Existential Power

January 9th, 2010 by Collin Canright | Filed under Philosophy, Psychology.

In physics, power is the rate at which work is performed or energy is converted: power equals work divided by time. Personal power is similar, in that it is a conversion of personal energy over time.

Personal power is the ability of an individual to affect and influence his or her environment, to make something happen within himself, in another individual, in a group, or in society at large. This implies that every individual has power, just by the nature of being human. All people are power.

I have been completing an overview paper on personal power for my masters’ work at the Wright Graduate Institute for the Realization of Human Potential. One of the first things that’s apparent in the personal power area of competence is that power is mostly written about directly in terms of political and economic power, where power concerns the degree of control on person exercises over another, not personal power, where power is inherent in an individual for that individual to use, or not, for personal growth and development.

Yet the concept of a person having, even being, power is inherent in philosophy. Here’s the portion of my paper that covers personal power from an existentialist point of view:

Existential psychologists focus on experience in contrast to behavior. In philosophical terms, existentialists believe that existence precedes essence. Humans experience life (existence) and make their own meaning (essence) through the choices they make. They do not come into the world with a predefined essence and a predetermined course of life but with the free will and ability to choose.

Choice itself is the essence of existence, and a person’s life is the sum total of the choices that he made. The past is the sum of choices, and the future does not exist until a choice is made, at which point it’s the past. Given that people can exercise choice, they are, by nature, powerful, for choice entails the ability to act, to channel energy in a way that has an effect on the world, either internal or external.

Personal power from an existentialist point of view, then, lies in the individual’s free will and ability to choose. Individuals chose their lives and the experiences that make up their lives. As a result, individuals have the power to make their lives as they will, which means that they can change the course of their lives by making different choices.

In psychotherapy, existential influences include the emphasis on individuals’ freedom and responsibility for their own existence, the process of becoming an individual, the challenge to authenticity in existence, and the positive role of anxiety as a medium for change and growth. In terms of methodology, existential psychotherapy requires, Donald Moss wrote in
Existential-Phenomenological Alternatives for Psychology‎, an “authentic encounter in the present moment between two existing individuals.”

German existentialist and phenomenological philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that one of the essential characteristics of human existence is that they are “thrown” into the world. They exist in a network of circumstances, relationships, and history that they have not chosen. “(Existential) psychotherapy challenges the individual to take this “thrownness” and make it in some way “my own,” to take the facts and particularities and create of them a new life that is uniquely an expression of oneself,” Moss wrote.

Personal power, again, lies in individuals choosing to take responsibility for their life situation and the choices they make. Existential psychologists working in clinical practice challenge the individual to “own” their choices and take responsibility for them, to see how they have used their personal power of choice to make their own meaning or life and to further use their power to make life anew.

As a result of that personal power, people make a project of their lives, either consciously or unconsciously, in the view of existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sarte. Sartre conceived of the individual’s life project as a “fundamental project of being.” Key elements of the project of being are a spirit of playfulness, as opposed to seriousness, and a quality of full engagement in living. As Dr. Robert Wright wrote in an unpublished paper:

This includes responsibility for his life in all the aforementioned positions; a quality of commitment to principle and a sense of purpose as with Kierkegaard and Heidegger; a willingness to tell the truth fully as Nietzsche defined; and a quality of playful engagement in living as seen in Nietzsche and Sartre. There appears to be a consensus among the existentialists regarding these essentials of the individual’s life project.

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