The Power Dynamics of Fear

Emotion Series #7

February 4, 2022
In today’s episode, we explore how fear underlies the power dynamics that develop in our relationships with others and within ourselves. When fear is present, we naturally desire to control outcomes by taking on a bully, victim or savior role that externalizes our fear and separates us from our truth. Tune in to join us as we discuss the difference between power and empowerment. We will explore how welcoming the emotions and resistance around undesired outcomes can allow us to exit the power dynamics and show up authentically, leading to deeper connection and more harmonious relationships.

Episode intro:

We all get scared sometimes, and so we all get into power dynamics sometimes. It is the way it is. It doesn’t matter how old you are, almost, and it definitely doesn’t matter how much you have meditated. If there was some of this tension, we wouldn’t be alive.

Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment, where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host, Joe Hudson.

Brett: Okay, welcome back, Joe. We are continuing into our emotions series. We have been having a pretty good run at fear lately. We just finished up the fear and anxiety episode, and we still have a little bit more to talk about with regards to fear.

Joe: Fear and anxiety, we did the fear general and the anxiety, but I think there are the power dynamics we haven’t really touched yet.

Brett: Power dynamics, fear triangle, how fear influences the way we see power, and get into games around it.

Joe: I have this story. It doesn’t relate to power so much, but it kind of does. I want to share it. I remember I was really into non duality. I think it was around 30 years old or something. I was really into non duality, and I was collecting different teachers who had different ways to see it. One of the teachers, whose name was Steven Harrison, said power is the ultimate expression of fear. I was like cool, that resonated. It made so much sense to me.

Then I came across a book that somebody recommended called “The Power of Now” by Eckart Tolle, and I was like the ultimate expression of fear.

Brett: Was that just from seeing the title?

Joe: Just from seeing the title. He needs to have power. Ultimate expression of fear. Teaching other people to have power. Ultimate expression of fear.

I was in these hot springs, and they had this video thing happening. It was Eckart Tolle. I listened. I was like that guy is saying the same thing as Steven Harrison, in a very different way but the same thing. Then I found out he was the author of “The Power of Now”. I will start off on that, which is that even that, even that whole thing of me saying power, that means an expression of fear. That was me trying to have power over my reality.

Brett: An allergy to that word.

Joe: That was my expression of fear. I can’t just be in the unknown of life, evolving in the way that it does. I need to be able to have some sort of control mechanism, and that created the ignorance. That in itself was all fear. I need something to hold on to, which is even more hilarious when you think about the way Steven Harrison teaches, which is he destroys everything you try to hold on to.

Power dynamics as an expression of fear, let’s talk about it.

Brett: So how fear creates power dynamics, we have talked a lot about something called the fear triangle before. We have kind of touched on it at a number of different times in several different episodes, but we really haven’t dropped into a comprehensive description of the fear triangle, what it is, the underlying power dynamics, and some of the peripheral stuff that happens around it. Let’s go into that.

Joe: Let me pull up just a second before we do. On the general power dynamics, basically all power dynamics are is two people who are scared. I am not talking about play power dynamics, not agreed upon. Let’s have a game of power dynamics or sexual power dynamics. I am talking about a boss and their peer getting into a fight or a wife and a husband getting into a fight or two friends. I am talking about when somebody wants to get their way and the other person wants to get their way around something. That’s what I am talking about when I say power dynamics.

It is always based on fear. It is always based in fear. The simplest way to look at, even more simple than the drama triangle, is to see that it is two people who think they are defending themselves and think the other person is attacking them. One person feels like they are defending, and the other person feels like they are being attacked. Both people walk around thinking what they just said was a defense, and no, you don’t understand. The other person is hearing that as an attack.

I am not saying which is true or not true, but that is the basic structure of all of it whether you think of that in a political system where one group thinks they are defending themselves, but the other group feels like they are being attacked or a marriage. If you can see it that way, if you can see all of these conflicts where someone is trying to have power over the other person, immediately the whole thing dissolves.  Wait a second. That person is not trying to attack me. That person thinks they are defending themselves right now.

Brett: It seems like this comes from that characteristic of fear where we go into binary thinking, and we start to think it is a win or lose thing. You can win the argument or lose the argument. You can have somebody see your position or they just don’t because they are stupid.

Joe: In this, both people are scared they are going to lose something that they love. Both people are scared that they are going to be controlled. They are both scared, maybe of different things, but they are both scared. The fear, either presents itself in fight, flight or freeze, and the flight is the most complicated. We will start with the other ones.

The fight is the bully behavior of the fear triangle, and the freeze is the victim behavior of the fear triangle. The flight is the savior, and savior means that you have left yourself. You are going outside of the world to other people to control them so that will make you feel safe. All of the complications, the way people can’t see each other, the way that they feel like they are being attacked when the other person is actually defending themselves is all because of the way in which the fear works inside of the person.

They call this the drama triangle, and if you go to psychological theory, they call it the drama triangle. I call it the fear triangle because all of the behaviors are driven out of the fear, and they are driven out of the fight, flight or freeze situation. They all have an emotional signature with them, which is also usually not explained. The emotional signature of the savior is a sense of obligation, responsibility, and the victim is stuck. I feel stuck. The bully feels like they are all alone in it. No one is helping them. They have to be self-reliant, and those are the emotional signatures of those particular places.

I’ve been in rooms in companies with 120 men, and at this time it was men. This company was doing something to help men with EQ, and so a whole bunch of engineers. I put them out into corners. Are you the fight? Are you the flight? Are you the freeze? I put them into corners, and then I said fighters, bullies. I didn’t call them bullies. The first thing is they all had shame. They all had shame around what they were. The fighters were ashamed of being fighters. The freezers were ashamed of being freezers, and the flight was ashamed of being flight. But the other thing that happened is they got to see fighters, when you are fight and somebody doesn’t fight back, when they walk away from you, how does that feel in your system? That feels like an attack. It feels like they have disengaged. It feels like they are punishing me by leaving.

Brett: Aggression, some form of withdrawal.

Joe: Freezers, what does it feel like when somebody is fighting with you, and you are trying to feel? It feels like they are trying to control me even more. This is where that lack of understanding makes it hard for people to resolve their own issues with one another.

Brett: It sounds like a lot of the behavior that comes out in that drama triangle patterns, in the fear triangle pattern is coming from the avoidance of those underlying feelings, those underlying fears. To avoid feeling stuck, you buy the story more deeply that you are stuck and then you might find yourself using guilt or some form of power under manipulation to get what you want and get somebody to stop having power over you or abusing power over you in your story. The same thing can be true for the savior and for the bully.

Joe: That’s right. The way I think about that, and we’ve talked about this in other podcasts, is that the thing they are trying to avoid is the thing they are inviting through the way they are trying to avoid it. If someone is more in the victim and more in the freeze, then they are more likely to be passive or covertly aggressive. If they are passive and covertly aggressive and they do that, so they feel like some semblance of empowerment, so they feel some semblance of not being stuck, not the actual not being stuck, but they are trying to avoid that feeling, and that passive aggression immediately makes people feel agitated around them. Then they feel more stuck because the agitation of other people is creating that feeling of stuckness.

It is like that with the bully as well. The bully doesn’t want to feel alone, and so when that feeling of I am all alone in this, they puff out their chest. They are like then fuck you all. They don’t want to feel that experience, and that immediately drives people away from them. It immediately creates that reality of loneliness. The same with the savior. We will go into the savior, too. The savior feels that feeling of obligation, so they care take people. This all happens in many ways, but I am just giving you one of the ways.

If you care take somebody, then they feel like you are telling them they are not capable. Make sure you do blah, blah, blah. You think I am not an adult. You think I can’t handle my own anger or whatever it is. Then resentment builds. They don’t feel safe, and then they feel more obligated. These are the cycles we get into it, and it is why when you are in those kinds of power dynamics, everybody feels so helpless and frustrated. It is because like fuck, I don’t know how to get out of this because we are driving the thing we don’t want to us through our actions that we use to try to avoid it.

Brett: It is interesting that we can also have all three of these different forms of fear show up in our system and flash between one and another. The savior might have the flight to go try to fix the world around them, to try to fix the fight that mommy and daddy are in in their world. By doing that, they will go and bully the bully, or they will even bully the victim about the victim’s story they are stuck in and how they should just grow up. Or they will buy the victim’s story and they will do some kind of power under guilt trip dynamic on the bully, and then the bully feels more alone and feels more likely to rage and attack both.

A lot of things that we have seen too are that the bully and the victim can flash back and forth a lot where somebody will be feeling like they are in freeze and then suddenly jump out of it and start attacking, and then go back to freeze.

Joe: Yeah, it is interesting. The way I see it work is that internally we have different voices in our heads. We have a voice in our head talking to us, and it will play all three roles. It will play the role of bully, and that might sound like dude, you have got to stop talking over people. Then we will play the role of victim, which is I’ve tried to stop but I can’t stop. Twenty years I’ve been trying to stop. I can’t stop. Then we will play the role of savior. This time we are going to do this, this and this. I am going to get a reminder on my phone. All of those three of those things are happening, all based out of fear, all inside of us.

That’s the internal version of it. Of course, when we have an internal version of it, we have an external version of it. The external version of that is you can see people run through all of these things sometimes in a minute, but there is usually one that’s their forefront in that area. If you go into a family and the dad is going to run one of these traits with the family members, most often, and everybody can identify it. Underneath the surface, all three of these things will be happening.

Let’s say the dad plays the victim role. You can tell it because it is passive aggressive. You can tell it because there is maybe a lot of lateness for somebody who cares about tardiness. Maybe there are a whole bunch of chores that aren’t done. You can see all that behavior in there, but occasionally they are going to go God damn it, don’t you trust me? Occasionally, they are walking on eggshells to make sure the bully is happy. All of those things are going to happen, but there is going to be one that’s the dominant one under that situation.

What’s fascinating to me is oftentimes people can be the bully at home and the victim at the office, or the savior at home and the bully in the office. It is really circumstantial, which is totally fascinating to me.

Brett: I would like to relate this back to the previous episode we did on anxiety where a lot of times you will see when someone is in an anxious state, which is by our previous definition, there is some constriction of life force that could be some constricted fear. It could also be something else constricted, essentially being afraid of their own experience. When they are in that state, they are far more likely to be in the triangle dynamic. They are far more likely to exhibit any of these behaviors. That points back to that whole episode as something that can be done about when you identify one of these dynamics in your own life.  

Joe: I think that’s the biggest question. When I am teaching this at a retreat or something like that, the biggest thing that happens is people ask how do I act not from that place, which in itself is a bit of.

Brett: Savior.

Joe: Yeah, a fear triangle inside of themselves. The answer isn’t trying to modulate how you act. It is being with the fear. It is having a different relationship with the fear, and it is not saying if I act this way and this way, I am not in the drama triangle. If you are not acting out of the fear, you are not in it. It might even be the same behavior that comes out of you, but it is very different with the emotional signature. You might say to somebody that’s not going to work for me. That’s not from the fear triangle. Hey, that’s not going to work for me could be from the fear triangle just because of the emotional signature behind it.

Brett: Getting back to what you mentioned early in the intro to this episode, how you had this idea. You learned that power is something that comes from fear, and maybe you over-attached to that particular definition of power and that collided with Eckart Tolle’s book title. Let’s talk a little about that power versus empower. Just to harken back, we have done an episode on empower over power. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in going deeper on this particular subject, but I would like to bring this into this conversation right now. What is the difference for you between those things?

Joe: If I am operating out of my fear, then I am in the dynamic, the drama triangle. If I am not operating out of fear, then I am cool with whatever consequences come by me being authentic and being true to myself. I don’t mean cool like go ahead and bring it on, and then I go fight. I mean cool like I am happy if they need to yell at me, cool with it. But I am going to be true to myself. This is the more important thing. If you can let go of the consequences in that way, then there is a deeply empowered state. The consequences that people can hold over you just evaporate.

The other day I had a conversation coaching somebody at a really big organization. The head of human resources calls me up and says we are just deciding if we are going to pay you again next year. I was like I don’t serve you. I serve the executive. That’s my job. I am not here to serve you. If you need me to serve you, I am the wrong coach for you because it is just way out of alignment for me. This whole power dynamic just fizzled because there was nothing in me that was worried about losing this thing. If this is what needs to happen, I am happy to lose it because it is inconsistent with how I want to be in the world. They didn’t have any power over me.

That’s an example of what it is like to be in an empowered state. It means I know principally that if I behave this way, my life is the life that I want. If I don’t, my life is not the life I want. I am not going to behave outside of that for some future reward, some potential future reward or some potential avoidance of punishment.

Brett: It sounds like power is when it is contingent to something happening and empowered is it is not actually contingent to any outcome. It is contingent on how you are going to experience yourself.

Joe: Power can be taken away from you. If you are worried about losing it, it is power.

Brett: Yeah, including financial power, social power, all of it.

Joe: All of it. If you are worried about losing it, it is power, which is amazing because that’s often the cause of a lot of the fear. I hadn’t thought about it this way. Let’s say if I can articulate this. I am not sure I can. There is a drama triangle because you are scared of losing something, and oftentimes the thing you are scared of losing is power. Because when you are empowered, there is no fear of losing it so there is not as much reason to be scared, generally. I’ve never recognized this, but now that I say it, I can feel it in my system and in my past. It is a virtuous cycle. The more you recognize that your authenticity creates the life that you want rather than accumulation of power or things, then the less there is to lose and, therefore, less fear, and therefore, less drama and less of this triangle you are in. I’ve never thought about it that way, but wow, it resonates deeply with me.

Brett: Thinking about the way that allowing yourself to feel emotions can get us out of the triangle. Sometimes it is fear, but I’ve seen times. You even see this in movies where somebody who is being a bully for the entire movie, they are brought face to face with some reality they had been not seeing. Then they break down and they cry. There is grief, and there is hurt. They show they are hurt, and then others who they were in the triangle with see that hurt. They see a new perspective, and they have their own emotional process. The whole thing falls away. It could be fear of different emotions within us. It could be fear of feeling grief that makes us get angry around anything that has to do with the idea of our business failing or our marriage failing or a friend being.

Joe: Any loss of identity, really. Any loss of identity really will create a lot of fear for most people unless they have a lot of experience losing their identity, years of transformation work, or it happens to be exposed that way that it is okay for their identity to shift.

Brett: Which points to something else in your story earlier about how quickly this dynamic can fall away, whether it is a dynamic with a group of people or an internal dynamic with yourself about your identity. The moment you actually allow the tension to process through, to be felt, and allow that sense of identity, whatever it is that you are attached to and holding on to to fall away, then it is amazing how fast the dynamic in your life falls away too.

Joe: Oh yeah, I mean it is instantaneous. Once you see it, it just goes away. What’s interesting is I often will ask people what they are defending. We all say we are defending us. I am defending myself. What? What’s the you that you are defending exactly? Okay, so this person, I don’t feel seen. I have to be seen. I’m defending the fact that I am actually a good person. If someone doesn’t see you are a good person, who actually gets hurt? What’s the thing you are actually protecting? What makes you think it is destroyable?

Oftentimes, there is one look at it, which is when you feel the tension, it can drop away. Another is to just see that the whole thing is a ruse. It is a card game or a shell game. There is nothing underneath any of them. There is nothing to defend. I was just talking to a client about this the other day. Somebody in the circle of people I have worked with ran across a big challenge and internal struggle for him and did not want to work it out. He wanted to avoid it, and I don’t push people to do things they don’t want to do. He left.

The other person in my circle was like oh my gosh, we need to make sure this doesn’t hurt the reputation. I love your work, and I want it out in the world. I was like there is no way I am doing that. There is no way I am going to defend myself because it is so antithetical to my empowerment. It also usually doesn’t work great. It doesn’t increase your reputation, and it also puts me into the fear triangle, which I don’t want to be in. I would rather have all of the work that I am doing in the world collapse than choose to get in a fight with somebody or think I have something to defend. It is fascinating.

When you are there, there is a tremendous amount of freedom. There are definitely moments when you are like I have to be with this fear. It is not like it is fearless. I am sure it is very much like when you would jump off huge bridges or cliffs. There is a moment where you like oh wow, really. There is this recognition that every time that I chose my authenticity, eventually it was the right move. Eventually the world meets me as who I am, not who I think I am supposed to be.

Brett: Which speaks to the increasing subtlety of our journey. For me, early on, base jumping and just air sports in general were a way for me to be authentic. Then there were ways I was inauthentic within them. The journey over decades has been to recognize when I am standing at an exit point, how much of what I am doing is coming from some sense of fear. If I do this jump and then I am seen as the person who is capable of doing this jump skillfully, then what do I get? What power do I get in the world? What social clout do I get? What events do I get invited to? What sponsors might I get?

All of these different incentives can come in and I imagine this might be true for you in the role that you have as a coach where there are probably a lot of times where people would just be looking for even the subtlest defensiveness in you. See? I can’t trust him. Look, he is somebody who is talking all of this game. He is just a little bit defensive right now, so there, the emperor has no clothes.

Joe: If you are looking for an imperfection, you can absolutely find it in me and in every single way. There is nothing in humanity that isn’t in me and that doesn’t rear its head from time to time. If I am looking for other people to love it, I am in hell. All I can do is learn to love those aspects of myself.

Brett: Something also interesting for me was how through my journey, I’ve identified by learning about the fear triangle myself as a savior. That’s been one of the main roles I’ve sat in. There are a number of stories I could tell in a very general sense about how I was in a dynamic with two other people. There are probably half a dozen people who would think it was them I am talking about, and they would be both right and wrong.

Joe: Exactly, the pattern replays itself.

Brett: Also, recently I’ve been simmering in how I’ve been doing this internally. When I am recognizing a limiting belief or I am recognizing some sense of identity that I am trying to hold on to, then I am like aha. Here is how I could construct an experience that gets me out of that box or here’s a workshop I could go to to explore that. That’s my internal savior of I see two parts of myself fighting. Here’s how I can control the outcome without feeling the emotions underneath it.

Joe: What I notice in what you are saying there is a little way in which you mimic the savior voice inside of your head was derogatory. I think that that’s one of the things that keeps the fear triangle in place generally is the shame I spoke about earlier, the shame of being a bully, being a victim or being a savior, instead of seeing it as I am scared. It is amazing. It is like you said a lot of this disintegrates when the bully says I am scared. A lot of this disintegrates when a victim says I can do this. I have a choice here. A lot of this disengages the savior says the only person I can save is myself.

It is this acknowledgment of the fear without the judgment that is the quickest way to disintegrate the fear triangle. It is just to acknowledge there is fear. We all get scared sometimes, and so we all get into power dynamics sometimes. That’s the way it is. It doesn’t matter how old you are, almost, and it definitely doesn’t matter how much you have meditated. If there wasn’t some of this tension, we wouldn’t be alive.

Brett: It might even be acknowledging there is sadness or acknowledging that there is hurt or there is joy.

Joe: Yes. I would say, like we said before, fear and anxiety, part of that, is a constriction of life source, so it could be anything. But it is the acknowledgement of what it is. To some degree, when you are particularly in a power dynamic, it is the fear of something. Maybe it is the fear of sadness and maybe it is the fear of joy or pleasure, often.

I have a question for you. You talked about that in movies you have seen it unravel in a heartbeat. Also, in the work you have seen me done and we have done together, you also can see it unravel in a heartbeat. The whole game, the whole war can be dropped. It doesn’t take anything to drop a hot frying pan. I am wondering if you have an experience that you can share with us, a story of when you were in it, and it just dropped like a hot frying pan.

Brett: Absolutely. This is an example of one of those examples that I think a half of a dozen people listening to will think it is about them, and you are wrong, and you are right. A common pattern for me coming from a family where I always felt like I was trying to save the peace and trying to make everybody not fight and be in harmony so that I could feel safe, I have recreated that a lot in my life.

One time, it was relatively recently. It was after we had talked about one of our fear and anxiety episodes we recorded about a month back. I was feeling into the anxiety, letting myself just have it, including the helplessness, especially the helplessness.  As much as I could bullshit myself into thinking it, I actually didn’t have power over the situation. All I had was how I could show up, and I wasn’t enjoying the way I was showing up. I just showed up in a way that I enjoyed more, which meant that I wasn’t in a conversation feeling like I was holding back and walking on eggshells. I was in a conversation saying what I felt needed to be said, and also being okay with imperfect, being okay with maybe coming off as a little bit of a bully and being open to the feedback and iterating. At least getting myself out of the savior, better than mode I had been in.

It was amazing how quickly things changed. In this particular instance, it was immediate. My jaw was on the floor. Two people who had had a lot of tension with one another, I had a conversation with each one of them that was just basically I validate your experience. I understand what you are feeling, and also I am not going to be able to fix this for you. I know that you can do this, and you can take responsibility for this relationship yourself.

In each of those, I didn’t feel entirely clean in my delivery. There was some new tension with me and the person that I was speaking with. They were like wait a minute. I was like okay. Suddenly, the whole thing shifted, and it shifted so quickly that I actually couldn’t trace back to it could even have been that I shifted my dynamic and then they shifted theirs. Or did they shift theirs and then that shifted mine? I could hardly even draw a causal relationship either way other than just noticing the whole thing fell away immediately and I was just grateful and enjoyed it. It happened just the moment I enjoyed showing up and didn’t feel either resentful or in resistance or afraid of showing up.

Joe: It’s amazing what just sharing our truth can do. A pleasure, Brett. Until next time.

Brett: Thank you, Joe.

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