Last Sunday, I was driving along i-45 in Houston and saw a police car in my rearview mirror. I had a slight startle because the new tags for my car had arrived, but I hadn’t yet attached them to the car because I was missing the bottom two screws on the front plate. That startle reflex got me to thinking… the long arm of the law casts a shadow! Really, it’s the presence of authority that casts a shadow. If you’ve ever had the experience of stopping your chitchat in class because the teacher walked in… or you’ve ever felt a pang of regret, remorse or even shame because of a poor choice, you’ve experienced the impact of authority entering the scene and having been found wanting in some way.
Police cars use lights to rush to the scene of an emergency. Whether they’re chasing speedsters, responding to a report of crime in progress or dealing with another emergency, everybody moves over to let them through. Fire and ambulance vehicles get the same treatment. But that wouldn’t happen for any random car, even if they stuck a strobe on top of their vehicle. Flashing pink or purple lights gets you zip in the way of clearance to rush through traffic.
Known imposters are vilified. There was the case of the Bronx man who’d been a member of the Latin Kings gang. After a ten year prison sentence, he recreated his identity into that of a Hasidic rabbi. And cop. Which he was not. Didn’t stop him from pulling over a transit bus full of passengers or posing as law enforcement in other contexts. Eventually, charges followed. Many, many of them. Many of us have had people in our circles who posed as some sort of authority without any reasonable basis. Tattle tale peers and siblings, officious colleagues and busybodies of all kinds abound.
Misappropriation of authority is a hotly debated topic. Kids don’t want parents to have too heavy a hand in discipline. Employees want protections in dealing with their bosses and clients. Age, race, gender, family and faith are some key areas where we want to see rights and personal liberties protected. The fact that we don’t all agree on what is a reasonable balance between rights and responsibilities in all of our roles is just one of the complications of living our lives both individually and collectively. But where did the instinct to react in the presence of authority come from?
Authority in the form of police, parents, managers, and educators is a means of mediating between people and standards with respect to the choices that we all make to act in certain ways. From our earliest moments, an inculcation of standards of some sort is making its impact felt on our beings. The mechanism is an ongoing process of comparison between the actor and the standard. We all have definitions for what is good or even acceptable. These are individual and under ongoing revision depending on the context and on the circumstances in play.
Most of us would agree that murder is wrong, but would consider shooting or harming someone to save lives, our own or our loved one’s. Most of us would agree that speeding is wrong, but would consider driving fast if the situation were a medical emergency. Stealing is wrong, but a three year old taking a cookie without permission isn’t as egregious as a self-centered adult making off with the Thanksgiving leftovers from auntie’s house without permission. The comparison of standards and instances of acts committed is ongoing.
There’s an internal stream of evaluation in the form of self-talk. It’s rife with echoes of the voices we heard in the dawn of our lives. And this is where the problem arises, for most of us. My dad taught me to play chess before I entered school. He taught me to make a bed with mitered corners and to do laundry and other basic chores competently from an early age. I knew how to read well before I got to kindergarten.
He also taught me some less desirable things through acting out verbally and physically. He solved problems (as he saw them) by intruding on my boundaries. And that was how his parents dealt with him. Back across multiple generations, there are real similarities in my family history on my mother’s and my father’s sides.
Impacts and echoes of these ways of being were transgenerational. Collectively, the embodied authority distilled into an inner voice represents a shadow. Ostensibly, the comparison between who I was as a young child and who I should have been represented a comparison between what is perfect (or light) and what is flawed (shadow). In reality, however, embodied authority is itself imperfect.
I wanted to be safe from the flawed exercise of authority that my father represented and I deployed a variety of stratagems towards this end. Avoidance, compliance, resignation and resistance, seeking sympathy or support elsewhere… efforts to mitigate the impact of strict rules or stern statements took up a lot of my existential focus and energy. I had a self that was inauthentic.
I still have this self, she’s just better adjusted and mostly integrated. This self was a response to the shadow cast by authority. And who, herself became a shadow echoing some of the strict rules and stern statements to herself and others. It can take a lot of resources to unpack maladaptive behaviors and beliefs. They were initially create to prevent having to hear those parents or other early poseurs run through their unfavorable judgements that lead to unpleasant consequences.
It’s important to tune into the inner voice that each of us has in order to evaluate the content. If what’s found is a lot of blame, shame and uncertainty, it’s time to reconfigure things. None of us arrived on the planet with this voice. We inherited it in the same way that we did our features or our talents. We built on it out of our own experiences and meanings made. It can be disconcerting to think that some adjustments are in order.
The inner voice is a guidance system that embodies key attitudes that drive our actions. It’s a distillation of our values as an applied set. It operates somewhat like a control tower, letting us know what is at liberty to “take off” in our life, or what actions we can complete without offending our own sensibilities. The difficulty is that the wrong self may be on shift as the air traffic controller. The false self may disallow things that actually align with our values because she (or he) desires to protect us, just like in those very early years.
Her rationales will sound reasonable, rational and familiar unless you tune in very consciously to her frequency for communication. Then, patterns are going to emerge as you see her interventions through the years of your life and notice the aftermath, where she convinced you NOT to take a chance, advocate for yourself or pursue the more difficult path. You may find yourself arguing with your own anxieties, fears and habitual ways of being. You may find yourself disconnecting from them with distracting or destructive behaviors. Some mediation is needed.
So- becoming aware of your inner voice and getting to know which aspect of the self is driving its content is critical to unpacking how to connect with yourself and the rest of the world successfully No part of the self is the adversary or the enemy. They’re just an internal personification of the impacts that caused them to come into being.
If your dad was very critical, part of your inner voice may retain that trait as a safety net. You may be very vigilant about preventing errors or even the risk of making errors. Or you might be a little cynical and resigned. It’s another defense mechanism. Cultivating a persona to get through the discomfort doesn’t speak to accessing your authentic self.
It’s often a choice that’s made under duress when we’re very young and it resonates down through the years of our lives as a reactive habit or way of being. It was a helpful coping mechanism, originally. Now- it may no longer serve. Or at least not very well. Counselors and coaches will sometimes speak of these habits as parts of the false self, as a negative vow or even as an energy block. Change feels scary to this part of the self because their role in the younger version of us was protective.
Now, conscious engagement and energy must be expended to lean into a better way of being and a set of beliefs that serve us in the present. It’s good work. It’s necessary. Support can be helpful. Group work. Counseling. Coaching. Reflective practices. Meditative practices. Any of these or all of these can help us be more fully alive, fully conscious, fully engaged and fully integrated beings. If you’d like to connect with our coaching practice to explore how you can move your own growth forward and live your best life, call us. We’re here to help!