| Potency and Impotence

This short piece explores the systemic dynamics which may be at play in sexual and other kinds of impotency and describes how the underlying dynamics may be identified and more resolved, in part through the understanding and use of inner ‘sentences’ that will be familiar to readers of this site. It does not deal with the common sources, solutions or advice on male sexual impotency or female sexual arousal disorder which are easy to research online.

One of the most common expressions of (sexual) impotence is erectile dysfunction (ED) in men. This can be caused either as a direct result of a physical health issues such as neurological damage, Diabetes, the side-effects of alcohol or medications as well as cardio-vascular and blood pressure issues.  However when these are not present or primary then impotence is likely to be caused by emotional and systemic dynamics.

Within these psychological dimensions are some particular relationship system dynamics which can cause problems with potency in life and at work as well as in intimate relationships.

In life

Systemic dynamics can lead to a sense of impotency, a lack of influence, a difficulty with finding and standing in personal authority.

✣  Impotency can be caused by a hidden unconscious loyalty to a forbear who was also in some way powerless. Or by a tragedy or early death. In both cases the inner ‘life sentence’ is often along these lines: “Just like you, me too. This is my way of remembering you. That’s how I belong in this family.”

✣  It can also be caused by the opposite dynamic – where a man or woman feels overshadowed by a particularly respected / charismatic  ancestor or ancestors. This is common in legacy families where there is a potent family story about the ancestor(s). “This family is so powerful and I struggle to find my place. I struggle to find a place of influence and potency”  and/or  “I feel trapped by the family legacy and powerless/impotent to escape it.”

✣ When someone is disinherited they will often feel impotent as their inner sentence may be something like: “I was due so much but I received so little. Now I have no power/nothing to give.”

“We lost a child and I felt so powerless, without influence, without meaning or motivation.”


In love

Sexual impotence car arise because of an event in the current family system, like an affair that creates feelings of guilt and confusion. However when the source is neither medical or emotional there may be an unconscious reason like or an event in the ancestral field. For example:

✣ Sexual abuse or other forms of subjugation of one sex by another in the family system in the past or present. The possible unconscious ‘life sentences’ include: “I will find a way to atone for all the women who were hurt by men in my family” / “In our family sex
was/is dirty – or used as power – and I will distance myself from that through this ‘dysfunction.’ “

✣ Men with a complex relationship with their mothers may suffer from impotency.
Unconscious ‘life sentences’ may include: “I’m stuck in your sphere of influence and get women,  sex and you confused. Until this is clear I will not be able to perform.” / “I was overwhelmed by the feminine and so have become a libertine but I bring the overwhelm into sex too and feel lost.”)

“It’s very damaging to mens self esteem to loose the ability to function sexually and it can start a downward spiral of angst and feelings of loss and powerlessness.”


In leadership

Everyone who works brings their inner sense of potency with them into their role, along with everything else that they are.

Those who are deeply connected into their roots and sources, their family and social system of origin, can use their potency to great effect, empowering others and enriching the lives and work of people in the organisational system.

For others who have an inner feeling of impotence that’s rooted in their origins or another organisational system in their past, they may be experienced as judgmental, short tempered and perhaps bullish and bullying.

Additionally if someone is over-identified with their work and role, then they are sidestepped or excluded from the system they may feel a deep loss of identity and potency. This kind of impotence can lead to catastrophic events like depressive periods and even suicide. There are many cases of this in the financial and banking industries for example, where identification with role and a male-dominated and highly competitive win-lose culture often prevail.

“My grandfather suddenly lost his business, which had been thriving. I’ve stayed loyal to that pattern and lost my business at the same age. I felt powerless, without influence.”


| Sentences for Life and Potency

When impotence has systemic roots its important to find the original ‘sentence’ and find out how that is embodied in the person suffering from lack of potency. Embodied ‘life sentences’ get enacted and become symptoms. By working backwards, behind the symptom to the underlying dynamics and on back to the original person or event, the first sentence can be spoken – so that it and the dynamics that emerged from it come into the light. This illumination of the source of the pattern carries no judgment but simply serves to reveal and name the source of the difficulty, just as it is or was.

Then, working forwards, sentences that belong to each stage of the journey of the dynamic can be spoken and they move the system into a more useful path that is strengthening and resourcing for the client who is slowly released and can then embody and enact a ‘Sentence for Life’.

Work in this area is clearly very personal and best done in a one-to-one setting.

Another perspective: ‘The Impotent King Syndrome’

While some of the factors triggering primary male impotence may be the man’s age, illnesses, substance abuse or medications, secondary impotence is believed to be most likely triggered by psychological variables, such as feelings of inadequacy, revenge and grandiose self-concept (Jacobs, 1977). Jacobs has come up with the term impotent king to describe a man with psychic impotence whose narcissistic tendencies may be keeping him from emotional and sexual maturity. Jacobs attributes the dilemma of psychic impotence to motivation in maintaining “sexual immaturity”.

A man may secretly want to remain a child to recapture what he thinks he lost in his childhood—his uniqueness and own sense of self-value (Jacobs, 1977).

Grounded in his clinical experience, Jacobs submits that the impotent king is typically involved in a “dominant- submissive relationship” with his female sexual partner—placing the man in the dominant role during coitus. Fixated in a regressive state, he is now trying to recapture the powerlessness he felt growing up. While very concerned with his own needs, sexual and otherwise, the impotent king tends to disregard his partner’s needs. A woman needs to feel she is important to her man; that he is committed to the relationship. Blaming his secondary impotence on her takes a toll on her emotionally. In an effort to compensate for her unmet emotional needs she may cling to him, much like he may cling to his parents’ approval.

Her clinging and compensatory over-functioning reminds him of his perceived engulfing mother. A man cannot make love to his mother; thus, he develops impotence. Except that instead of focusing in his own issues with impotence, he turns his attention to his female partner, his wife in most instances, and blames her for it, paralleling the way he might have blamed his mother for his father’s absence. Whereas the impotent king tends to be passive-dependent, he unconsciously pairs up with a woman who may be aggressive-dependent and have motherly overtones. He selects a woman with these characteristics because she reminds him of his mother, and at the same time, he resents her for the same reason.

No doubt, the impotent king may be aware of his female partner’s sexual needs. Thus, his impotence “may serve as an oblique outlet for the husband’s covert hostility triggered by the wife’s dominance” (Jacobs, 1977, p. 101). Full with metaphors, the bedroom becomes a torture chamber: his unconscious payoff is to diffuse responsibility for erectile dysfunction with his sexual partner and thus blame her for his inability to perform. He punishes her for his own unresolved and unacknowledged dependency issues with his family-of-origin. Covered with rage, the impotent king syndrome depicts a man who covertly blames his mother for keeping his father away, and then overtly blames his female partner for reminding him of his mother: “These men perceive women as invasive and insatiable”. The impotent king views women as insatiable because that is how he most likely experiences his own need for nurturing. The explicit rage against his female partner is actually a cover-up for the hidden rage he feels toward himself. He despises himself for his own human vulnerability. Viorst (1986) suggests this vulnerability to rage is “relentless”.

Extract from ‘’Impact of Family Dynamics on Narcissism and Impotence.’
By Martha Nodo

Links and resources

This is a ‘pop-up page’ about impotency that goes into a little more detail than is possible within the main articles.

For the main articles please see this page.

For an article about the use of porn and the impact on potency, please see this page.

For further reading with a systemic perspective please see the ‘Further Reading’ page, here.

For workshops facilitated by author John Whittington please explore here.