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What Is an Abuse Victim’s Definition of an "Authority Figure?"
Ask anyone what an authority figure is, and he is likely to give you a logical answer-namely, anyone who is in a position of authority. But ask an adult child, who endured parental dysfunction, alcoholism, and abuse during his upbringing, the same question and he will most likely give you an emotionally painful one. “Authority,” to him, significantly transcends the traditional definition of the word, and so, too, does the concept of “parent.”
Subjected, without choice, recourse, escape, or solution, to some two decades of betrayal and detriment, such adult children, although still physically intact, are not necessarily emotionally stable, yet often deceptively appear confident and capable. However, their years of defaming, demoralizing, debasing, and dangerous exposure to parental infractions that they could neither defend nor protect themselves from has left them shattered and without the trust that otherwise enables people to connect with and love others in the world at large.
“Adult children often live a secret life of fear,” according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 10). “Fear, or sometimes terror, is one of the connecting threads that link the 14 trait traits together. Two of the first three traits describe our fear of people. While many adult children appear cheerful, helpful, or self-sufficient, most live in fear of their parents and spouses in addition to fearing an employer… They have a sense of impending doom or that nothing seems to work out.”
That fear is the principle parameter used by an adult child when he tries to define an “authority figure.”
“(All) children look to authority to help them define what is real and to make sound decisions in relating to others,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 355). “The support of responsible authority gives them confidence in developing their own ability to effectively live in the world.”
“(However), the tragedy for children in an alcoholic home,” it continues (p. 355), “is that they are robbed of a model for living that is based on a responsibility to sanity… The attitude of abuse that underlies all addictive behavior dominates the family and children learn to accept this attitude in others and themselves.”
Unknowingly negotiating the world with a hairpin trigger, such people frequently have it tripped by others, who can often be categorized as “authorities” because of several factors.
Taller, heavier, and/or stronger appearing, those with such physical characteristics may place the person at a present-time disadvantage by suggesting or recreating his early-life parental power play imbalance.
Speech, tone of voice, volume, movements, actions, and mannerisms serve as the behavioral characteristics that remind or retrigger him.
“We get a negative ‘gut-reaction’ when dealing with someone who has the physical characteristics or mannerisms of our alcoholic qualifier,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 417).
Mild imbalances, such as those manifested by someone else’s better job, higher salary, and greater comforts-like a larger house or more luxurious car-may cause a certain degree of uneasiness.
Life’s numerous functions, roles, and titles, including bank tellers, store salespeople, teachers, supervisors, bosses, policemen, and judges, along with the broader, rule-creating and upholding bodies of customs, immigration, court systems, jails, governments, and even God, are emblazoned with the word “authority” and place adult children at decided, almost no-win disadvantages with them.
Amplifying this authority and emphasizing their power are those who perform their functions in uniforms, which may virtually dictate their superiority. Those with safer, more stable upbringings may pass a roadside-parked police car at a speed which considerably exceeds the limit with aplomb, for instance, but an adult child may remove his foot from the gas pedal even if he is maintaining a speed that undercuts it, seeking to avoid the gripping emotions that would assuredly result from a confrontation with him.
Having been routinely targeted by a predatory parent and given “punishment” for doing little more than existing during his upbringing, he has become used to being held responsible for others’ uncontrollable behavior and taking the blame for infractions he never committed.
“Authority figures scare us and we feel afraid when we need to talk to them,” again according to the ACA textbook (p. 417).
“We confuse our boss or supervisor with our alcoholic parent(s) or qualifier and have similar relationship patterns, behaviors, and reactions that are carryovers from childhood (ACA textbook, p. 417).
Forced to stuff, swallow, shelve, deny, and even self-lie about his past in order to believe that it is “gone and forgotten,” an adult child fails to realize and understand that it is not and that a single authority figure can gently press its “play” button, inducing its unresolved and sometimes traumatic recordings to come back to life in his mind. These circumstances can result in varying forms of insanity.
“Insanity,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 359), “begins when children are compelled to deny the reality of pain and abuse. Once children have accepted the idea that alcoholism is not violent or dangerous, they have no basis for deciding what is real or for knowing how to respond to those around them. They no longer trust authority to guide them or protect them from harm.”
Indeed, “authority” created their harm, abandoning them in their greatest time of need, and no one then appeared to protect them from their original and only “authority.”
“We transfer that fear (of abandonment) to our adult lives, and we fear our employers, certain relations, and group situations,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 11). “We fear authority figures or become an authority figure.”
In the latter case, the abuse is propagated from an abused child, who becomes an adult child, and then to his own offspring, if he has not undertaken adequate recovery, repeating the only behavior to which he has been introduced.
An adult child’s definition, in the end, of an authority figure has little correlation with what the figure does, but instead with what he subconsciously believes he does to him, and this involves several subtle factors.
First and foremost is the fact that an authority figure wears the displaced face of his parent or primary caregiver, seeming to gently uproot the sediment of his past he thought was well buried.
Secondly, he ignites the emotional link, like a thread stretched from present to past time, or between him now, as an adult, and him then, as a child, generating the anxieties, fears and trepidations that were first sparked by his parents’ original betrayal of him-or the one that inadvertently placed him on the “enemy” side of their fence and created the distrust that separated him from them and, ultimately, most of the others in the world. Instead of attracting, it repelled, eventually leading to his disconnection from them and God or the Higher Power of his understanding.
Paradoxically, what he now most needs to heal his condition-the reunification with others–he most rejects.
Despite what may be several ensuing decades since that original infraction occurred, the regenerated emotions may cause similar or even identical reactions, returning him to a time when he was physically, psychologically, and neurologically undeveloped, and resulting in current-time powerlessness and paralysis.
Finally, the neuro-pathways, or connections between his brain cells or neurons, may be so thick and established, that he automatically rides them to their origins, in effecting returning him to age three or four or five when he may now be 30 or 40 or 50.
“Abuse from authority figures in childhood has left us on guard as adults about authority figures,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 379). “We tend to place people in the categories of an authority figure when they may not be such a person… Our past experiences tell us that any leader, employer, or officer is inherently an authority figure, and is to be distrusted.”
If a loving, nurturing, and protecting parent treated me like this, an adult child may reason, then how will the others in the world, who do not know me from Adam and therefore do not owe me anything, treat me?
The brain’s purpose, above all else, is to promote and ensure a person’s survival and it processes any potential danger, whether perceived or real, in its primitive or reptilian portion, sparking a flood of stress hormones to be harnessed so that the person is adequately fueled for the fight or flight action that will improve his chances of survival if it does. An abused child, forcibly confronted with a hopelessly unbalanced power play, can do neither, other than flee within by creating an inner child sanctuary, and therefore virtually drowns in the physiological reactions sparked within him, both defeated by this unusable response and the detrimental parent who tripped its circuit.
It takes several more milliseconds for his circumstances to reach and register in the higher, reasoning portion of the brain. But, wired to be “better safe than sorry,” the lower part often reacts the same way with later-in-life, parent-representing authority figures, bypassing the path to the higher functions and leaving the person little choice but to fight the waves of fear and terror stirred up inside him. Repeated original-incident betrayals and dangers create chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Forced, before understanding or recovery, to negotiate life by means of survival traits that attempt to minimize the danger he believes he is subjected to, he implements a people-pleasing strategy in order to sooth, assuage, and mollify his parental-displaced authority figures and hence create the delusion that he is kind, helpful, and benevolent-in other words, that he is a friend and not the enemy he seemed to become in his parents’ or primary caregivers’ eyes. The motivation, in all cases, is to improve his chances of survival in his emotionally debilitated state, despite the fact that the danger almost exclusively exists inside his mind and not outside of it, in the world.
Two of the 14 survival traits echo an adult child’s fearful state: “We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures” and “We became approval seekers and lost our own identity in the process.”
“Becoming a people-pleaser,” according to the ACA textbook (p. 11), “is one of the solutions that adult children apply to avoid being criticized, shamed, or abandoned. Adult children also attempt to disarm angry or frightening people with approval seeking behavior… We believe that we will be safe and never abandoned if we are ‘nice’ and never show anger.”
The authority figure and people-pleasing dynamics are byproducts of being forced to deal with defaming, dysfunctional, and sometimes dangerous parents or primary caregivers, and neither knowing nor understanding the reasons behind their actions, since the abuse was never identified nor labeled as inappropriate. The adult child, in the end, was led to believe that his parents represented all others in the world.
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