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Entries categorized "sexual harassment"

Imbalance of Power and Authority Exists Everywhere

By Elayne Savage, PhD

Lots of current news stories focusing on the sexual harassment/assault/abuse cesspool. Many brave women and men coming forth with painful memories and stories they have pushed away for years.CanstockphototheheatisonAs you are most likely aware, growing lists of women and men are describing sexually inappropriate behaviors, suggestive comments, bullying, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual assault, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.

They describe all kinds of predatory behavior: being groped, fondled, kissed, raped. And lots of stories about these men walking around naked. Many report feeling intimidated by perceived or actual threats to their careers if they say “No.”

The problem, however, is so much bigger than auditions, movie sets and casting couches . . . or the recent #MeToo stories involving journalists, and politicians.

The problem is more pervasive, more systemic and often more subtle than the sense of entitlement that drives some people in powerful positions to blur, transgress and breach personal boundaries.

Seems to me part of the problem is these folks don't have a clue about what constitutes personal space and personal boundaries. If you don't understand what they are, how can you respect them?

Abuse of Power Exists Everywhere

I’m writing this blog to spotlight the wide-ranging problem behind the media headlines.

The problem is the imbalance and misuse of power and authority that permeates all industries and venues. There has been very little written about this abuse of power and authority and its long-term effects.

Getting back for a minute to the media’s focus on celebrities – how famous and powerful people are newly identified as Sexual Predators and Sexual Abusers. Harvey Weinstein and James Toback are surely prominent in these stories. I was amazed at how Toback’s accusers grew almost overnight from 30 to 300. And one by one the perps are being identified and called out. Some have had honors withheld, some have been fired.

#MeToo is giving men and women permission and courage to move past the shame and fear and finally tell their stories of abusive experiences and traumatic memories. Some of these memories go back as far as childhood and teen years. It takes so much courage to reach deep inside, reach past the pain and be public with these very private secrets.

The Real Problem: Imbalance and Misuse of Power and Authority

Power relationships exist in a wide range of industries and venues: with bosses, coaches,  mentors, teachers, physicians and other health professionals, social workers, psychotherapists, attorneys, religious and spiritual leaders. And let’s not forget the power of bigger-than-life cult-like figures. What groups have I left out here?

(See link below toward end of the blog for descriptions of some cult-like personality features.)

Some Power Abuses are Low Visibility but High Frequency . . .

Subtle and overlooked misuses and abuses of power and control exist all around us.

Abuse of power and authority can be obvious or subtle, intended or not. It exists due to status imbalance in personal and professional relationships.

In my consulting and therapy practice, I hear stories about power relationships in the workplace as well as between couples in counseling. I hear descriptions of disrespectful, dismissive, discounting, faulting interactions. I hear about blaming and not taking responsibility for actions by making the other person ‘wrong and bad.’

CanstockphotosupertherapistIn my workshops when I describe how situations can be controlling and sometimes coercive, attendees are somewhat surprised at the idea of doctors or coaches or teachers or psychotherapists having so much power. They begin to understand as I describe how students, patients and clients understandably perceive their ‘helpers’ as experts and authorities, yet they may tend to give up their own power whenever there's a need to see them as ‘all powerful.’

There have been times when it it feels like some clients unknowingly give me a lot of power. Part of my job is to stay aware and not inadvertently step into that role. This can surely be difficult for those of us who think of ourselves as ‘the helper.’

Examples would be when I offer a client a new approach to a problem or encourage re-framing a negative perception to positive or suggest the possibility of considering options and choices. I try not to tell someone what to do, yet sometimes clients seem to want advice, to be told what to do. When I notice it, this has been a fruitful topic to explore with them.

Many years ago when I was a first-year psychology graduate student, I was required to read Power in the Helping Professions by Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig.

My dusty, dog-eared copy is 34 years old now. Even though some ideas are outdated, I appreciate the richness of the Jungian archetypal perspectives as a nice adjunct to my Family Systems way of thinking.

I find myself often re-reading and re-thinking these important subtle power and authority issues.

Because I’ve been in the helping professions for decades as a Child Protective Services and Long-term Placement social worker and as a psychotherapist in private practice, I am reminded every working day of the power so often bestowed upon me and the power I might be wrapping myself in whenever I define myself as ‘the helper.’

I actually see our work as rolling up our sleeves and working together in teamwork. Yet, sometimes I notice ‘the helper’ role creeping in. It’s difficult to shed; after all, it’s been my ‘job-description’ since I was a child!

This kind of power and authority imbalance is much less visible of course than the news stories of sexual power and abuse by celebrities. The trauma, however, exists in all these stories.

What if someone puts their 'helper' on a pedestal, and perhaps has unrealistic expectations of that person? What happens if the 'helper' happens to show another side of their personality and disappoints these idealistic expectation

We have been reading about the darker side of some of our favorite entertainment personalities and politicians.These discoveries of unacceptable behaviors can happen in lots of our everyday interactions and it is almost always a disappointing discovery, especially if we've elevated our 'helper' person and they come crashing down.

As I often say: disappointment often feels like rejection . . . and rejection hurts.

"It’s about getting away with something....that's exciting"

I just read a fascinating piece by Mimi Kramer on ‘The Double Life of the “Respectable” Men Who Harass Women.’ I don’t agree with everything she says, however her personal observations are a good read:

“That, right there — I’d argue — is the impulse behind sexual harassment. It’s about getting away with something. It’s about seeming to be one sort of person.…while really being A Very Bad Boy. That’s exciting for some men. Not the being bad part. The getting-away-with-it part. It isn’t just about power over individuals, the women you victimize. It’s about power over society and the court of public opinion, the thrill of risking everything on one roll of the dice, knowing that it isn’t really all that much of a risk — because nobody will believe her.”

(See the link below)

This sure reminds me of Donald Trump's "You can do anything" boast on the Access Hollywood tape which was made public on October 7, 2016. And his reward for this ‘get-away-with-it’ attitude towards women? One month and one day later a national election propelled him into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!

Reliving the Trauma –– Memories Come Flooding Back

#MeToo has been giving many of us permission to recall and tell our stories of traumatic experiences from inappropriate power plays.

I was surprised when I, too, just revisited a creepy re-emerging memory from decades ago. I thought I had buried it because I was afraid, if I allowed myself to remember, that painful young-adult-hard-to-deal-with shame would come flooding back. And it did, of course.

This experience was with a college professor who taught a required course for my major. One day he asked me to stay a few minutes after class, and when the room was empty he said some shockingly inappropriate things to me. I didn’t know what to do or how to respond. It was so confusing. I went numb and don’t remember what I did or said before I gathered the presence of mind to leave the room. I probably stood there and listened for too long, unable to protect myself from his mortifying words. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before.

Back in those days it was pretty unheard of to report a professor to the Dean – I would have worried the instructor would have found a reason to flunk me. 

So I just went invisible in class, never opened my mouth again to contribute and was always the first one out the door. I avoided him as much as possible from that day forward.

I began dwelling on what I might have said or done to bring on his dirty, slimy comments. Yes, I blamed myself – for years.

And these kinds of degrading experiences, large and small, stockpile in our memory bank. Many times I have walked blocks out of my way to avoid the obscene comments yelled out from construction sites.

I’ve also taken pains to avoid a co-worker who likes to tell dirty jokes or make graphic remarks. Whenever this would happen I’d remember Anita Hill’s testimony about her ex-boss Clarence Thomas when he was interviewed for the Supreme Court. He, too, was rewarded for his crude and  in his in his black-robed boundary-less behavior –– and decades later he is still sitting on the bench in his black SCOTUS robes!

#MeToo stories are allowing buried memories to come back and often involves reliving the trauma. Here I am decades later vividly recalling the creepiness and humiliation of that incident with the professor. My skin crawls as I think of it. I can’t remember his name, but I can clearly see that short, squat, body stuffed into his rumpled, ill-fitting suit, his bushy eyebrows and ugly face.

Remembering it now, I still feel dirty.

An observation: I'm noticing that as accusations grow about the behaviors of these powerful celebrity folks, the media sometimes compares the ‘severity’ of one incident to another.

Trauma is trauma. We each have our unique responses and long-term repercussions. We each live with whatever fearful and self-rejecting messages the traumatic experience leads us to take in about ourselves, about the safety of our world and whether we can trust the people in it.

This is especially true if, in our early years, there were inappropriate or abusive personal boundary crossings which affected our feelings of safety and trust. Each new situation might be somewhat different, however our visceral response is very recognizable.

We can expect the original fear to re-surface if we find ourselves in another unsafe moment and as we read these #MeToo stories. For some of us this can be similar to a PTSD-like experience.

Over the years clients have confided how relieved they were to finally learn a term that provides a framework for what happened to them as teens or young adults: One of the most common examples is, “Oh, now I see that was an attempted ‘date rape.’” When I was first introduced to that term it helped me as well. I can certainly relate to what that kind of fear and trauma feels like.

I can add that term to my ever-expanding list of dehumanizing experiences.

Here are the links I refer to earlier:

Does 'The Art of the Deal' Mean Selling Your Soul? where I list some very Donald J. Trump-ish characteristics of cult leaders.

The Double Life of the “Respectable” Men Who Harass Women

© Elayne Savage


Until next month,



Elayne Savage is the author of ground-breaking relationship books published in 9 languages.

Both books are now available on Kindle!



You can use the articles in 'Tips from The Queen of Rejection'® as long as you include an attribution and, whenever possible, a live link to my website. I'd appreciate if you'd notify me where and when the material will appear.

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December 31, 2017

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