Don’t Tell Me About Authority Figure Issues!

BossiStock_000008449384XSmall Authority figure issues anyone?  Oh, yes.  We've got them. 

I've posted before about our complicated relationship with authority figures (in college, it's professors, in the work world, it's our bosses, our new "moms" and "dads").  Mainly, I wrote about authority figure issues in the context of handling criticism but I also mentioned it in terms of our assets as children of alcoholics. 

How would you know if you have authority figure issues?  Well, you almost certainly have them if you grew up in an alcoholic household, because you were raised by an unreliable authority figure (with his or her own authority figure issues). Your first model of an authority figure was a problematic one. People with authority figure issues often have problems with their bosses, stemming from an inability to respect the position of authority their boss has.  People with authority figure issues will pick fights with people in positions of authority — a cop, a teacher, a coach, or anyone who has the power to say "no," or tell someone what to do, such as a clerk, a waiter, or a ticket taker who seizes the food you brought into the movie theater.  

Know the saying "Question Authority"?  I used to see it on bumper stickers a lot in the 1980s.  I think it's an important concept. An ideal. I think kids should be able to question their parents' thinking, and feel free to do so. And I think employees should be empowered to question their bosses, and have open lines of communication between them.  However, questioning authority and inveighing against it are different, and it's important to know where the line between the two is — and when your actions are productive and when they're counter-productive. 

I witnessed my father have more public arguments than I care to remember with people in positions of authority while I was growing up.  I hated being the girl whose father was creating a scene in public. And, of course, it was always the other guy who was the asshole. What I hope I've inherited is his confidence to confront others, but in a fashion that doesn't have dramatic consequences.  

Anyway, it took me a while (that is, years) to realize that I had my own issues with authority figures. I don't pick fights, I grapple with my issues internally.  I have a history of finding it hard to respect my bosses. I always start out liking them.  But over time, that liking feeling fades–and, soon, I start to see them as "real" people, real flawed people, and then I start to feel resentful, to feel shortchanged for having such an imperfect boss. I then find it hard to want to work hard for the person. Eventually, I caught on to my issue. I saw it for the pattern it was. I realized that bosses are imperfect, all of them, and that I better learn how to work effectively with them — if I wanted their respect. 

It never occurred to me that bosses were human, imperfect.  I don't know why I should be so surprised that my bosses were flawed.  Of course they were.  Just like parents!  I'm sure that I was re-living an emotional drama from my childhood–the disappointment that I felt as a child when my parents failed me due to their flawed characters and lacking emotional wherewithal.  (That's why it helps, as parents, to 'fess up to your poor decisions, acknowledge to your children that you got mad or did a stupid thing — it helps them categorize it, and contextualize it. And know you're human, and humans make mistakes.  Even human parents!) 


In any case, none of that is the point of this post.  Rather, this is: lately I've been reading a lot of books about raising children and caring for babies.  One book in particular inspired this post:  Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn.  It's not for children of alcoholics in particular, it's for anyone raising a child or children.  Kohn's belief, and experience, is that over-praising children backfires and creates insecure children.  He believes that if we tell children that they're "great" all the time, that we love them for doing their chores, being "good," or for sharing a toy, that they will come to rely on praise so much that they won't want to do things not tied to praise (they'll need praise to be motivated to do anything).  


Similarly, he talks about threats and use of authority, and how the use (or mis-use) of authority will always backfire. (Authority figure issues are always from childhood!)


He writes:


"When we make children feel powerless, forcing them to submit to our will, this often generates intense anger, and just because that anger can't be expressed at the moment doesn't mean it disappears."  And, "When we make children obey by force, threats, or punishment, we make them feel helpless.  They can't stand feeling helpless, so they provoke another confrontation to prove they still have some power.  And when do they learn how to use that power?  From us.  Not only does authoritarian parenting make them mad; it also teaches them how to direct that anger against another person.  Such children may grow up with a constant need to thumb their noses at authority figures."


I had to read that last line again when I saw it:  "Such children may grow up with a constant need to thumb their noses at authority figures."


For sure! 


I've always maintained that we distrust authority figures because we had untrustworthy authority figures in our childhood lives.  But the Kohn book illuminated something new for me:  we had parents who were rigid, controlling, authoritarian alcoholics (among other things) and they expected us to do what they said.  Maybe yelling at us achieved results in the short term, but in the long run, their yelling did us a disservice.  


Now we're faced with the task of disengaging from our authority figure issues.  


Perhaps the next time you bristle at feeling like you're being told what to do or you're irritated with someone in a position of authority, ask yourself who really has the issue – them, or you?  What end-result do you want – think about that. 


Perhaps the next time your child questions your authority, have the confidence and calm to allow them room to comfortably ask "Why?"  Nurture your child's sense of reason.  Explain your thinking.  (If you always tell them, "Because-I-say-so," that doesn't teach them much.)


As always, we can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Kindness garners better, longer-lasting results than hostility, always.  




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  2. Lisajns says:

    Hi ya, I definately have authority figure problems, have for a long time! I have issues with exerting authority over others too. Perhaps it is to make myself feel more valuable (something I need to explore more). It’s interesting about feeling helpless. I was in a situation today where I was treated poorly by a colleague and I let it ride but it festered so I think I must have felt helpless so I baited her and of course an argument ensued! I won and gained my authority back (she is in a more junior role than me). God I have these issues ALL the time. I’ve got to sort it….or simply work for myself! ha….

  3. justextreme says:

    I think that authority itself is the issue here.

    The whole psychology field seems to be geared towards encouraging cultivation of obedient and unquestioning workers who do what the government and big business tell them to – submissive wage slaves. I think the problem is that we foster this unnecessary need for illegitimate authority by subjecting the developing minds of our young to it. If you treat your child as a social equal and talk to them calmly about any wrongdoing they will also grow up to question authority and rightly so. Don’t blame your problems on authority figure issues, instead embrace your want to question and confront all illegitimate and coercive authority for what it is. The reason you are this way is likely due to your exposure to rampant alcoholic authoritarianism at a young age and you want justice on a world sized scale.

  4. [...] dedicated to a reader who recently emailed me about authority figure issues (after reading my post, Don’t Tell Me about Authority Figure Issues!). The question was, how do we stop over-reacting to criticism? How do we stop being shut-down by [...]

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