Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Power Differentials: Breaking the Cycles

Are you mentally exhausted by divisiveness? Rebalance power differentials.

Key points

  • Balancing power differentials can improve mental health.
  • Power differentials can put you at risk for fewer intimate partnerships.
  • Be your own agent of change by addressing power differentials. Good communication is a starting point.

Political divisiveness, workplace stressors, family conflicts, and intimate partnerships have something in common—power differentials: when one person has control and advantage over others, e.g. bosses over employees. The ongoing pandemic and social divisiveness have exacerbated this divide between people and placed an increasing strain on mental health and wellness.

Living with no off-switch to balance ongoing power differentials means struggling to maintain daily routines that can spiral out of control. Battling for power in divisive situations seems hopeless and can make you feel vulnerable. We need solutions, but often we are unclear on how to deal with power abuses we see every day, violent conflicts between countries, challenges to democracy, the U.S. election denial, or bosses who have no interest in our mental or physical well-being. The fog of uncertainty with worldly power differentials becomes obvious when you witness violence and aggression.

Change starts with awareness, efforts to address social denial, and a willingness to vividly see the true impediments of change.

 Although challenging to understand, power differentials strip away illusions of safety and validation. By identifying and addressing the power dynamics operating in your interpersonal relationships, you can begin to see the subtle processes that systemically reinforce and stabilize them. You can become an agent of change to make a difference for yourself and for real structural change.

Changing the power imbalance may not be easy, especially for those with the advantage of accumulated power. Their resistance to relinquishing power embodies their identity and self-worth, and inevitably complicates the current power structure, leaving them on top, at the expense of others and the social and physical environment.

Good communication is a starting point for discussing power. However, when it comes to power in abusive or toxic relationships (e.g., at work, in neighborhoods, in intimate partnerships, with family), where healthy communication isn’t an option, seek support outside the relationship. For power differentials at a societal level, such as economic inequalities or political divisiveness, joining social action groups to help bring about structural change might be worth considering (Jason, 2013).

If you are experiencing mental distress and unnecessary emotional labor due to a power differential, signs of gaslighting and micro/macro-aggressions can indicate it’s time to seek support and take action.

The real purpose in life is not power over others, but relationships with others. Robert Waldinger’s longitudinal study of adult development found close relationships are better predictors of happy lives than social class, intelligence, or genes (Caruso, 2016). If being caught in power differentials has made you socially isolated, the lack of interpersonal connections puts you at risk similar to other mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. Identifying power differentials, seeking support, and taking steps to change the dynamic can improve your mental and physical health.


Bell, J. (2022, February 20). The signs of unhealthy power dynamics in a relationship — and how to even them out. NEUROPSYCH.

Caruso, C. (2016, October 19). Men with happier childhoods have stronger relationships in old age. Scientific American.…

Jason, L. A. (2013). Principles of Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press

Schumann, L., Craig, W., & Rosu, A. (2014). Power Differentials in Bullying: Individuals in a Community Context. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(5), 846-865.

Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste: The origins of our discontents. Random House.

More from Psychology Today

More from Vernita Perkins, PhD and Leonard A. Jason, PhD

More from Psychology Today