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Therapy Lingo

Authority Issues

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Difficulty dealing with authority figures is a common reason people enter counseling, and it shows up in several characteristic ways.

  1. Some go from job to job because they can't handle a boss. This pattern is usually repeated in their dealings with others "in authority" (e.g. doctor, police officer, maitre'd).
  2. Some people unconsciously express their authority issues in sublter ways. For instance, they can be overly-deferential towards authority figures. They have a problem saying no, and are usually the ones staying late because they've taken on too much.
  3. Others reveal themselves in how they exercise their own authority in dealings with students, subordinates, and clients. If you've seen the show "The Office" you know what we mean.

Authority issues compromise our decisions in life

Our unconsciously-held attitudes towards authority are also revealed in our personal views of organizations and institutions. I've personally had to make an effort to overcome a prejudice against bureaucratic corporate culture. On the plus side, however, the aversion I felt was a strong motivator in creating my own company and being my own boss.

In my case I left the corporate world completely, but my attitude towards authority still had to be addressed (in therapy) because it remained a liability to my success as an independent businesswoman.

In retrospect, I might never have had the energy I do now to do the things I want in my life if I hadn't gone to therapy and dealt with my own authority issues.1

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How authority issues show up

If you have these issues, you'll find yourself responding in inappropriate ways to authorities. You may find yourself fluctuating between over-compliance and hostility. fearful of authorityIf you are a boss, you might realize how your use of authority replays the same drama you experienced as a child.

When we say we have issues with authority it means we have difficulty with individuals who wield power over us.

This could be our boss, but also someone with higher social status, or anyone who has something we want and the power to withhold it.

Psychologically speaking, authorities have only as much power over us as we reflexively give them. You see, it isn't the way we think about authority, though that's certainly part of it. The trouble lies in the way we feel about authority.

The power we allow an authority figure to have over us affects how we feel about ourselves, and thus the degree of internal discomfort. fearful of authoritiesThat being so, the ability to change our attitudes remains in our hands. We give away our power, or we exercise it, to the degree to which we resolve those issues.

How do these issues arise?

Your first "authority figures" were your parents, or caretakers. That's right, it all goes back to Mom and Dad! Not that you can blame them. They were just passing on--quite unconsciously--pretty much what they experienced when they were that age.

Our feelings about authority are governed primarily by the implicit memory system. They emerged through interactions with our parents in the early years. It is where our feelings towards authorities are imprinted and hence why we respond the way we do.

If your mother or father (or caretakers) felt it was better to evoke fear to get you to obey them, then you probably have ambivalent feelings about authority. Indeed, if they had ambivalent or conflicted feelings about authority figures, then almost certainly you picked up on them, albeit non-consciously.

In particular, if you experienced abuse at the hands of your parents/caretakers or anyone you trusted when you were very young, then you're much more likely to have authority issues.

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Changing your response to authority in therapy

Because authority issues arise from our feeling states, they are not effectively changed by left brain criticism or admonition. We need to feel how and where these states arise in the body (a right brain strategy) and then move into experiencing something new at that moment.

Where would we find such an experience? Well...I thought you'd never ask! A good place to start is in the safety of a therapeutic relationship--with an attuned therapist.

Toxic Work Environmnent?

If you've been in a toxic work environment you'll find the posting below interesting. It's from a boss with an employee who appears to have issues with authorites.

Reviewed by: Dr. Carole Gaato

Related Topic

Boundaries

Notes

1To read more on my views of how our emotional issues can slow us down, read my short piece Why go to therapy? I want to make the world a better place.

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Reader Comments

George (NY, USA)

I struggle with issues with authority, which I was reading about in this site. Very helpful, to everyone who described their experiences, and to Shrinklady's responses.

It seems difficult for me to differentiate between instances when I am overreacting to authority in a paranoid fashion, and when I am reacting to a situation where someone is trying to demean me, or others who I may try to stick up for.

I am certainly hypersensitive to authority, and reading about this has been helpful.  The struggle, for me, is to understand when a reaction to authority is appropriate.

George


PT (Southeast, USA)

It is interesting that most of the comments I read were written by women ... and young(er) women at that. However, I am a 55 year old man with authority problems and they do happen to men. They may even happen to us more frequently, but we are less likely to seek help.

What I have found is that these problems have seemingly ebbed and flowed during my life - sometimes intense, sometimes not at all. But they were always there lurking in the background even if they were not causing problems at the time. I watched my father suffer with these problems most of his life -- to the point that he was almost psychotic at his death. Now I see my son going through the same problems just as I am dealing with them now. That makes me feel sad.

He is not aware of the issue but I hope he doesn't wait until he is 55 like me. One thing I have wondered though. You mention throughout that this is a feeling issue not a thinking issue. Yet, there seems to be two schools of thought. One says the feelings come from the "old brain" on which they are deeply imprinted. Those feelings then result in thoughts (ie, self-talk) and if we become aware of the self-talk we can use the "wise mind" to talk our way out. (For example, a thinking strategy might be, "is there rational objective evidence to support what I believe about this situation?")

Another school of thought says that the reactions are so deeply engrained we can't hope to change them cognitively. I.E., it isn't possible to "fake it til you make it." Traditional psycho-therapy is the only way. What do you think about this?

Can cognitive therapy work? Does it even help or is the traditional psychotherapy setting where you work through the issues of transference and counter-transference the only method that works?

When something comes up during the day I find myself using these cognitive strategies to cope. Sometimes they seem to work and sometime they don't. The more intense the problem the less they seem to work. I've been told that it is just a matter of practice, but I wonder if that is true. So, I continue to find myself either overly defiant or overly compliant. (No coincidence that these words rhyme.)

It is very difficult for me to set and keep boundaries without going through a bad time which reminds me I have to practice this daily. It is very difficult to get a handle on sometimes and can be very frustrating. I'm at one of those points now. I do see a counselor but how do I know if he is doing a good job? I think sometimes I intimidate most people and trigger their mal-adaptive strageties or authority issues ... maybe even my therapist. I don't want to arrive at the end my life a bitter, angry and unhappy old man.

PT

Hi PT, it's so inspiring to hear your reflections. It certainly appears that you've been doing some soulful thinking about your life. And you know, age 55 is a great time to start therapy. You'd be amazed at the folks I see who are making changes at this time of life. I'm in that camp myself.

So, to answer your question...yes, cognitive strategies work albeit not all the time. And the problem is, they take a long time to get them set into "procedure" for all your different states.

You see, these strategies are less effective if your state shifts too much from your baseline as we often do when we get stressed (i.e. if you get activated). That's why they work sometimes and not others.

Their effectiveness depends on how activated your nervous system is at the time. If you're maxed out by the day or the previous day's activities, then chances are you won't have room to contain the arousal pattern. If the activation is not contained, you will have less cognitive control.

In other words, your emotional brain will call the shots and your internal reaction will be there before you can say jack rabbit.

However - and this is really important - you don't need to go the route of traditional therapy either. I recommend right brain based therapies. In other words, get a right-brain-based therapy for a right-brain-based problem!

Right brain therapies involve an attuned connection with a therapist. Body psychotherapy and mindfulness based therapies might easily fall into that category.

These types of therapies most often create change from the "bottom up" (i.e. from the reptilian and emotional brain). Cognitions are certainly involved but not near the degree that "top down" strategies (aka cognitive or left brain strategies) entail.

Here's the thing PT and it relates to your current therapy.

Even therapists who use cognitive therapy exclusively have the capacity for co-creating deep "to the core" changes with their clients. If your therapist is attuned - he or she is able to help you track and contain your emotional states - then there exists the potential for long lasting change.

I have one suggestion PT. You ended your post with an interesting comment and it sounds as if you are picking up on some countertransference from your therapist. I wonder if it might be useful to share this insight with your counselor?

My guess is that it might prove a good jumping off point for deeper work. At the very least, you'd learn pretty quickly if your therapist is right for you.

Best wishes on your journey,

Shrinklady


Lisa

I hve come to the point where I hate my boss. I think it's largely because some of his behaviours have triggered my difficulties with authority. He is rude to me, doesn't respect me as a senior employee ( will for exmaple insist that I break a lunch date to do something I could do after lunch), recenlty threatened to fire me (when I tried to tell him a certain posting system wasn't adequate he told me I had a choice betwen learning to do it or leaving my job) and lately he told me that letting someone go was a good thing because it scared people into working harder.

I was so triggered that I can barely lok at him without a glare of hatrd in my eyes.

My mom was extremely abusive and her whole way to discipline me was through fear.

Lisa

Oh my Lisa, it does seem like quite the challenge you have there. Holding onto your personal power will undoubedly muster all the resources you have.

I like that you related your current experience with your history. Growing up with an abusive mother has likely sensitized you to the dynamics around the workplace.This awareness is critical to understanding the intensity of your reactions in this present situation.

It's important to understand that this man is likely triggering your early childhood experiences. This means your internal reactions will be intensified in ways that are probably different from your colleagues some of whom might be better at sloughing him off or finding a different way of dealing with him.

If my guess is right, you most likely will go into a familiar pattern, a freeze response. In this state, we usually find it hard to defend ourselves and left brain thinking is often off line.

This is really heavy duty stuff Lisa and I'd really encourage you to find a therapist who can help you find your way through these landmines.

In time, you may find that you're less impacted by him and/or even open to options not previously considered. Yup, you may even surprise yourself. That's the good news potential of working through our own stuff.

Best to you,

Shrinklady


Judy (California, us)

I am a single mom (widow) who has a daughter and a son. My daughter (older) has had what seems to be authority issues since childhood. After reading all of your above resposes to others, I really think this is what my daughter's problem is. Great kid, loving heart, but she has had dicipline issues since middle school.

Now it manifests itself into not being able to hold a job. If she is told NOT to do something she does it all the more... sort of like it's a game... "okay go ahead and see if you can catch me." Her grades dropped in school in classes she was challanged in.

Once it became a problem we, (her parents and teachers) tried to help with tutors, and punishment... ie: can't go to dance unless your grade comes up...grounded for behavior issues etc. It became more of us thinking of dicipline than having a fun relationship. It seemed that the action was so important that the dicipline didn't matter.

Now it has become an issue with college. Not going to class, completely failing classes even to the point of taking a couple semesters off. She has shoplifted and gotten caught, she smokes and has used Rx drugs that she has bought on the street. The thing is, she isn't very good at not having me find out. Almost appears as if she WANTS me to. Or knows I'll try. I don't know anymore. I think it could be a "mother/daughter issue sometimes.

My question is: could this be all my doing and can I change MY behavior to help her change hers?

Judy

Hello Judy, yes it does seem that your daughter is wanting to attract your attention. The dynamic of "okay go ahead" feels like a working through of something in the hopes of getting what she needs. That might seem contrary on the surface of course. It's the nature of reenactments, they tend to get played out in several scenarios.

And yes, in situations like these, there are usually things you can change in your behaviour to help her. I also want to say that it's wonderful you are approaching the problem from this perspective. It will require some personal work on your part and it's awesome that you are open to the option of looking at your own behavior. Nonetheless, the results will likely benefit the both of you in ways you may not anticipate at present.

Your daughter is bouncing up against you and it sounds as if the ways you have been reacting in the past are no longer working. I suspect there is something that she is needing from you and she may not even be aware of what it is. And, if she is aware, I suspect she won't take it seriously into conversation with you unless she feels emotionally safe to do so.

It might be useful to look at the situation from the perspective that her behaviour in her youth was in the service of her needs. When a child is acting out as she did early in her middle schooling, her attachment to you would be the first thing to look at in my books. Maybe, her behaviour was an outgrowth of misattunements that weren't apparent at the time. Perhaps, she was picking up on unresesolved anger from you. There are numerous hypotheses to consider.

One thing's for certain Judy, it's gonna be hard to figure it out on your own. The best way to get to the bottom of possible issues is to engage in your own therapy. It's with a seasoned therapist that patterns in your relationship with your daughter can be uprooted and made apparent to you.

With the benefits of good therapy, you will learn to bring a level of honesty into your interactions with your daughter and to approach her with a deeper level of understanding and commitment.  

I hope it works out for you,

Shrinklady


Rachael (Oklahoma, USA)

How do you know you truly have issues with authority? I'm reading through some of this and the only thing that rings true is either I'm overly subservient to others or put up walls and give the silent treatment when I feel those people have hurt me - we're talking husband and pastors here.

I went through years of physical and sexual abuse as a child-although not from my parents-and so I'm wondering-is this really an issue with those in authority over me, or is it an issue with trust-especially in men?

Rachael

Well Rachael, it's quite probable that you are dealing with both. But here's the thing. The left brain sometimes gets so wrapped up in trying to figure out the "why" of something, especially since it has a superiority complex, when in fact, we need to be looking at what "just is".

In other words, it's not so much in finding an exact label for our angst as it is important to move through the feelings of it. The subservience that you notice and the silent walls you create are common survival strategies in reaction to abusive authorities. You see, any adult to a child is an authority figure. And, lack of trust in men when they have been the abusers, is a natural consequence.

Given your history Rachael, I can imagine that you're carrying a heavy load. I do hope you're getting the support through therapy. Issues of abuse run so deep, it's almost impossible for us to resolve them on our own.

Take care,

Shrinklady


Heather

Thanks for your website - not many resources came up when searching which surprised me. I was recently told that one of the reasons I had difficulty in graduate school was due to authority issues. I was shocked since I never thought of myself as being boldly rebellious, etc. However, I've been thinking about it more and see several areas where this comes up.

Similarly to crying reaction in the earlier post, I would always break down in tears when stopped by a policeman or had to talk to a professor about difficulties with readings or assignments. I don't do well with no and ah yes, I also just discovered I have ADD nearing the end of a very difficult graduate program so this fits right in as well.

On the policeman topic, I find myself feeling paranoid when walking into a store and seeing a guard. Knowing I'm doing nothing wrong I still feel self-conscious and nervous for some strange reason. Funny, I think this has been going on for longer but I only recently noticed this last behavior.

Anyway, there are more incidents to mention more recently from grad school that seem to fit for example, feeling disappointed in my graduate program I was moved to challenge authority and started an organization to advocate for change; feeling crushed by the dean of my college by small little comments and still have waves of ongoing anger months months later; resisting anything that leaves me feeling judged and frustrated by an interminable thesis.

Somehow the perfectionism associated with ADD, combined with the let down of forcing myself into grad school and graduating with disappointment at it not being what I had hoped plus no jobs available in this economy has got me quite down and searching for clues to deeper issues.

I was told that I may have a dissociate disorder related to my authority issues but I'm not even sure what that means! I guess I feel like a scared little girl when these issues come up and resent feeling judged or put down or controlled. Sounds child abuse related - probably is.

Now I'm a graduate looking for work but resist applying for things because I can't take putting myself out there to be judged good enough or not good enough by others. Help! Any advice would be most appreciated. Thanks in advance for reading this and providing a place to voice these challenges

Heather

Hello Heather, thank-you kindly for your detailed post. I'd like to comment about a few things. It certainly sounds as if unresolved authority issues are wreaking havoc with your emotional wellness. I know just from my own personal experience and those of clients' that feeling "accused" even when no crime has been commited is far from rare.

If we have relational trauma, we're going to be hypersensitive in our interactions with others...indeed, we will actively seek out scenarios that serve to ignite old wounds (i.e. reenactments) for the purpose of healing them even though it may not look like that at the time. So not surprisely, we typically react in one of two ways, either in a submissive or challenging manner. Both serve a purpose....survival.

I gather from what you described, it was not typical of you to challenge authority. Actually, what you've done in organizing for change Heather is rather cool (even if it doesn't feel like this at this time). When you challenged the program, you were challenging yourself to override old behavioural patterns. . .I mean it's amazing that you took on the system.

And from the sounds of it, you did this despite lacking optimal support. It is often the case - as my good friend and colleague Dr. Carole would say - when we first attempt to set boundaries, we are seldom met with "high fives all around". And when we don't, we tend to judge ourselves figuring we've done something wrong and/or we are not okay.

Here's a way to undertand what's happening on a neurobiological level. When the nervous system is amped up as it is when we've experienced relational trauma and it certainly sounds as if you have, we're more easily triggered. When we have authority issues, a policeman, instructor even a repairman can serve as a target for our angst. That is, the left brain automatically interprets what's around us as a threat.

So for instance, with this knowledge, when I find myself having these types of feelings I redirect my thoughts to the notion that I just might be a little more activated at this moment in time. That is, if I'm activated, I'm more prone to being triggered by authority figures. So, what helps is reducing my activation through grounding or resourcing.

You haven't mentioned a therapist Heather. Therapy would be the best place to search out clues to these deeper issues. It would afford you the opportunity to resolve these issues and free you up to take the next steps in your career. And because the feelings are still arising, now is the best time to work them through..we need to feel to heal, you see.

Just so you know, I certainly wouldn't have made it through grad school without therapy and I definitely know I'm not alone in this. So, if you haven't already, I'd encourage you to take up therapy and get the support you deserve. As you step out into your life, remember baby-steps are all that are required.

All the best on your journey,

Shrinklady


Pauline

I looked up the topic because I just recently figured out that authoritative figures were an issue to me. It pertains to school sometimes and most recently with work. I was just hired at a place where I want to grow professionally but I seem to keep making mistakes.

The first time my boss called me in for being late. I remember feeling embarrassed and then trying to apologize and ending up crying in front of my boss. I did the same thing when another issue arose even though the issue wasn't entirely my fault, I just felt guilty for what happened. Yesterday, I received a call about something that happened on my watch. The most interesting part is we spoke over the phone and I didn't cry. I cried afterwards. The issue is that it was partially my fault but my other co-workers left me high and dry and I could not do anything about the situation.

My boss is notorious for bringing the attention back to me. Like everything is my responsibility regardless of everyone else that is working. It's frustrating trying to defend myself and she has a come back for everything. Even when I know I didn't do anything wrong and I receive a call from work my heart beats rapidly.

I had already associated it with my parents before I read the article but I can't seem to shake it off. It is only at this new job that I feel this way. I haven't felt like this towards any of my other bosses. I used to get teary eyed speaking to my professors because I didn't understand the material. But I don't know what it is about this woman that causes me to feel so bad and makes me break down and cry. Maybe it's the fact that I feel helpless?

Pauline

Hello Pauline, your story sounds so personally familiar to me. I too, could not control my reactions to folks in authority and it sounds like you're encountering the same thing.

I can appreciate that these feelings are not so easily "shaken off". It might help to know our reactions to authority figures are learned early and are implicitly laid down and are not easily shifted with left brain insight or self admonitions. As I have mentioned in other posts, insight will only take us so far.

There's two ways the nervous system can learn to let go of these internal reactions. One is through better life experiences. The main problem here is that it's pretty hard to know when we're not in the middle of 'here I go again' when that's all we've ever known. It's a sort of hit and miss endeavour to create something different unless we are willing to do some heavy soul searching and risk taking.

The other way is through therapy. And I don't mean just talking about your authority issues, I am referring how it shows up in your relationship with your therapist and how you experience your feelings. For instance, one of the ways my authority issues show up in my personal therapy is in how I react to my therapist through my eagerness to impress her.

I remember one day, thinking how I was feeling discouraged about my web business. The first thought that entered my head was, "well, I can't tell her that!" It was as if I needed to only show aspects of myself that shed a positive light on me. In order to shift this pattern I needed to feel some of the embarrassing feelings in the session and to be present to them. As I did so and shared my emotional state with her, I was able to allow the feelings to rise up and move through.

You see Pauline, it isn't about impressing your boss with how hard you work, how good a person you are or how much responsibility you take. These are all patterned responses of trying to work something out for your own self worth with a boss who doesn't appear to be able to see you clearly for who you are. It's a transference dynamic.

I had another thought about your boss that might explain some of her behaviour and why you in particular have been the target of her remarks. If we are dismissive of ourselves or if we tend to take responsibility for things that are not ours, it's just possible that we've taught others to not take us seriously. It's as if we teach others by our own example, from how we are with ourselves.

Remember too, that your boss is in transference with you and this may explain the intensity of what you're going through as opposed to other bosses that you've worked with.

I hope you will consider therapy Pauline. Transferences can be resolved. Your choice of  workplace is offering a tremendous albeit painful learning experience. I bet it was made in part to help you grow and move more fully into your potential.

All the best,

Shrinklady


Athrun (Perth, Australia)

hey i think this is a pretty helpfull post. im currently a uni student and i find that i have some serious authority issues, as in i pretty much wont listen to ANYONE who tells me to do things a certain way, especially if their of higher authority than me. this post has helped me learn about whats going on. thanks =D

Well, nice to see someone dropping in from Australia, Athrun. Yes, issues with authority can be powerful. Get's my back up from time to time too.

I hope you'll check back from time to time. I'm hoping to add another concept I haven't had a chance to write about called 'autonomy'. This developmental stage (8-9 months to 18 months) together with 'will structure' (15 months to 2.5 years) when infants are just learning to exert their power, can also interfere with our relations with authority figures. (I'll leave this as "note to self" so I'll remember to get around to it.)

Bye for now,

Shrinklady

 


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