Surviving n Thriving

Reflections on Power and Authority

Cross-posted at Goddessing Heart, my Sagewoman blog.

Relationships are the theme of today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday; specifically, relationships that include a difference in power. The focus of this post is in regards to how we relate to those in authority; I intend to write further on how we can best create a Goddess-honoring environment in the positions of power we may hold.

It is very common for individuals with PTSD and related conditions to have difficulty relating to authority figures, especially if the trauma they experienced occurred at the hands of someone in a position of power. Each subsequent individual higher up on a hierarchy who enters our lives has the potential to serve as a trigger simply because of the role they inhabit and/or as a result of the specific behaviors in which they engage. I’ve found conceptualizing them as an authority figure based on their role rather than as an inherent difference in quality or ability has lessened the amount to which they serve as a trigger for me.

Powerful People

Deciding whom we should view as authority figures, if anyone, requires wisdom. I think there are two kinds of authority: authority which we see as embodied in an individual based on a person’s qualities, and authority prescribed by the nature of the roles we and the other person occupy. The first must be earned, the second may be dictated to us without our consent. I’ll call the first attainment-based authority and the second role-based authority.

I am enamored with Starhawk’s distinction between “power-over-others” and “power-from-within” in The Spiral Dance. She argues that when our power is personally derived, rather than bestowed to us by others, it builds others up without draining anything from them. In contrast, power-over-others concerns itself with conquest and domination. I think it is vital that we learn to identify which of these types of power authority figures are exhibiting, and that we only grant people respect as attainment-based figures if they show power-from-within.

Attainment-based authority occurs when, after careful observation and extended interaction, we come to see people as role models, teachers, leaders or spiritual coaches. We look to them for wisdom and may consult them when we are facing difficult decisions. I think it will take an entire post to describe the signs of a potential candidate for this type of relationship, but here I’ll just note there will likely be many more applicants for this role in your life than are worthy of selection. Anyone who demands this type of respect from you or attempts to manipulate you into a hierarchical relationship should likely be immediately disqualified. Someone who is truly deserving would not engage in such behavior.

Even if you come to see a few people as attainment-based role models, it is vital to remember that they are human beings with many flaws, and should not be put on a pedestal. You should be able to disagree with them and still stay in relationship with them without your spiritual walk being questioned. The concept of power-from-within suggest that our view of people as attainment-based authority figures should not become the fuel for their power and vitality, but rather serve a mere affirmation of the place of personal power from which they are already operating.

Role-based authority plays a part in our everyday lives. Unless we want to endure negative consequences, we are, to some extent, at the mercy of our bosses, community leaders, law enforcement, government officials, educators, and medical professionals. I see these relationships as entirely transactional; certain deferential behaviors may be required because of the nature of the hierarchy, but there is no personal loyalty or inner adherence to the same principles as a role-based authority figure needed. I may choose to obey in order to get what I want, as a sign of respect for the position they hold or to get along, but I don’t have to buy into their demands as the best way and I don’t have to defend the authority figure’s behaviors to others. If what I am asked to do violates my moral principles, I can either remove myself from the hierarchical relationship, or push against the social norms that are impacting the situation. The nurse who stood up for a patient’s rights recently, and got arrested for her troubles, serves as an inspirational example here.

I think things get very complicated when people place themselves in a position of attainment-based authority, when in fact all they can realistically claim is role-based authority. Those who purport to be spiritual teachers, for example, should have to prove their merit before we place ourselves in a hierarchical relationship with them spiritually, if we do at all. I have made many mistakes in my life because I assumed someone’s role-based authority automatically meant I needed to treat the person as worthy of attainment-based respect.

Personally, I think we are currently limited by our biology to require at least a bit of both attainment-based and role-based authority in our society. There are those who wish to move beyond these systems, creating a utopia with no one or everyone in a leadership role, without any hierarchy. I don’t have the idealism needed for such an optimistic view, but certainly the expectation many have that their status in society should instantly convert them into attainment-based figures in our lives needs some adjustment.

Personal Power Interactions

Nothing irritates me more than someone speaking to me in a way that shows me they assume that my personal characteristics and the nature of our power difference give them authority to dictate to me how to live my life. I’ve observed that I tend to go to my one high point, which is my educational achievement, as a retort. I try to fight power with power; this doesn’t necessarily feel like the right move, but is also sometimes the only way I can get an authority figure to take me seriously.

I know I am triggered by power dynamics because of the nature of the abuse I suffered as a child, as well as the larger religious upbringing to which I was exposed. Women were not supposed to speak with authority to men. Younger people were not supposed to instruct older people. Higher education was completely devalued and viewed as akin to “worldliness” and sin. Blatant hypocrisy was to be swept under the rug in service of the greater God-granted good. Authority figures did not speak from their own limited viewpoints; they were literally channeling the voice of God demanding deference and obedience.

Most of the people raised in this system found a way to exist within it. My sense of myself is that I could not have done so no matter how hard I tried. Something in me was born in rebellion and fought tooth and nail to get me to freedom. I don’t know how to justify my exit without a judgement of myself as being more enlightened or intelligent. It’s as if as soon as I try to examine the formational powers in my life, my thinking warps back into their viewpoint on the world as well. Black and white, right and wrong, yes and no suddenly are the only types of words that make any sense. Yet, I manage to exist in my current life with at least a slightly decreased focus on who’s in charge and how badly they are performing in their role.

In examining my own relationship with authority, I see that I have very little wisdom to offer to others who struggle in a similar way. There is a tremendous amount of growth potential I haven’t unlocked in terms of how I relate to those in positions of power. My basic rules at this point for myself are to only ascribe to others the level and type of respect due by the nature of their position, and to challenge authority when I see it corrupting past a certain point. I have not integrated my issues with authority into my spirituality in a deep or paradigm-shifting way at this point. I do see the ways in which I manage my own personal power as evidence that some growth has occurred in me, but clearly the upward-focused dynamic is still in flux.

How do you manage triggers you might have in relation to authority figures? Do you differentiate, mostly likely with your own distinctions, between attainment-based and role-based authority relationships? How does your spirituality inform your response to authority figures? I welcome you into dialogue regarding these queries; I have much to digest and reclaim in terms of power dynamics and I look forward to learning from your experiences.

Embodied Heart

The Mother of Mirrors and the Ungrateful Child

I’m interrupting my normal themed posts in order to share a part of my personal journey as it relates to mental health and being a trauma survivor. This particular post does not have a focus on spirituality, but I will be seeking out themes to which I can make a connection. I would welcome any comments about how what I shared impacted you or if you find yourself relating to any of my experiences.

“Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

― G.K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown

My mother remains a mystery to me. I lived with her from birth into young adulthood, but I never glimpsed behind the mask of mirrors she projected. She kept everyone at a particular distance; close enough to control but not so close that any vulnerability or genuine emotion was expressed. She would let me sit next to her and then unexpectedly shove me away.

She hid her true self under a mask of a loving, caring parent, when in fact she alternated in private between terrorizing, smothering and manipulating her charges. As soon as the phone was hung up or the car door shut or the last guest left, her polite, demure demeanor instantly transformed into an enraged, overburdened and abandoned character. And even this was a mask for whatever deep shame and revulsion drove her psyche, tossed aside for another version as soon as it suited her. She would scream and cry for days during her cycle, and, when asked what was making her depressed, would respond by saying “What do you mean? I’m always happy.” Every time I thought I saw her, she shifted and another mirror appeared.

What (not who) was I to this woman? I think I was an extension of her that she despised but needed, or maybe despised because she needed. She desired to possess me. I was to be her servant, happy that she allowed me to exist to ease her suffering. But of course I could never get it quite right and could never win her affection. She didn’t just fail to love me; she actively hated me. Had I stayed at home into adulthood and done nothing with my life aside from making a meager financial contribution and orienting myself towards pleasing her, she would not have made any effort to push me towards adult maturity. One of my greatest emotional burdens is that I’ve seen some of my siblings come close to this destiny after I rejected it. I was the oldest so the task fell to me initially; when I finally said “no more,” she simply adjusted her aim and found another target.

I’ve hesitated many times to share my experiences for fear of being called ungrateful and being judged for my estrangement from my family. Something settled anew in me when I decided to own it. I am ungrateful. Ungrateful for being sexually, emotionally and verbally abused. Ungrateful for being mocked and ridiculed every time I expressed an opinion. Ungrateful for being treated like an object or as an appendage. Ungrateful for the breadcrumbs of attention I was thrown, for which I was expected to grovel.

I want to wear my inner strengths that she labeled ungratefulness, entitlement and selfishness as a mantle; I would not be a fully functioning or even a marginally functioning adult without them. For wherever I am over-confident or proud in my everyday life, I offer myself grace and succor. To the parts of myself that are filled with shame and self-doubt, I extend hospitality and shout a message of “You are important!” “I see you!” “You have a right to exist!” to quiet the inner critic who wishes them gone.

I cobbled together a person from the fragments of my shattered mind. The embarrassment I’ve felt for my Frankenstein creation is being steadily replaced by an abiding sense of astonishment that the stitches are so well placed and the parts amble in a coordinated fashion. She broke me apart, seeking my soul, but I hid it away and now the rest of me—my mind, my body and my heart—have also been reclaimed as my own.

A major task of adulthood is making sense of our childhood, integrating the disappointments of our parents with their strengths in order that we may form our identity, develop close relationships and caretake the next generation. I cannot do this very well with my mother. I do see how hard she worked and I value the perseverance she instilled in me. I wish to feel sadness towards her limitations without being consumed with guilt, but she blamed me ceaselessly for her suffering without considering any of her own flaws. I wish to forgive her, but she never acknowledged that she did anything wrong towards me. I wish to connect to her, but she always kept me at a distance. I wish to focus on the silly, joyful, carefree times, but she didn’t allow herself to indulge in them with me.

So the best I can manage is acceptance. I accept that I’ve never really known who my mother is, that she’s existed in a kaleidoscope of interchangeable facades, and that she has been incapable of loving or even of seeing me as a person. I wish I could experience a genuine moment of humanity from her once in my life, but I accept that I will instead treasure every single one of these moments I’ve co-created with those who do love and care for me.

Surviving n Thriving

Awaiting an Invitation: Personal Boundaries in Relationships

My daily life provided inspiration for today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday. As in I strongly desired to move to an impenetrable castle in the sky surrounded by an alligator-filled moat today when my neighbor decided it was a perfect time to host a live band in his backyard on the one day of rest I have. I decided to channel my frustration into examining why we have boundaries, how they may be experienced by trauma survivors, and how we can establish and manage them in real life. I’m also investigating local bagpipe musicians for hire (j/k)!

The Purpose of Boundaries

Boundaries in relationships convey safety. I see them as twofold: offering an invitation and granting permission to a request. We all have aspects of our physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual and mental being that we cherish, that not everyone gets to access, that we elevate to the VIP section of our being. If people want in, they either need to wait for us to invite them in, or they need to ask permission. It is entirely within our rights to say no at any time for any reason. It should go without saying that this is also how we should treat others. I get weird looks occasionally when I ask permission for things most people would just take; I do it not out of a submissive personality but instead because it is how I want to be treated.

Boundaries and Trauma

One of the core features of an event that crosses from an everyday occurrence to a trauma experience is that it often involves a threshold of personal safety being desecrated or obliterated. This could be on a physical, sexual, verbal or emotional level. The individual emerges from the experience with some aspect of their very being shaken and betrayed. Concepts like complex PTSD and moral injury lend themselves to this type of experience.

What makes a boundary violation traumatic may be rooted in the power difference that frequently occurs in traumatic events. When a parent, teacher, coach, religious leader or other authority figure takes advantage of the imbalance of power to violate boundaries in such way as to induce shame, we are left feeling helpless and hopeless, not to mention estranged from ourselves. I’ve come to believe that some measure of us, perhaps called our soul, remains unvarnished no matter what our body, mind and heart have had to endure. This view has given me comfort in that the sense of something pure and whole lying at my core gives me the strength to reassert myself in the world.

Establishing Boundaries

We do well to speak our needs aloud before they become pressing. Giving those whom you encounter a fleshed-out synopsis of who you are in a casual way allows those who are emotionally competent to pick up your preferences and “no-go” zones. For example, I tend to try to find a way to mention my values, likes/dislikes and habits to people as I get to know them. I’d much rather they decide our level of compatibility or how well-suited we are to work closely together from the start. This approach will likely be much more successful if you are comfortable with who you are. If your outward stance on things is based on adjusting to what those around you think, it’s very easy to find yourself frequently offended. Others will walk all over your true values because they aren’t visible or known to them.

Not everyone has the capacity to discern what you are communicating through how you present yourself. Some individuals may have conditions that affect their ability to perceive social cues. Others know full well what you want but don’t care. In these cases, I think we need to be direct, unapologetic and unambiguous regarding where our conditions of relationship are located. For instance, there have been people I’ve had to tell more than once that I wasn’t interested in a certain type of relationship, with increasing bluntness until they finally got the message.

Handling Boundary Violations

When I first learned about the concept of boundaries, I naively thought that all it took to set them was to know what I wanted and share it with others; the potential conflict was the ending point in my mind, rather than the start. My life experience has taught me that many people respond negatively when a boundary is laid out. It can be very hard to hear a ”no” from someone else.

I think the reason we may respond to someone setting a marker with us in a defensive manner is that we are often conditioned to have to know what others want without them telling us. This means that someone needing to tell us that they don’t like or want something means we have failed in our minds, and this leads directly to feelings of shame. People tend to struggle to manage feelings of shame appropriately. It is significantly easier to call others “oversensitive” “emotional” or “demanding” if they express their true desires to us, rather than accept the limitations they are placing on our behavior towards them.

I absolutely hate it when my actions lead another person to feel shame, but I know in most of the specific cases where it’s occurred that the alternative was for me to act in a disingenuous way that would have caused me feelings of bitterness and resentment, and would have damaged the relationship more severely in the long run. If you find yourself often offended at others’ behaviors, it may be a sign that you are allowing yourself to proceed into situations that might have been preventing if you had established your limits with the other person earlier.

To circle back to what this means for trauma survivors, it is possible that we can do everything possible to cordon off aspects of ourselves as sacred, as our own, and desire to let others into those areas only when trust has been established, only to find that all the self-knowledge and empowerment in the world can’t withstand every threat. Sometimes we are too small or young or vulnerable or simply human to protect ourselves. It makes my blood boil to think of people taking advantage of others in this way. I’ve talked about my perspective on justice previously; all I will say here is that I think no one can take possession nor damage the core of who we are, and I think there are many more people in the world who would help us heal than hurt us.

Negotiating Boundaries in Relationships

I’m not sure if there is something inherently individualistic about the self-definition that comes with healthy and flexible boundaries. Many proponents of Goddess Spirituality emphasize the communal aspects of life and the interdependence which allows for reliance on others and work towards common goals. Even within this framework, I think there is a potential for each of us to have emotions, thoughts and behaviors that are our own, while also celebrating the interweaving of our lives.

Personal boundaries may be an artificial creation from a metaphysical perspective. If we see ourselves as one speck in the web of life, carefully carving out the diameter of our “speckness” may seem an exercise in pettiness and futility. At the same time, as I mentioned above, I cannot overemphasize the degradation and annihilation of self I’ve experienced being in relationship with those who lack the ability to acknowledge and respect boundaries. Being subsumed into another’s psyche is not healthy nor life-giving.

With these dialectics in mind, I think the key concepts here are fluidity and evolution. Visualize your boundaries as made of water rather than stone. Enough water moving in the same direction can be an incredibly strong force, knocking buildings off their foundations. Water can also be a gentle kiss on a misty morning. When our boundaries are fluid, we can respond to the specific situation in which we find ourselves, while also adhering to our general preferences and expectations to relationships. Maybe the particular issue facing us will work best with a soft stream redirecting the energy, and maybe it needs a waterfall torrent of strength to establish our presence. Liquid in nature is constantly evolving in response to the energy and forces surrounding, and so can we.