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updated: 8/22/2013 1:14 PM

'Submissive' one end of power spectrum

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(Part one in a three-part series)

You'd like Karen, bright, talented, outgoing, sensitive, attractive. She seems to have so much going for her, so much potential. Yet sometimes she seems rather sad, disillusioned and even bitter.

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If you asked Karen what's bothering her, she might say something like, "I spend most of my time doing what everybody else wants me to do; there's never any time for what I want." Then she'd probably shrug her shoulders, sigh and go back to whatever it is she's doing for everybody else.

There are a lot of "Karens" around. They are often some of the nicest -- and unhappiest -- people we know.

If we get to know the "Karens" of this world better, we discover one common trait. They are unable, ashamed or afraid to claim and exercise power over their own lives. Another way to say this is simply that they are submissive rather than assertive.

Why? Well, some submissive people simply were not taught how to be healthily assertive. They never had a chance to learn how.

Others were taught that there is something wrong with claiming and exercising such power, that it was not "acceptable." "Good girls" or "good boys" didn't act that way. Many were even punished or rejected for being assertive.

Some submissive people fear the mistakes and failures that inevitably go with claiming power over their lives. It's safer to let others be in charge of their lives.

Finally, many are convinced that in order to be cared for by others they must give power to others. They have so little sense of their own worth that they believe that's the only way they will ever be loved.

For whatever reason, such people continually give away their power in living. They let, even ask, others to tell them what to think, feel, want, do. They spend their lives doing what everyone else wants them to do, with little or no thought to what they want to do.

Submissive people are often (at least at first) devoted marital partners, self-sacrificing parents, hardworking employees, loyal friends, eager volunteers. But their underlying inability, shame and fear eventually sabotage their relationships and their efforts.

Often they develop covert -- and destructive -- ways to exercise power (we often call this being "passive-aggressive"). They still don't come right out and work for what they need or want but try to manipulate things so they get it without really having to be assertive.

Or they might simply give up, withdrawing into their sadness, disillusionment and bitterness. Depression is a symptom often experienced by submissive people.

On occasion they even take action. They act out or try to escape from their emotions by leaving a marriage, having an extramarital affair, quitting a job, getting themselves fired, etc.

In our culture women have often been taught to be submissive. And they frequently pay a very real penalty for their efforts to become more assertive.

Yet men and women both ultimately suffer for failing to claim power over their own lives. As we noted above, there is clearly an emotional price: sadness, disillusionment, bitterness, depression.

And there is a spiritual price as well. We can come to the end of our lives without ever having explored our hopes, our dreams, our God-given potential. We risk looking back and judging our lives as having been without direction or meaning.

Next week we'll talk about the other end of the power spectrum -- aggressiveness. In the third and final segment of this series, we'll discuss the how to achieve a healthier middle ground -- assertiveness.

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