I can scarcely remember a time in my life when I wasn’t involved in challenging the authority figures in my life one way or another. My mom likes to tell a story from when I was very young, probably about two or three, when I wouldn’t stop walking directly in front of her, causing her to stumble and trip. We were walking in the fields behind our house in pastoral Middlebury, Vermont, down to a small pond. Though I can’t remember, I’m sure I was getting under her feet with the express purpose of tripping her, likely with a literal display of toppling authority in mind. She relates that she became so frustrated after telling me multiple times to stop that she pushed me down into the soft tall grass. Apparently I got up and we finished our walk without incident. Being underfoot as a toddler was the first of many, many confrontations with authority figures I’ve had over the course of my life. The lesson has never been learned, which leads me to believe I will always be looking for a weakness in my superiors to exploit. Sigh.
I’m not entirely certain where my problem with authority stems from. I’m sure it has to do with control on some level. It seems to bubble up from inside, causing intense feelings of rage, indignation, self-righteousness and other unflattering emotions. Sometimes I can see it coming and all I can do is hang on and hope it passes without me doing something stupid on pure impulse. Other times it hits me like a lightning bolt, when, say, I clash with a supervisor. And there are the moments when it’s about flouting a faceless, nameless presence, like a corporation. Like the time I took gum out of my mouth and stuck it to a display table at H&M…just because. They didn’t have my size, and it seemed like I needed to react in a disrespectful manner toward the store management who employed people who wouldn’t go the extra mile to find the item for me. Yes, I did that. At age thirty. I’m telling you, sometimes my problem with authority is a problem with me.
In school I was certain teachers’ worst nightmares because I seemed to sense their vulnerability and worked to exploit it. I didn’t want them telling me it was time to settle down, or be quiet, or pay attention. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and so I would work to subvert them. Often this took the form of note-passing (ah, the pre-cell phone era), whispering, giggling, straight up talking over the teacher or acting out. In eighth grade I held crayons to a hot radiator, melting them in long streams to the floor. I liked our teacher, but needed to test her, to be sure she was capable of controlling me. I was constantly sent out of the room or to the principal’s office, or held after school. It became a familiar routine, and my need to challenge those in charge never decreased. The need wasn’t present with all teachers, however. Just those in whom I sensed a tight need for control. I would show them how little control they had, or allow them to prove they were worthy of holding my reins.
The workplace has never been an easy place for me for similar reasons. Authoritarian bosses chafe me like a rope tied around my throat. Being told what to do by a person I don’t respect feels as desperate. In graduate school, when I had my first therapy gig as a student counselor, I immediately disliked my reticent, bland supervisor. She was a doctoral student, also learning how to be a counselor. I knew at once I was going to spend the semester trying to “flip her” rather than focusing on working with my clients, because of my perception of her lack of confidence. I wasn’t going to take orders from some student with no backbone. I told our supervising psychologist as much, and she told me to go for it, that it would be an excellent learning experience for all of us.
Every job I’ve had (and I’ve had 20 different gigs in 19 years) I’ve gone into looking for the flaws in management. I’m not even aware I’m doing it until they make a misstep and I become obsessed with taking them down. In my teens and early/mid-twenties it seemed of crucial importance for me to root out the evil in my supervisors and expose it. After getting my head cut off (fired) by upper management repeatedly, and getting old enough that I realized I’m not playing with house money anymore (meaning if I don’t make the money, there is no money), I’ve adapted. Now I simply challenge authority, respectfully and productively, to its face, or get a new job. No need to involve the authority’s authorities. It feels like progress.
I must have such deeply-rooted control issues that I need to exert my influence in most sustained situations. I know that eventually an authority figure is going to show a flaw and that it’s going to disgust me. I will see it and feel like this less-than-perfect person has NO RIGHT TO TELL ME WHAT TO DO! How dare they, with their dearth of skills, tell me how it’s going to be, or how I’m supposed to perform. I’m not going to take direction from them, absolutely not. Instead, I’m going to manipulate the situation to meet my needs until I can get out of it. Note: I have never had a problem with authority figures who treat me like a teammate.
Maybe it’s genetic. My dad’s dad had such struggles with authority he dropped out of school in tenth grade. My mom has had her own moments of challenge in her jobs, which I can remember her animatedly rehashing at the dinner table. Maybe my brain works in such a way that I believe I can only be submissive to those for whom I feel total respect; placing myself below a flawed individual feels disloyal to myself. Are you like me? What is it about authority figures that grates on us so? I know my life would have been easier had I been able to simply fall in line. But hey, then I wouldn’t be me, and don’t you tell me to get in line!