When we were children, everyone was bigger, stronger, and could boss us around.
What do you feel when you think about challenging an authority figure? Dread? Anger? We assess present moment threat using our experiences from the past, when we depended on authority figures like parents, teachers and older kids.
As children, we had very little power to control our environment. Whether we were angry because they sent us to bed when we didn’t want to go, or feeling abandoned when we wanted their attention but they were absorbed in their phone, we were subject to their rules. When we’re young and a parent says “my house, my rules”, we have to comply. We wait it out until we’re old enough to have other options.
In our society, we grant authority to certain people and groups. Supreme Courts have the power to make laws to defend or to take away our freedom and rights. Other judges impose punishments when we break the law and police enforce the laws and sentences.
We have increasingly complicated agreements to govern how we interact in the world. We agree to stop at red lights and obey traffic laws. We require seat belts because health authorities proved they save lives and reduce hospital costs. Sovereign nations make treaties that govern everything from who can fish in which waters to economic sanctions when a country breaks international laws.
Groups of adults come together to make these agreements. In a democracy, every citizen is supposed to have the right to a voice through their vote, although this is highly influenced by systemic oppression like racism.
We have an expectation of fairness, although the truth is that many of our systems have at least some degree of corruption. Some groups (like white people) are favored by those in power (mostly white men). Some people feel like they are insiders with regards to power, and some feel like outsiders. Some people collude and curry favor to gain power and benefits for themselves. Other people speak out against injustice.
People have authority over us in many ways, large and small, and we have strategies to maximize benefits and minimize risks. A manager is extra nice to admin staff. A doctor treats their nurses well. Most of us won’t yell at a police officer who pulls us over.
Challenging authority figures creates a heightened sense of vigilance. They have power to bestow benefits or take them away, and they can make our life easier or harder.
How do your childhood experiences with authority affect your life today? Are you still in freeze? Does your voice shake and your heart pound like it does when you think about challenging a long dead parent? We know they can’t hurt us anymore but in our nervous system we are flashed back to when they could.
Someone in a flight response might avoid a confrontation by rationalizing. It’s in the past. It wasn’t so bad. What good would it do now anyway?
We all know people who take out their frustrations on retail and wait staff. This has also become a serious problem in hospitals and nursing homes. These people are not in freeze or flight, they’re in a fight response, which might include the cold implacable anger of someone holding a grudge, the flash of irritation, or burning contempt. It is difficult and sometimes dangerous to be with people in a fight response.
For the last several weeks we’ve been working with arrested self-protection and anger at injustice. This week we’ll work with approaching our interactions with authority figures from a grounded place of being an adult.
Bring to mind a situation where you need to stand up and negotiate something for yourself. We run into these every day. Let’s take an example using our health.
What is your strategy to talk with your doctor about a diagnostic test? In this situation, fear for our health might be triggering us into emotional flooding and a fight/ flight/ freeze response. Do you fawn? Get demanding? Play the “I’m weak and need help” card to appeal to their sympathy? “Forget” to make an appointment?
We’re looking into our strategies to help us see what might be coming through from childhood that is no longer necessary. Be careful not to shame yourself around this. Given what we know about the brain when we’re stressed, it makes sense that for big health decisions we need an advocate who can help us remember what is said and sometimes act on our behalf. We are also more likely to fall back on old strategies.
For all of our encounters with authority, it helps to be grounded and feeling like an adult with our higher level cognitive brain functioning well. The doctor has authority because of their medical training and experience. We have authority from first hand knowledge of what is going on in our body and because it is our life. When we treat each other with caring and respect we have the best chance of a good outcome.They’re not our boss. We’re working together.