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more issues with authority

January 23, 2010

Circa 1997, I injured myself on the job I had at the time, and lessons not (sufficiently) learned as a result continue to persist into the present day. I had wanted to impress my boss and not cause a fuss, so I took delivery of a heavy box. Carrying it back to our office, I only belatedly realized it was far too heavy for me, and by then, I’d torn my rotator cuff (or something like that). I was off work for several days, and then had physical therapy 2-3x/week for about 2 months.

Adding insult to injury as it were, I was then “written up” by my boss, for “poor performance”, because I was missing so much time to physical therapy, and had limited functionality while I was healing.

Since then, I’ve either re-injured that shoulder/arm or I’ve sustained different injuries like strains and sprains on several other jobs. And they almost always have occurred when an authority figure wants me to do something that I should say No to, but I find myself unable to do so. Well, sometimes I’ve protested, giving the reasons why this isn’t a good idea for me, but they usually counter with some reason(s) why I need to do it anyway. And when that particular set of circumstances arises, I (miserably) fall in line, and do what they want. And then get injured, and am in a lot of pain and laid up, or have limited mobility for days or weeks.

The way I was raised, we weren’t allowed to refuse to obey authority figures. If I received a direct order from an authority figure, if I didn’t obey, there was hell to pay.

I was pretty skilled at passive-aggressive detours around suggestions or rules that weren’t personally-directed at me. But if I came to the attention of an authority figure, and they told me directly what to do – especially if they held substantial power over me (parents, teachers, other people I was afraid of) – I did what they said. Because if I disobeyed and my parents found out about it, it was the end of the world.

I was almost 19 years old before I realized (unfortunately due to extended traumatic situations) that there were worse things in the world than my parents being angry with me. That sometimes “real world” consequences could completely outweigh my parents’ reactions, whatever they might turn out to be. And that I needed to recalibrate how I decided on courses of action to reflect this new and powerful understanding. (An important corollary: my parents were almost-never pleased with any action I took, no matter what it was, or why I did it. If one of my brothers or cousins or the neighbors did the exact same thing, it was often the right action, or at least, nothing problematic. The very fact of me doing it made it into something that was wrong. So, pleasing them was completely not-possible.)

I’m still grappling with the idea that I have the right to refuse to do things that I know will lead to injury, or at least pain and reduced functionality. I guess that does fall under “inner authority” issues though. If I valued myself enough, I would be able to refuse, without being petrified of dire consequences. I’m not there yet.

Edited to add: When I’m defending the rights of other people, I can and have refuse(d) to obey authority figures. It’s only when I’m defending myself that I have issues.

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