I came of age during the late 60s and early 70s, when youth rebellion against authority exerted a profound influence on the entire culture. Parent-child relationships, marriage and family life, music, television, politics and, of course, the war in Viet Nam — in just about every sphere, my generation rebelled against the status quo. So much good came out of this revolution, with enlarged rights for women and minorities, greater freedom from repressive attitudes toward sex, and a government more responsive to the voice of its people. Without rebellion against established authority, progress would never occur. Just take a look at the regime in North Korea if you want an example of what happens when authority forbids any challenge to its position.
Given how profoundly rebellion against authority has shaped our culture since the 1960s — how it has become an accepted norm, in many ways, especially within politically liberal circles — it’s easy to forget that authority also has a social value. Without authority to curb our anti-social tendencies, for instance, anarchy would prevail. If everyone did whatever he or she wanted, without regard to restrictions imposed by the social order, civilization could not exist. Another kind of authority comes with the accumulation of experience: in its best expression, authority tries to pass along the lessons of experience so that the next generation doesn’t have to start from scratch and learn everything all over again. This is a large part of parenting: we teach our children what our own parents taught us, as well as what we may have learned in our own lifetimes — about how to navigate the challenges and frustrations of existence, to manage ourselves and our relationships, to work, play and find meaning in our lives.
A large part of parenting involves the word No. No, you cannot pull the cat’s tail — she will scratch you. No, you cannot run into the street — a car might run you down. No, you cannot stick that paper clip into the electrical socket. Children, especially very small ones, have no idea about the dangers of the world; by exerting their authority to curb dangerous impulses, parents teach their children about those dangers. By imposing other limitations such as bedtimes, homework-before-play rules and good eating habits, parents also help their kids learn how to take care of themselves. Thoughtful rules, imposed with concern, encourage the development of self-control and self-discipline. In these ways, proper authority is enormously useful. Imagine a child growing up without it. Parents also pass along values they have absorbed from their culture which (optimally) have helped make their own lives more meaningful — values such as monogamy, devotion to family, the importance of community and meaningful work, etc. This is a best case scenario, of course.
Some people who rebelled against authority during the 60s and 70s threw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. They rejected just about every aspect of the status quo, as if it had zero value; they believed they could create a new social order from scratch, free of all the “hang-ups” of their parents’ generation and every other one that preceded it, unrestrained by any kind of authority. Monogamy, family life, career — for some of my generation, these were contemptible “bourgeois” values which must be rejected. While the idealism of my generation led to so many worthwhile changes, the confused rejection of all forms of authority led many people to waste years pursuing impossible dreams. One couple I know “dropped out” and went to live on a commune for ten years; only after experience taught them some painful lessons did they return to society-at-large and find a way to express their idealism within the “real” world. They tell few people about their experience on that commune and acknowledge feeling a great deal of shame about it. In rejecting society and the bourgeois lifestyle of their parents, this couple at the same time rejected the meaningful aspects of that society, the useful role of authority and the positive aspects of the lives their parents had led.
Many parents make absolutely awful authorities, of course; they teach us maladaptive ways of coping with life, or pass along repressive values. Their own lives may be a chaotic mess. They may be cruel or incompetent, with little true ground for claiming authority other than superior size and strength. Rebelling against such authority makes sense so that we can learn better ways to live. Over the years, I’ve seen many clients who came from such families: rebellion saved their lives because they rejected the values and rules that regulated their childhoods and came into treatment, looking for a better way. With some of these people, they unfortunately developed such a hatred of established authority that they had a very difficult time accepting it in any of its guises, even when informed by experience and genuine concern.
One client, a young therapist-in-training named Alan, used to challenge every intervention I made. I’d listen carefully to his associations and tell him what I heard him saying, the unconscious communication he wasn’t aware of making; he’d often respond by saying something like, “Why should I believe what you say, just because you tell me so? How do I know that another interpretation isn’t equally valid?” An extremely intelligent man, Alan always sounded very reasonable when he said such things. This was many years ago; at that time, I tried to talk to him about his reaction in terms of neediness — that he didn’t want to put himself in the position of being needy in therapy and therefore questioned whether anything I had to offer was of value. In retrospect, I think I missed the boat. While he indeed had a difficult time with dependent relationships, he profoundly resented authority in any form. He always knew better than his teachers and supervisors, and certainly implied that he knew better than I did. He dropped out of treatment within a few months. Today, what I would tell a client like Alan is that he doesn’t have to believe any of my comments simply because I make them, that he is the sole authority on his own experience and has to decide for himself whether my words shed any useful light. This defuses the issue of authority, at least for the moment.
Another client, Janice, had always identified with youthful rebels, especially as expressed in rock music. She seemed perpetually young, a teenager in constant rebellion against all forms of authority: the necessity of finding gainful employment, the need for adequate sleep so she could function the next day, the fact that mastery in any area required hard work over a lengthy period of time. Janice cherished a fantasy that her innate genius would be discovered and she would become a rock star like one of her idols — and yet she could never exert enough self-discipline to learn a musical instrument. She came from a highly dysfunctional family, with a sister who had tried to commit suicide and a psychotic brother who lived out of his van. When she began treatment, her parents at first paid for her sessions but soon kicked her out of the family home. When I told Janice that I could not see her for free and that she would have to find a way to pay for her sessions, she grew enraged and abusive. I held my ground and explained about the need to work; I eventually helped her to look for a job.
Over the years, Janice became devoted to our work together and continually resented the authority I represented. She eventually revealed that, each time I made an interpretation, a voice inside her head would repeat my words in savage mockery. While the healthy part of her understood that I was a helpful authority figure, exactly what she needed after the chaos of her upbringing, another part of her hated the values I embodied. In essence, I represented for her the ultimate authority that is reality, with all its limitations, as opposed to fantasy life in which anything is possible. In my view, this hatred of reality is a core feature of psychotic processes; I have seen it not only in clients who present as psychotic but also in those who might be recognized as Borderline Personality Disorder. When psychotic processes dominate, reality has no authority but is completely rewritten according to the requirements of fantasy.
With Janice, even years later when she had established a career, married and begun a family, a part of her continued to resent authority in all its forms. As I said to her many times, “However reasonable you may sound, in a part of your mind, you reserve the right to re-make reality in any way that you like.” Despite some facts she’d gleaned about my personal life, and other things I myself had told her, she continued to insist that I led an ideal existence, free from pain or frustration, with perfect genius children who adored me, etc. Of course, what she really persisted in believing was that someday, she would have such a life. She hated the facts of human existence, the ultimate authority of reality and the limitations it imposed. She constantly rebelled against her own authority, as well — refusing to acknowledge what she knew about her own limitations, for example, or what experience had taught her about alcohol and its effects on her state of mind. For this reason, despite her actual age, she always seemed much younger, like a rebellious teenager giving authority the finger. As much as she respected, valued and needed authority, she also hated it and to some degree, always will.
Occasionally on this website, I receive a hostile comment from a visitor; with some, I have the clear sense that what has angered them is my belief that I know what I’m talking about and presume to put myself forward as an authority. Though these site visitors are not my clients, it feels very much as if they are having a “transference” reaction to me as a figure of authority, just the way my actual clients Alan or Janice did, expressing their hatred in very clear terms.
Finding Your Own Way:
What is your attitude toward authority? Are you a rebel or an obedient citizen?
Think about your parents and how you view them as figures of authority. Do you respect them? Do you ridicule them? Even if they were truly deficient, can you remember ways in which they tried to exert a positive influence? Are you grateful that they tried even if they failed? My own, emotionally absent father had an authoritarian parenting style. I was an obnoxious, defiant teenager, but over the years, I’ve come to value his example of hard work, the way he provided for his family and shielded us from his very large financial anxieties, even if he failed me on an emotional level.
Did you have teachers who inspired you with their intelligence, humor or insight? Did you submit to any one of them? I had a drama teacher I adored in high school … until I became disillusioned and began to question every single word she said. I’m the type of person who expects his authority to be perfect (but that’s a different issue altogether).
One of the hardest experiences to cope with is submission to authority that feels unjust. This often occurs in the workplace. Do you have a boss whose authority you resent? How do you express your resentment? Can you think of ways in which he or she, despite those glaring faults, exerts a positive authority?
And what about yourself as an authority? Like many parents, I was shocked the first time I heard the words “Because I said so” coming out of my mouth; but sometimes, given the challenges of functioning as an authority, what is badly needed is submission. To be an authority, and to feel continual rebellion against that authority, is a draining challenge.