Nasty Habits: Breaking with the Role of Authority Figure

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Nasty Habits: Breaking with the Role of Authority Figure

Hugh:   I’ve been thinking recently about how some of my clients see me as an authority figure.  I think that’s problematic. Even more problematic is that I sometimes relate to myself in that way.  As a psychiatrist, I was trained to think of myself as a keeper of truths, a judge of what behaviors, attitudes or reactions are right and wrong, normal and abnormal, good and bad.  If I’m not attentive to what I’m doing, I can fall into old habits. I really don’t want to play that role, because it stifles human connectivity and gets in the way of creating a collaborative environment with clients in which they can develop.  

Ann:  It’s not only psychiatrists who have to beware of falling into becoming the authority figure.  I think all therapists learn to play that role, and those of us who don’t want to play it have to continuously “unlearn” that training.  What’s making you think about this now? What’s happening in your practice that’s put it on the agenda?

Hugh:  One of my clients, Martin, is the single parent of a teenage daughter. Melanie is a lovely kid, and – like most people, young or old – can occasionally be self-involved, irresponsible, drive-you-crazy exasperating.  Over the years, Martin has asked our therapy group for help in raising Melanie. A big part of that work has been exploring with us what sort of father he wants to be, which includes challenging assumptions and expectations – his and others’ – about the role of  parent, or, I should say, the role of Parent (with a capital “P”), Parent as authority figure. It’s the work of questioning Martin’s allegiance to that role that’s made me conscious of my own inclination – especially when I’m feeling impatient, or critical, or even just tired – to act the part from the authority of the therapist’s chair.  And I don’t like it.

Ann:  That’s really interesting.  Say more.

Hugh:  In a nutshell, Martin thinks that he should be able to get Melanie to do what he wants her to do, like errands or homework, and to stop her from doing what he doesn’t want her to do, like having a boyfriend, because she’s too young.  Not surprisingly, Melanie doesn’t agree. When Martin tries to “lay down the law,” as he puts it, Melanie rebels: she challenges his rules, she gets angry, she becomes secretive and distant. It’s terribly painful for both of them when this happens.  They’ve been through a lot together over the years and they genuinely love each other. When they’re not fighting, Melanie often tells him that she thinks he’s been a great father. That means a lot to Martin, who’s grown a great deal over the years in learning how to be close to his only child.  But he’s very vulnerable to letting his idea of a Parent, with a capital “P,” take over, especially when things aren’t going well.

Ann:  Mothers and fathers are under an enormous amount of pressure to get their kids to do things the “right” way – and when their kids don’t, they view themselves and are often viewed by others as failing.  If you’re a single parent, the pressure is, if anything, even greater. So it makes sense that parents will often resort to their role as authority figure. But that’s just as likely to breed rebellion as obedience.

Hugh:  Last week, Martin came into his therapy group distraught.  “The worst” had happened, he said: Melanie was pregnant. Martin told the group that he was furious with her, and with himself.  He wondered how he could have let it happen. He began berating himself and Melanie, saying there was something “wrong” with her, and with him.  But then, he said, he thought about the many conversations the group has had about parents needing to choose what kind of relationship they want to have with their children, and instead of yelling at Melanie he put his arms around her, told her that he loved her, and that they would figure out together what to do.  “It wasn’t easy,” he told us. “But I’m not going to abandon her.” 

Ann:  Wow! In that moment, he discarded the role he’s supposed to play — the role most people think he should play – and he chose to take a completely different path!  That takes a lot of guts, doesn’t it?

Hugh:  It does…we were all very moved by what he told us.  And it gave me a lot to think about. When Martin first started speaking, I had been gearing up to ask him all the “right” questions:  why hadn’t he turned to the group as soon as Melanie told him her news. Why hadn’t he asked for our support right away? What made him think that he should have that difficult conversation with her on his own?  These were all the “right” questions for my role of The Therapist. But before I could get going, another member of the group, Arlene, spoke up.  “You’re a wonderful Dad, Martin,” she said. “I know how hard you’ve worked over the years here in group to be that sort of father.  It took a lot of guts, plus a lot of love, to put aside your anger and let her know that you weren’t going to abandon her.” The group followed Arlene’s lead.  And at that point, I realized that The Therapist had nothing worthwhile to say.

Ann:  So by letting Arlene, and the group, choose a different direction from the one you had in mind, you took a different path, too.  How wonderful is that?! Authority figures like “The Therapist” are tied to what they already know is true and right and good…therapists (with a small “t”) improvise, creating with whatever their clients bring to the conversation.  

Hugh:  The problem with authoritarianism is that it shuts down the possibility of ordinary people (that’s all of us), creating anything new.

Ann:  Right. There’s not much room for development when authority figures are running the show!  I think the question for us therapists is: Will we give up our addiction to knowing (knowing what’s “the right path,” what’s the “smart” answer, what’s the solution to their problems…) in favor of supporting our clients to create new ways of building their lives?  It’s a choice that has to be made not just once, but all the time as we work.