Conceptual painting of two people flying in the sky

OPINION | Cultivating Interpersonal Power in Our Friendships

by Jasmine M. Pulido

Friendships aren’t just for personal individual benefit, they carry within them the potential to cultivate the power necessary to disrupt interlocking systems of oppression.

When I say “power,” I don’t mean power as a noun. In our Eurocentric language of dominant, consumerism culture, we often equate power to an object that can be possessed, stolen, or given away. In fact, our English language is 70% noun-based. As such, our language tends to center on objectification and order.

No, I’m speaking of power in a verb-based way, an ability for it to arise and disband based on our will and energy to create it. This understanding of power is more in line with ancient and Indigenous languages where the lexicon tends to center on action, transformation, relationships, and constant change. In contrast to our dominant language here in America, these older languages are 70% verb-based.

This comprehension of power is one I acquired a knowledge of thanks to J. Tyson Casey’s 2022 lecture on “Leadership and Authority,” for his graduate class I was attending at Starr King School for the Ministry called “Leadership Along the Way,” a class about how we can bring our social justice values into everyday leadership. His talk was informed directly by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, indirectly by Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things and Lera Boroditsky’s research on language and cognition, and infused with his own scholarship and experience in the fields of linguistic relativity, taxonomy and nomenclature, perception, leadership, authority, Buddhism, Taoism, and culture change and conflicts. This is what I am receiving access to in graduate school as I pursue my postgraduate degree in social change, access I want to extend to those who don’t have the privilege that I hold.

Even in just understanding this paradigm shift — from thing to action — we regain the capacity to empower ourselves. We can cultivate power between one another instead of needing to reclaim it from an untouchable small group. For historically marginalized people like myself, this has been important for me to realize — power can be rooted in my own agency.

Being immersed in an oppressive, capitalistic society, we have been socially conditioned by the generations before us to enact patterns of domination, and subconsciously perpetuate and reinforce these dynamics in our personal relationships. It’s possible we can practice different ways of being outside of these preconstructed dispositions when we do so with commitment, mindful awareness, and honest communication with someone we love.

I believe practicing new ways of being can often be easier to practice outside of a nuclear family unit — with a friend instead of with a spouse, parent, or sibling. Families can be the primary place we’ve learned and ingrained these behaviors in our most formative years, which can make it harder to disrupt them in this specific context. A family is also more likely to function from its own microscale of internalized hierarchy where parents serve as the authority of the group and the children as subordinates. When our experience of attachment and security is potentially threatened by trying to initiate a new way of being outside of long-standing family norms, embodying a sense of our own agency can be more difficult.

Cultivating interpersonal power requires a practice of noticing when these habits of domination are taking place. Functioning from binary narratives of right/wrong, winner/loser, true/false, and good/bad are all ways these patterns of domination can manifest in our social interactions. These binaries insinuate a social hierarchy — one of us is better than the other, one is pitted against the other to compete for a singular higher place, one is inherently morally correct while the other is not. This relationship of moral worthiness embedded into social hierarchy originates from the oppressive frameworks of cis-hetero patriarchy, white supremacy, racism, ableism, colonialism, and imperialism.

One way to interrupt binary narratives in our friendships is to be able to come back to a both/and analysis and routinely set a space for paradoxical thinking in relationship to one another. You can hear from a friend that they are needing space, and you can have your own need to talk things through right away. Both needs can exist at once. Although this does not mean both friends can necessarily meet each other’s needs at the moment, there is no dichotomy where one friend is the bad friend and the other is good. One friend can be right and the other friend can be right too.

To understand this possibility of two opposing truths coexisting is to hold the paradox and, by doing so, we step outside the linear, ordered thinking that we were taught. We can also then start to view what is the problem, which puts the focus on solving the conflict cooperatively, instead of antagonistically thinking about who is the problem. This can be easier to practice with a friend instead of a spouse, where several more factors are dependent on whether the relationship remains intact, such as housing security, financial status, and the custody of shared children.

This can be harder to do when powerful emotions are at play, like resentment, guilt, or shame. Keeping this in mind, the disruption of binary narratives can be more useful when first practiced first and frequently in low-stakes situations. If we introduce a both/and analysis to a smaller, inconsequential conflict, like working through a small misunderstanding, or when we notice our casual conversation about a person not present is turning into one that casts said individual as good or bad, we learn to bring ourselves back to paradoxical thinking. Continually practicing interruption of patterns of domination in small ways allows new neural pathways to form that will make it easier for when larger-stakes situations develop later.

Another helpful technique that can be done between two or more friends is “resonant breathing.” Many transformative spaces have begun to adopt the practice of intentionally syncing breathing patterns and body movements to cultivate both personal power and guide awareness to how one person’s actions impacts others.

This particular practice can encourage relaxation, focus, patience, and trust, while embodying relational movement that cultivates physical and mental ability, thereby cultivating interpersonal power.” —J. Tyson Casey, Regenerative Power

Similarly, simply taking a moment to take even a few deep breaths and instituting a pause to bring ourselves out of a reactive state and away from a fight/flight/freeze reflex can be sufficient. According to the science of polyvagal theory, this and other calming techniques of emotional coregulation can bring us back to a “safe and social” state. As we continue to return to our own personal power in the situation, and not default to trying to “win” the argument, we develop more relational agency.

In adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy, a passage called “Liberated Relationships” also provides a great blueprint for understanding how to recognize — and interrupt — power-over dynamics when they are happening.

“One of the fastest ways to learn interdependence is to shift how we show up in relationships. … We learn to lie, either with overt mistruths or egregious omissions, at a very intimate level, not to ask for what we need, not to say aloud what we want, not to be honest when things hurt or bother us.” —adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy

Brown goes on to describe the reasons we swallow our truths, which, unsurprisingly, originate from oppressive patterns inherent in capitalism and different versions of supremacy (where straight, white, male, able, adult, wealthy, etc. are the superior forms in their assigned categories of humanness). She lists her own principles in the development for Liberated Relationships, which include: 1. Radical honesty instead of polite avoidance of hurting people’s feelings; 2. Acknowledging power dynamics, like race, class, gender, and ability, and growing from there; and 3. Dropping the tendency to fix others, but instead being curious about the imperfect person in front of you.

This described liberated friendship has and does exist around us, and there is room for us to make these types of relationships more abundant. The beloved brotherhood formed between the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh led to a huge social impact on a global level. As a result of their connection and correspondence, for instance, Dr. King began to openly speak out against the Vietnam War. Their friendship built a cross-cultural solidarity that led to major breakthroughs toward peace in the social and political landscapes of two very different societies. 

While I’m not the Rev. Dr. King nor Thich Nhat Hanh, this potential for interpersonal power that changes oppressive systems exists within all of us. From my own experience, not all friendships where you introduce these practices will necessarily survive the transformation necessary to cultivate interpersonal power. What I can say is that the ones that do adapt to this larger social mission become regenerative wellsprings of resiliency and power that are well worth the effort — for myself, for my fellow co-conspirators, and for the systems we transform with and within.

By connecting our everyday actions to our breath, to beneficial relationships, to a larger, shared story (of the great turning), and a shared horizon (of collective liberation), we can cultivate ever increasing capacity to interrupt harmful habits and transform the structures and conditions and cultures that were created around us by ourselves and/or others. —J. Tyson Casey, 2022 lecture on “Agency and Renewal,” Starr King School for the Ministry

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Jasmine M. Pulido is a Filipina American writer-activist, small business owner, and mother. Her written work has been featured in the International Examiner, The Postscript, and Give Grief a Voice. Her work has been performed through Velasco Arts and Bindlestiff Studio. She recently wrote her first play, “The Master’s Tool” exploring the struggles of BIPOC folks in Equity, Diversity, Inclusion work in white-dominated nonprofit workplaces. Jasmine is pursuing her Master of Arts in Social Change at Starr King School for the Ministry. She writes a bi-weekly substack called “Liberation Library” and is currently working on her first novel.

📸 Featured image by Jorm Sangsorn/, edits by the Emerald team.

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