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Authoritarians Keep You Walking on Eggshells, Permanently

Why authoritarian contact produces lifelong anxiety, confusion and incompetence.

eric maisel
Source: eric maisel

(This post is part of a series on authoritarian wounding and should be taken in the context of this ongoing series, which looks at many aspects of the authoritarian personality, the various ways that authoritarians harm their victims, and the efforts victims of authoritarian contact make to try to heal themselves. If you would like to participate in my research, I invite you to take my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire.)

One of the many consequences you can expect from authoritarian contact and authoritarian wounding is a lifelong heightened sense of vigilance, nervousness, worry, and anxiety. If you grew up with someone who was always ready to explode, always percolating meanness, always getting his belt or his barbs ready, that readiness to attack is likely to have permanently harmed you.

An authoritarian harms people not just by what he says and does, but by his readiness to speak and act in an authoritarian way. We sense this readiness and it creates stress for us. Over time, this stress is wearing, even debilitating. We stay on edge because we just never know when the explosion may come, when the attack may commence, or when the meanness will erupt. Staying on edge in this way weakens us, opens us up to sickness, and demoralizes us.

We know the behavior is coming because it is a feature of the authoritarian’s personality. Theodor Adorno, in the classic The Authoritarian Personality, underlines this distinction between a behavior, and the personality that generates the behavior in the following way:

“According to the theory that has guided the present research, personality is a more or less enduring organization of forces within the individual. These persisting forces of personality help to determine responses in various situations, and it is thus largely to them that consistency of behavior—whether verbal or physical—is attributable. But behavior, however consistent, is not the same thing as personality; personality lies behind behavior and within the individual.

“The forces of personality are not responses but rather readiness for a response. Whether or not a readiness will issue in overt expression depends not only upon the situation of the moment but upon what other readiness stands in opposition to it. It may be emphasized again that personality is mainly a potential; it is a readiness for behavior rather than the behavior itself; although it consists in dispositions to behave in certain ways, the behavior that actually occurs will always depend upon the objective situation.”

Your authoritarian father, who is ready to explode, may not explode because you have company over for dinner, because he just exploded the moment before and released some venom, because he is being watched by someone in a position of authority and knows better than to explode, because someone stronger than him is in the room, or for some other reason. He is still that cruel tyrant who bullies and explodes—and everyone who really knows him knows that. He just happens not to be exploding or bullying at this split second.

The authoritarian stands ready to punish and everyone under his thumb tiptoes around—getting weaker and sicker in the process. What does a person do when she knows that the authoritarian in her life is always ready to speak and act like an authoritarian? She flinches. She keeps her distance. She makes wide circles. She keeps her mouth shut. Sometimes, to make sure that she isn’t wrong in her assessment and unfairly judging the authoritarian, she tests him by saying something provocative or by breaking a cardinal rule—which of course provokes the authoritarian’s wrath. So, she goes back to hiding, not testing those waters again very soon.

One respondent to my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire, Linda, reported that she spent her whole childhood walking on eggshells. It would have been hard to convince anyone outside of the family that her father was an authoritarian because he said so little, kept to himself, and was never physically violent. But inside the family, you just knew that he was a ticking time bomb. As far as she could remember he only exploded a handful of times. But at those times, he turned into what she could only characterize as a monster. Those few monstrous moments so frightened everyone that they remained permanently meek.

Another respondent, Adele, explained that she felt that she had been continually holding her breath throughout her childhood. She had no doubt but that this either contributed to or actually caused her severe asthma, made her a vigilant “control freak” with her own children and produced her periodic migraines and dizziness. To this day, she still caught herself holding her breath and explained, “I have to remember to exhale. Half the time I feel like I’m not breathing at all!”

One characteristic outcome of this eggshell-walking is that victims are likely to experience more anxiety than the next person. Another characteristic outcome is that they are likely to feel incompetent and “stupid.” Because one feature of anxiety is confusion, and because an authoritarian’s constant readiness to attack produces constant anxiety in his victims, victims are likely to experience life as a state of constant confusion. There is a direct line between an authoritarian’s readiness to harm and his children’s school failures and life failures. If you’re constantly anxious and confused, how smart will you feel and how competently will you perform?

To take one example of this dynamic, respondent Joanne noticed the following about herself. As she stood on the checkout line after doing her shopping, she would dissociate and feel herself floating away. Therefore, she was never prepared to pay when it was her turn in line. She always found herself fumbling around in her purse for her money or her credit card. She knew that she was infuriating the people in line behind her, who had to be thinking, “Didn’t that stupid woman know that she is going to have to pay?” In her fifties now, she realized that this had been going on forever: that her permanent anxiety had caused her to look stupid and feel stupid.

There is a straight line between growing up with an authoritarian and feeling stupid. There is a straight line between growing up with an authoritarian and feeling scared all the time. Even if the authoritarian in your life was actively bullying, violent, shaming, or cruel only some of the time, you grew up knowing that he or she was still an authoritarian even when quiescent. That awareness is almost certainly still built into you as heightened anxiety. That anxiety may show its face in any of the ways that anxiety manifests, from confusion to stomachaches to panic attacks to phobias. You walked on eggshells back then; quite likely you are still walking on them now.

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