exactly as they do.  For these people, the experience of encountering someone who doesn’t play their game but who asserts their right to be a separate individual with their own ideas, willpower and worldview can be almost intolerable.

This omnipotence often goes hand in hand with a sense of greatness and of everyone else’s inferiority.  Which is, of course, fantasy and so we’re back to those illusions from infancy that I talked about a moment ago.

Other examples of inappropriate omnipotence range from the obsessive person who believes that by not walking on cracks in the pavement they can ward off misfortune all the way to the psychopathic person whose entire motivation is to manipulate and exert power over others, unhindered by ethical considerations.

Omnipotence as a career choice

It’s interesting that the desire for omnipotent control can be masked and made respectable by certain professions where the craving for considerable influence is actively rewarded.  One thinks, for example, of top roles in multi-nationals, politics, secret organizations, advertising, high finance, and the media and social media.  Whisper it softly but even in the Church.  Anywhere, in fact, where the exercise of real power and influence is on offer. In some cases society harnesses pathology in its service.

Why omnipotence?

The reason why omnipotence can be a favoured way of being for certain people is that it protects them.  Protects them from the  reality of the weakness, vulnerability and envy that is present in them as it is in all human beings.  Protects them too from the awareness that, in some ways and to some extent, life is out of our control.  If we’re omnipotent those things don’t apply to us.

If an individual can arrive (perhaps with the help of therapy) at a point where they can face their weakness and the pain that accompanies it and then accept the weakness and allow a healing of the pain, then it may be possible to let go of the omnipotent stance because it’s no longer necessary.

Easy to say, not so easy to achieve!

© Brian Shand 2019

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Go to the profile of Brian Martin Shand

Brian Martin Shand

I have considerable professional experience in mental health settings, having worked both in the NHS and in private practice. I am one of the very few trained and qualified group psychotherapists in private practice in Surrey. I also offer individual therapy and counselling. Please see my website for more details.

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