Authority: What Is Your Relationship with It?

A close-up picture shows a whistle hanging around a referee's neck.Political turmoil in the Middle East is a complex subject. It’s difficult to look at more than one perspective at a time, much like the blind folks in the room with an elephant, each thinking he or she knows what an elephant is from feeling it, while only describing one part of the elephant—the tail, the trunk, the foot, the ear, the belly.

Today we are going to look at the lens of authority.

True or false, in the Middle East today, it looks like people are:

  1. Rebelling against authority
  2. Joining with authority
  3. Using their authority well
  4. Misusing and abusing their authority
  5. Trying to discover their inner relationship with authority

The answer is 1, 2, 3, and 4 are true, depending upon the people about whom you are talking. Some people are rebelling against the authority in their country as they protest in the streets. Some people are joining with the authority as they fight the protestors in behalf of the authority, either in allegiance, for protection, or for money. Some people, both citizens and heads of state, are working to use their authority well—for example, those who are committed to non-violence, and those who are instituting beneficial reforms.

Others are misusing or abusing their authority—think of those who insist on keeping the status quo in place, are hiring mercenaries to come in and attack the protestors, and those who are being violent, like the citizens who attacked CBS correspondent Lara Logan. And think of those who either are taking a stance of complete denial, or who are truly in total denial.

#5 is most likely not happening, at least not consciously. People may be taking steps toward claiming their own authority—but not with a deeper understanding and consciousness of why and how they react to authority, and why and how they use their own authority. Without doing the deeper explorations, those steps (or any steps we take to make change) in the outer world cannot and will not be sustained.

So how are our relationships with authority created? Actually, it’s one of the earliest experiences we have, before we even have thoughts or words. We respond to the people who take care of us, the authorities in our lives, when we are babies. We respond to how they take care of us. When they are kind and generous, when they are cruel and depriving, and when they are indifferent.  In the former case, we might feel authorities are beneficent and idealize them. In the second, we might feel authorities are bad, evil, and demonize them. In the latter, we will feel authorities are indifferent to our plight. Even if there is great love by the authorities caring for us, there are always at least some times when the best parents/authorities have to say “no.” And someplace within us there is a response to them as if they are hostile.

If we idealize the authority at those young, unconscious times in our lives, we may be blinded by those who appear to be loving and kind, or even just charming and smiling (think of what it’s like for a baby to see a smiling or a frowning face). We may want to do whatever we can to help them, serve them, so they will love us and be kind to us. We may be seduced by them, only to find out they were not who they appeared to be at all, and that, now that they have manipulated their way into a position of authority, they are holding onto it with an iron fist. Or they may be doing the best they can, but not being perfect, and not having examined their own relationship with authority, they will act out their own distortions of authority, impacting many around them.

If we demonize the authorities, feeling deep that they are hostile beings, we may rebel against them—refusing to do what they say, making childhood decisions to pit our will against theirs as a way to stay alive and be ourselves. Or we may join with them, reflexively feeling if we are close to them, we’ll be too close for them to lash out at us.  Imagine a little boy holding tight to his father’s leg, believing if his father goes to strike him, the father will be hitting his own leg, too. So we may hate the authority, whether we rebel against or join in.

And whether we love the authority or hate the authority, join with it or rebel against it, this will also impact whether or not we want to have authority and how we use it. We may give up our birthright to our authority—to any authority we have, even our own voice. We may want to be just like the authorities in our lives, whether they used their power well or abused it. We may lie in wait, promising ourselves as soon as we have a chance, we will be the authority that others will have to obey. Or we may promise ourselves we will be the authority who will finally use power well.

Most of this we do without any consciousness of how we are affecting our relationship with people in authority or our relationship with our own authority. Then this all drives us from our underground, and we have no idea whatsoever what is interfering with our lives and our relationships.

We each need to explore who the authorities in our early lives were. And what was our emotional reaction to each of them. Where do we react that same way today? And how did those authorities and our reactions affect our standing in our own authority?

As I write in Power Abused, Power Healed:

“Many of us think we know the Divine. Yet, if we can transfer early authorities in our lives onto people, we can also transfer early authorities in our lives onto the Unknown ultimate authority as though it were a divine entity that looked, thought, felt, spoke, or acted like our mother, our father, our minister” (p. 187)

  • What does it mean to see the outer authority clearly and without transference?
  • What does it mean to stand in our own authority, without contamination by our early experiences and reactions?
  • What does it mean to truly use our authority well?
  • What does it mean to join together and use our authority in a healthy way and with positive intention?

We cannot really answer these questions without delving deep into our own psyches and souls to discover and work through what emerged from our youngest years. We can’t do that individually. And we certainly can’t do that communally. Not in our country. Not in Egypt. Not in the Middle East. Not in most of our world.

We can only answer these questions and embody healthy authority by doing our own inner work and healing our relationship with authority, down to the root—one by one, each of us having an impact on ourselves, those around us and others, some of whom we may never even meet!

© Copyright 2011 by Judith Barr, MS, LMHC, therapist in Brookfield, Connecticut. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 13 comments
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  • k sanders

    k sanders

    March 11th, 2011 at 7:33 PM

    although we may develop our early judgements about authority in our childhood years involuntarily,I think we have enough rationale as adults to really think of everybody’s good in general and then decide our stance…

  • Doc LC

    Doc LC

    March 12th, 2011 at 5:59 AM

    Hard to develop that relationship when there is never any management, never any looking out for the people, only yourself.

  • roger

    roger

    March 12th, 2011 at 11:43 PM

    not only are good qualities required to be a ruler but we also have certain responsibilities as the citizens of a country.whatever position we are in it is important that we respect the others and not be selfish.it is important that we have the basic human values to be good in whatever role we are.

  • James

    James

    March 13th, 2011 at 10:19 AM

    And what would happen if finally some of these dictators that have been in power for so long would wise up and realize that the masses are not going to sit by and take this anymore?

  • Pam G

    Pam G

    March 14th, 2011 at 4:33 AM

    People like to know that they have strong leadership in power but on the flip side they also want to know that they have the freedom to live their lives in a manner that they want to regardless of who is in the power chair. I think that is where a lot of the unrest stems from. These are people who have lived under an iron fist with no say so about how things are run and they are tired of constantly being muted and pushed down. I am glad that they are finally taking a stand in their own self interest but I had hoped that it could be done in a less violent manner.

  • Barnie

    Barnie

    March 14th, 2011 at 4:42 AM

    The people have woken up and the dictators need to realize this. The people’s sense of authority has been awakened and no tyranny can survive that.The people’s sense of authority wants to take charge and control of their nation,they want to run it by their representatives and not any tyrant.

  • pat sym

    pat sym

    March 14th, 2011 at 7:46 PM

    now that Egypt has been able to fend off it’s dictator,I hope there is no internal conflict and that countries like Egypt get on a course of a peaceful democracy.. :)

  • Lora

    Lora

    March 15th, 2011 at 4:40 AM

    And you have to remember that the way you are raised at home, looking on a much more local scale then the world wide issues, is also going to affect how you respond to authority, exerting it and living under it as well. Your parents so significantly influence how you relate in these types of issues, they form the very person that you are. Maybe you lived in a very strict home growing up and so now you rebel. Or maybe you craved more structure and so now this is what you give to your own children. We have to look very carefull at these formative years for answers.

  • Judith Barr

    Judith Barr

    March 17th, 2011 at 7:23 AM

    I appreciate your reading and responding to my article, Authority: It’s An Inside Job.

    Looking over everyone’s comments … it seems like many of you responded to things happening in our world, and it seems your perspectives may have come unconsciously from your own early experiences with authorities.

    Regardless of the focus of your comment . . . I invite you each to delve another step deeper. Who were the authorities in your early life? How did they use their power with you? What was the effect on you? As a result, how do you feel about authorities? And as a result, how do you feel about yourself having authority and using your power?

    This is work we all need to do. . .
    I welcome your sharing your discoveries!
    Many blessings,
    Judith

  • Samantha

    Samantha

    March 20th, 2011 at 7:44 AM

    Judith, thanks for your very interesting article. I had a very strict father and in turn chose to marry a man that was similarly controlling, although at the time I saw it more as him wanting to take care of me. Even though we later divorced (he found another woman, thank goodness!) I can’t shift the feeling that I drew that to me. I find it hard not to have some kind of authority figure in my life. It’s as if I’m scared to make decisions on my own almost. I’m working on that but it’s hard.

  • Jim

    Jim

    March 20th, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    Something else; no Westerners have been oppressed in their lives like some societies in the Middle East and Africa have over the past few centuries (need I mention slavery as a jumping off point?). We’re quick to complain about governmental authority and yet don’t appreciate how valuable the ability to even voice that is. Consider yourselves lucky to have grown up in a culture where uttering dissent doesn’t get you shot or incarcerated.

    On a side note, I think an article on how people react and cope when their human rights are violated would be a very good read.

  • Lyndall J

    Lyndall J

    August 19th, 2016 at 8:09 AM

    Thank you Judith – so succinct and insightful – it helped me refocus on my own inner relationship with myself to discover the ways in which I still submit to the ego instead of mySelf, reflecting the early socialization and morality of the culture I grew up in. Turning that inner relationship around is still challenging and your article was inspiring.

  • Judith Barr

    Judith Barr

    August 20th, 2016 at 2:24 PM

    And thank you, Lyndall, for sharing your response to my post. Doing our inner healing work can often be challenging, and I am so glad my article inspired you in your own healing journey.
    Blessings,
    Judith

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