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Right Use of Power: the Heart of Ethics

by Cedar Barstow

The greatest revolutions science has presented to us across history point to others, yet more fundamental waiting in the wings, hinged to a revolution of human spirit and ethic equally profound.                               


We need an ethic of compassion more desperately than ever before.

Armstrong (2005).

Continuing education in ethics is a required and important part of our training and ethical awareness and accountability are essential to our work. As body psychotherapists, we can, through the quality and depth of our attention to ethics, be a vital influence in the revolution of human spirit and ethic that many see as timely and needed. Such a revolution in is no longer waiting in the wings. Of ultimate importance in sustaining life and resolving conflicts, it is hinged to ownership and use of our personal and professional power to promote well-being and prevent and repair harm. This use of power involves increasing our skillfulness in engaging our compassion and staying related through conflict. At the core, right use of power–the heart of ethics links power and heart. This combination constitutes a revolution of human spirit and ethic.

Ethics has traditionally been understood and taught as a set of behavioral rules. Compliance with these rules protects our clients from harm. These rules set a standard for which we, in our profession, can be held legally accountable. Ethical codes provide an essential, clear, and solid base for ethical awareness and behavior. The Right Use of Power program is part of a movement toward bringing more depth and engagement to ethical awareness than rules alone.

Ten years ago, in a group leadership training, my colleagues Amina Knowlan and David Patterson referred to ethics as “right use of power and influence”. Immediately my energy shifted. Ethics as right use of power—this was an idea with which I could engage. It was an idea that had heart. This concept began to transform ethics from a list of good behaviors to ethics as being in right relationship. It connected with my deep desire to use my power effectively, consciously, and compassionately. This was ethics that could be learned from the inside out instead of from the outside in.

In working with the idea of right use of power, I found that many of us, as body psychotherapists and as human beings, also have extra baggage in the form of beliefs, habits, and expectations. These beliefs and wounds interfere with our ability to understand, own, and use the increased relationship power that accompanies our role as therapists that also serves our clients. When asked about their automatic and felt sense associations with the word “power,” people frequently have responses such as: fear, exploitation, force, intimidation, vulnerability, anger. Most of us have experienced personal wounds through misuses of power. Because of these wounds and other negative associations with power, we, as body psychotherapists are very wary of the idea that we  have increased power and influence as professionals. Through avoiding recognizing the strength and subtlety of this power differential, caregivers may misuse power by under using it. Kindness and compassion without owned, engaged power and influence reduces effectiveness and may cause harm.

Often we think that we need to choose between power and heart between kindness and strength, between compassion and truth, between love and boundaries, between acceptance and taking charge. We need to revise our ideas about power and about ethics in order to use both benevolently and synchronistically. Right use of power and heart focuses on gaining the dynamic, relational understandings and the skills that will enable us to be both compassionate and firm. In their true natures, power is guided by compassion, and the heart is guided by strength and truth.

The practice of using power and influence benevolently calls us to own and engage our personal and professional power as an ongoing process of using power not only to prevent harm, but to repair harm, and to promote well-being. Linking right use of power with heart calls us to do the internal work of developing a personal and professional ethic of compassion.


Here are a few working definitions the help us bridge into an expanded conception of power and heart.

Ethic a dictionary definition says that ethics is the study of what is right and wrong and of duty and moral obligation. For our purpose, ethics is a set of values, attitudes, and skills intended to have benevolent effects when applied through professional behavioral guidelines, decision-making processes, and the practice of compassion.

Power most simply, is the ability to act or to have an effect to accomplish what we intend. Influence is how we interact with others to make changes and have an effect. Role Power is the increased power that accompanies a professional role. This is called the power differential. Personal power is the generative capacity to use our gifts and make real our intentions.

Compassion resonating concern, an ability to see and respond to the connection between everyone and everything.

Power Spiral a visual model for practicing right use of power in a multi-layered continuum.

Right Use of Power the use of personal and role power to prevent, reduce, and repair harm. In addition, to promote sustainable well-being for all. (In this context ‘right” implies that power is neutral, meaning that it can be used with integrity for the good of all. The use of the word ‘right” in not meant to imply a black and white concept of right vs. wrong or good vs. evil.)

Foundational Values

In affirming Right Use of Power as the heart of ethics, we are framing ethics and power in a more comprehensive way. The following values form the foundation for the Right Use of Power approach.


We begin by acknowledging our desire and capacity for magnificence in the use of our personal and professional power. Supporting and engaging this desire accesses the “social engagement system.” According to the work of Stephen Porges, this third nervous system is the most recently understood and highly evolved. The social engagement system has a capacity for self-correcting, complex problem-solving, expressing a large range of emotion, and staying in relationship even in conflict. When motivated by fear, shame, or lack of recognition of our capacity for goodness, we tend to disengage from this evolved system, and default to the older fight, flight, or freeze responses.


Ethics and power are all about how we treat others by our attitudes and our behavior. Relationships are what make ethics necessary. In a conversation, a colleague challenged: “This isn’t an ethics course, this is ‘Relationship 101’.” Being sensitive to our impact and staying connected even in conflict is, however, the core of ethical relationships. Relationships are most effective and grievances are avoided when we are able to resolve problems and repair connections as they occur.


Right use of power is the heart of ethics. Empathy and compassion can inform often complex and challenging situations, so that both caregivers and clients will be empowered to self-correct and grow into more sensitivity. The development of compassion, “as being an ability to imagine [and feel] the connection between everyone and everything, everywhere”[i] is the salve for wounds and separation, and the inspiration and motivation for those who are in positions of power and trust. We can source our power with heart.


We all make mistakes. Our impact is often different than our intention. We carry projections from past hurts and wounds. There are difficulties that arise in the course of care giving relationships. Often we automatically and habitually link present conflict with past trauma. When conflict triggers old trauma, we may disengage from relationships, dissociate, lose touch with our resources, and/or blame others. But by approaching ethics and power reparationally, we can put our attention toward skillful resolution, relationship repair, and self-correction. This approach supports us in discussion about ethical issues and concerns with colleagues, and attending to conflicts within a relationship, instead of feeling ashamed, accused, or out of touch with our impact on others.


Responses to issues of power and ethics can be unconscious and history-based, littered with automatic behavior and out-dated beliefs. By actively exploring our ethical edges, taking care of ourselves, asking for and using feedback constructively, we become more sensitive. We can increase our skills, change ineffective habits, and use learnings from our history to grow. Focusing on pro-active right use of power takes ethics to a deeply refined level.

Dimension One:The Informed Use of Power



• Be informedD


• Own your power and influence.


• Understand your ethical guidelines.

This dimension is about information of many kinds:
  • owning and having a felt sense of the impact of the power differential role its potential, its responsibilities, its distortions, and its vulnerability for clients as the basis for all ethical guidelines;
  • understanding and being resourced by information contained in ethical codes as wisdom culled from the lived history of our professions;
  • gathering and effectively using information from clients;
  • paying attention to inner guidance;
  • making informed ethical decisions in complex or challenging circumstances and in everyday attitudes and interactions.

Dimension Two: The Conscious Use of Power• Be curious.


• Use your history.



This dimension is about Self:• understanding and learning from our attitudes, beliefs, wounds, and habits in relation to issues of power and authority;• engaging curiosity about ourselves and our clients as a non-threatening skill and attitude;
  • exploring our empowered and disempowered selves and how our use of power and influence affects others;
  • reflecting on examples of misuses of professional power;
  • working with shame as a power issue because it isolates and de-resources;
  • practicing compassion as a resonating concern for all.



Dimension Three:

The Caring Use of Power

  • Be related.

• Track your impact


• Resolve and repair.


In this dimension the focus is on relationship:
  • acknowledging the complexity and power of connection; increasing skillfulness in tracking for difficulties and staying current in care-giving relationships; recognizing that our impact is often different from our intention;
  • being accountable as an expression of caring;
  • recognizing that we all make mistakes; understanding how relationship difficulties, when either ignored or dismissed, can escalate to grievance processes;
  • practicing staying connected even in conflict and using conflict to clarify and resolve difficulties;
  • attending to relationship repair and self-correcting;



Dimension Four:

The Skillful Use of Power
• Be pro-active.

• Attend to self-care.


• Self-correct and let go.


This dimension is about the development of wisdom.

understanding that doing the right thing is more effective when it’s done wisely;• deepening skill in identifying tendencies, beliefs, and barriers that may make us vulnerable to specific misuses of power;• understanding good self-care as vital for wise use of power;• increasing our understanding of power dynamics and diversity issues;

  • practicing the refining and resourcing skill of asking for, receiving, giving, and using feedback;
  • becoming more skillful at knowing when and how to persist and when and how to let go;
  • being nourished by wise and skillful uses of power as a social force for good.


Having a felt sense of the impact of the power differential is the key to understanding professional ethical issues. Experiential study is the most effective method of learning. Studies show that we remember 90% of what we say and do, compared to 10% of what we read. Ethics, power dynamics, and compassion are best embodied through personal, practical, and engaging experience.

Dimensions and Themes

Ethical behavior is not just the result of good intentions, but is indeed more complex and fascinating–more like a life-long process of empowerment and refinement. Leading from and building on the values described, I have identified four dimensions of understanding and learning how to use our power and influence that seem to encompass the inherent processes and themes.  Here is a description of the territory of each dimension

Power with Heart

Power is the generative capacity to bring change. Influence is the realized potential for change. The spiraling journey to mastery in the use of power and influence is numinous and potent. It brings together personal development and soul work (being) with creation and accomplishment (doing). Love and creativity yearn to be expressed in form. Heartful and full use of personal and role power and influence is both a right and a responsibility.

Cedar Barstow is a Hakomi Therapist and Trainer, the author of “The Right Use of Power: Ethics in the Helping Professions and an ethics consultant. www.RightUseofPower.com    Cedar@RightUseofPower.com


Barasch M. I. (2005) Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness, Rodale.

Firmage J. P., Institute for Noetic Sciences Journal

Knowlan A. and Patterson, D. (1990) Group Leadership Trainings.

Porges, S. (1995) Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian Modifications of Our Evolutionary  Heritage. A Polyvagal Theory. “Psychophysiology” 32.

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