03/14/2011 04:51 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Workarounds: Who Holds Power over You?

Last week, I posted an article about the apparent need so many feel people to defend, explain and justify themselves. I was a bit surprised by how many people viewed the article and how widely it spread across the Internet. For the most part, readers seemed to resonate with the notion that defending, explaining and justifying can have a toxic effect on life.

Many of the comments were thoughtful and brought a variety of perspectives to the conversation. Leaving aside the usual suspects and their invectives, I'd like to focus on an important element raised by "Xira," who seemed to miss the point in several important ways. Although Xira seemed willing to dismiss, even distort, a key distinction in the article, s/he raised an important area for consideration: that of approval and the question of who holds power over you.

Xira wrote:

This sort of blanket recommendation is in very poor from and also very bad advice.

From what I've been able to tell weather [sic] or not you owe someone an explanation depends entirely on who's got the power in the relationship. If you value the person's opinion, that's a sort of power over you. They can withhold approval. If they can hurt you or other's [sic] opinions of you, that's a sort of power too.

Worse, if they have real meaningful power over your day to day life, say a boss or judge, and you refuse to provide an explanation, you are setting yourself up for a world of hurt.

Try that next time you get pulled over by a cop. When he's sitting there asking you why you did X just say "Thank you". When you get hauled in front of the judge, try it there too, and see what it gets you. Next time your boss catches you doing something not on the official list of things you are allowed to do try refusing him an explanation, see what that gets you.

If a person has power over you, you must explain to their satisfaction. If they do not, you don't need to. A lot of people fail to understand power dynamics in general and explain when they shouldn't or don't when they should.

Several others raised similar red herrings about appearing before a court of law or authority of one kind or another. Perhaps Xira and others either skipped over or failed to understand the fifth paragraph, where I wrote:

However, I am not referring to the kind of self-defense you might need when wrongly accused of something, especially something heinous or criminal. However, there's a difference between that kind of self-defense and the more common defend-explain-justify behavior that many of us seem to engage in almost daily.

This kind of distortion aside, Xira's implied question of who has power over you and whose approval is driving your behavior deserves deeper consideration. The transformation work I have been doing with people in both business and personal life settings often points to approval as a significant issue in well-being.

Keeping in mind that this is just a blog and not a treatise, let's begin a conversation on the power of approval and approval-seeking behavior, a conversation to which I invite your participation, which may extend over several articles. In particular, let's examine this part of Xira's comment: "[Whether] or not you owe someone an explanation depends entirely on who's got the power in the relationship. If you value the person's opinion, that's a sort of power over you. They can withhold approval."

Indeed, who has the power in a relationship is a great question. Not just a great question, but one that can be life-changing if you get it clear. Power? Power over what? What actual power does someone's opinion or approval of you hold, in fact?

Even if we're talking about the kind of power that comes from being incarcerated, tortured and abused, there is a massively important distinction to be made here: even your abuser does not possess the power to determine what choices you make internally, or even the power to require that you "explain to their satisfaction." Just ask the likes of Nelson Mandela, or read the work of Viktor Frankl; both men, and many others, have noted that they neither owed their abusers explanations nor did those "in power" control their thoughts, beliefs, feelings or choices. Each chose to be free inside himself despite the horrific conditions in which he found himself.

Power? Power over what? Power to "approve" of who you are or what you think? Indeed, that is a good question. How often have your sacrificed your own self-approval in favor of that short-lived approval from another to whom you have assigned power over you? I would strongly encourage you to consider the power of the provocation implied within my statement, "to whom you have assigned power over you."

Have you, in fact, given over your own power, your own self-approval, to the opinions of another? Have you surrendered authority to someone else in exchange for something as fleeting as the approval of another? Even if you work in a job where the boss is a jerk, you still have choices, many choices, not the least of which is what you are willing to tolerate. If you choose to go along with abusive or disrespectful behavior at work, at least own up to the fact that you are the one choosing to stay in that situation. Notice that I did not say these are easy choices, but choices they are.

In less dramatic terms than Robben Island or Auschwitz, how many times have you acceded to a demand or made an agreement with someone else only because you did not want to risk disapproval? Have you ever fibbed to the other person for the same reason? "Oh, I'd love to come to your party, but I'm already committed." Or, how about, "Sure, I'd be glad to have lunch with you next week," when some part of you dreads the idea. When the lunch day comes around, have you ever made up a convenient excuse to beg off?

If this sounds familiar, then consider the impact on the only approval that really matters: your own. By assigning power or some sense of being approved to another person, you may actually be damaging your own self-concept and self-approval. The more you drain off your own approval, the more you may wind up seeking that of another. And thus begins the downward spiral into shrinking self-confidence and diminished self-approval.

If you recognize this behavior (and most people seem to have done this kind of thing more than once), then ask yourself what it is that impels you to agree to something that you don't like. What could you do today or this week that would allow you to at least stop the drain on your own approval? What could you do to begin transforming your own sense of self-approval and begin reclaiming the power you may have assigned to others?

I realize that this short article opens a number of issues for which a more in-depth conversation is required. I encourage you to join in and offer your thoughts and experiences. The only caveat: transforming your life requires that you transform yourself, including your thoughts and beliefs. Are you willing to consider the possibility that you have more power than you have experienced so far in your life?

Please leave a comment here, or drop me an e-mail at


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your own life, and how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, download a free chapter from Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work."

You can buy "Workarounds That Work" here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website at You can contact him by e-mail at