By Eric Maisel
Authoritarians are scary. They are scary because they are bullying, aggressive, often violent and destructive, and for similar reasons. But they are also scary because of their inconsistency—flying off the handle one time and then remaining perfectly calm the next time over exactly the same behavior. Knowing that something bad is going to happen is frightening but never knowing if something bad is going to happen is frightening in its own right. Here is Melissa’s story.
My mother was an authoritarian (my father was in the Army but was very permissive at home). The experience was pretty emotionally damaging. I was in counseling for many years. I still struggle with depression. There was a lot of fear. Fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Fear of not being perfect. Fear of getting a B in school. Fear of being hit or spanked. Fear of her moodiness, fear of physical harm, fear of being told you’re lazy or not good enough or whatever she felt like lashing out about that day. (One day it was because we didn’t fold the kitchen towels properly.)
She was incredibly inconsistent. The same behavior from me or my sister might send her into a rage one day or she might just brush it off another day. Very confusing. The confusion was the worst. One day, she came home in a bad mood, beat both us viciously for not cleaning the floor behind the toilet, and had us stand in front of her and cry while she screamed at us until late that evening (no dinner, of course). The next morning, she had left a basket of candy and an “I’m sorry” note for each of us on the dresser. It was so confusing—I never knew what to expect from her. Gauging her emotional responses was useless. I was adrift and very, very lonely and scared.
The first, and worst, consequence of being raised that way was the terrible “consequence” of staying in my first marriage far too long. It lasted fourteen years, because I wasn’t going to be a quitter like my mom and get divorced. He was a good man at first and became more abusive as the years went on and he realized I wouldn’t leave. It was pretty classic textbook case: first came the isolation from friends, then isolation from family, then “jokes” about locking me in the basement and beating me because I deserved it, and then shoving me (but only because I was “in his way”). I left before it got physically worse, but the emotional abuse was incredibly severe, much worse than the physical side.
I didn’t trust myself because my mother had destroyed that in me. I wasn’t important enough to be treated well; I was just a vehicle to make someone else’s life easier. It makes me sick to think about it now. Depression was another pretty bad consequence of my childhood. When I was fourteen, my mother took me to a doctor and had me diagnosed with depression and treated with drugs. Nothing ever worked, so the doctor just kept trying higher doses and different meds—what a nightmare. All this while going through puberty, no less! The doctor I’ve had since age eighteen thinks that, because I had so many different depression meds before I had grown up, my brain never developed properly and now I may be on depression meds for life, despite all the research saying that long-term depression meds are ineffective. Thanks, mom.
The depression diagnosis was a way for my mother to blame me for my symptoms, rather than take some responsibility for it, and god forbid have to change herself or the home environment. Another authoritarian tactic. So, I’m not really sure if I had depression, if I was walling myself off emotionally in an attempt at self-protection, or if I was just hormonal. It’s anyone’s guess. In college, I stopped speaking to my mother for three years. The best three years ever. I was still messed up—I was in counseling for those three years—but I felt so much safer. I started sleeping better, I laughed and smiled more. It was great. No guilt that I might be doing everything wrong.
As to what helps, one way to heal is to be stubborn. The authoritarian figures in your life hurt you because they don’t want you to succeed on your own. Well, succeed! Succeed anyway! Succeed despite them! Be determined to do it just to spite them, if that’s the motivation you need at first. But along the way, you will have outgrown all of that, and you will be enjoying a wildly successful, passionate, happy, fulfilling life. Pretty darned amazing future you’ll have, huh? And it all started out just because you didn’t want to let the bastards win.
It has also helped to tell myself “It’s not your fault” in a thousand different ways, until I believed it. I’ve also worked on building up, and appreciating, my strengths and celebrating my accomplishments. What helps me cope the best is the knowledge that my mother can’t hurt me now. She has no leverage. If she tries to so much as make an untoward comment, much less tell me what to do or be nasty to me personally, I walk away from her in public and don’t speak to her for half a year.
The first time I stood up to her bullying as an adult, she looked at me in shock. And she rarely tried to bully me after that. I made it clear to her that I didn’t need to have her in my life. I have her in my life about twice a year, for a couple of hours at a time, as a courtesy to her, not because I like or love her. And she only lives a half hour away. I am doing pretty well and I would say that healing is possible. It really is! These were sad things to write about, and while I acknowledge the sad things in my life, I do not excessively dwell on them now. My mother frightened me, both by bullying me and by behaving so inconsistently, but she doesn’t frighten me now. I can laugh and smile and I keep walking step-by-step toward a vision of life as uncomplicated and good.
If you’ve had the experience of being harmed by a family authoritarian—a parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt or uncle, partner, adult child, etc.—or by someone else close to you—a cleric, teacher, boss, co-worker, etc.—I invite you take the Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire, available here. I also invite you to tell your story, as it is long past time that we got this epidemic of wounding exposed—and ended. Come back each Thursday to read more about authoritarians in the family and please think about taking the Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire and about telling your story.
This post was previously published on Psychology Today.
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