Why Reflexive Rebellion Or Blind Compliance In The Face of Authority Figures May Be The Result Of Unhealed Bullying Trauma

My cousin Rebecca Bass Ching, an incredible Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist who is responsible for turning me on to IFS and introducing it to me as a “game changer,” just wrote a beautiful piece about being bullied- by someone else or by yourself- and how today’s trying times can bring up emotions from past bullying encounters. You might interpret it differently, but I read this piece through a particular lens- how we respond to authority. Do we reflexively rebel or do we automatically comply? Both may be the result of bullying wounds- and need healing.

Here’s what Rebecca wrote:

“One of the most common themes that has come up with my clients over the last couple of weeks is around the echoes of from being bullied. I had a bully from 1st grade-12th. She was committed. I am not sure why she focused on me – and never found out why – but shortly after I moved mid year to a new school in first grade, I became her mission.

Early on, she would just gather with a couple of her friends and do the whispering/look at you with a mean stare/keep whispering jam. Over the years it slowly escalated to where the name calling would turn into more involved drama and threats. My friends and I would have to mediate social gatherings we both ended up at and we regularly debriefed and navigated new rumors and aggression from her. It was exhausting.

Now, it feels so distant and small. Even insignificant and petty. And that is what I hear from my clients when we dig a little deeper on the roots of their current struggles.

The trailheads that go back to bullying wounds often are (surprisingly) connected to:

  • feeling waves of insecurity that feel inconsistent and confusing – like it came out of nowhere
  • anxiety spiking as big deadlines or responsibilities approach
  • feelings of dread and doom, even though they logically know it will all work out
  • a desire to keep the peace and not rock the boat, which is out of character from their typical bold and decisive way of showing up

These trailheads lead back to bullies from their past, bullies in their present or recent past, and the bullies between their ears. The release of emotion from the connection to the echoes of pain still hanging out in their bodies freed up the stagnation they were feeling. Fear and frustration turn to compassion and clarity after the initial ‘I can’t believe this is still bothering me’ response.

Anyone who has experienced any kind of relational trauma often internalizes these bullies. We call them inner critics, perfectionists, imposter experiences – which are all protectors usually born out of difficult relational experiences. And no one is immune to them because when we dare to do something new that involves risk – even when exciting and good – the threat of getting hurt can stir up these echoes, knocking you out of your confidence and clarity. 

Choosing respect when story shame surfaces means not dismissing experiencing that need tending to so the past stops hijacking your present and future. Choosing respect over story shame is doing the often nuanced work of healing the echoes of pain in our story instead of criticizing the fact you are not “over it by now.’ And when we collectively choose to respect our own pain, we have more capacity to hold space for the pain of others with boundaries, accountability, compassion, and empathy.”

Living In The Age Of Bullies

I love this piece, especially since we are living in the age of bullies. As we discussed today in our Healing With the Muse community, childhood shapes our relationship to authority- and those who were bullied grow up with a warped relationship to power and authority, unless they get trauma treatment. People who have had power abused, who have been bullied in the past, whether by a parent or a teacher or by more powerful peers at school, tend to cope with the aftermath of bullying by learning to either blindly comply with authority (even if that authority figure is a bully) or reflexively rebel against authority (even if that authority figure is trying to help.) Some, like me, do both. I complied with my bullying mother and my bullying and sexually harassing medical school professors but then I later rebelled against my medical training and started standing up to bullies. Not until I got good therapy was I able to have a healthier relationship with power and authority, so that I can comply with authority when it’s helpful and rebel against it when it’s abusive- also so I can wield power more ethically and responsibly.

Healthy people neither blindly comply with authority (which is how Nazi Germany and the January 6 insurrection happened) nor reflexively rebel against authority (which is why 500,000 people have now died in the United States, when many of those deaths could have been avoided if people had complied with the public health authorities.)

Many people who are triggered by Trump and his abuse have PTSD symptoms arising because he used every trick in the book to try to bully the whole country into submitting to his authoritarian rule. Others who were bullied in the past have learned to comply with the bully- to get on the side of the strong one as a way to feel safer- and they’ve turned into Trump supporters. Trump climbed his way to the top by bullying other authority figures- like Fauci- to try to push his will on the whole country. Anyone who got in his way got crushed. But make no mistake about it- this is an abuse of authority and power, rather than right use of power.

Bullying is at the heart of Black Lives Matter too. This relationship to power-and abuse of power- is right on the surface in our culture now. Bullies abuse power, while healthy authorities wield it wisely and with care. Good cops wield their authority wisely and with kind hearts. Cops who bully people abuse power and sometimes murder people.

Distorting Our Relationship To Authority

Think about how being bullied impacts a young psyche. Schoolyard bullies, for example, might try to make you do something you don’t want to do- like eat dog poo or get into a fight in the schoolyard with someone bigger than you are. (You can guarantee that they have a parent or sibling doing the same thing to them at home.) The strategy goes like this: if you don’t do what the bully wants you to do, you might get ousted from the inner circle or targeted as the object of shaming, ridicule, exiling, verbal abuse, and violence. Some people learn to ally with the bully to avoid this abuse. If you do what he says, even if he’s an asshole, he’ll protect you from other bullies- or from his own abuse. It’s how the mob works, and these days, how the Republican party works. The biggest bully wins.

Those who ally with the bully may get hits of righteousness, belonging, and worthiness- because they’re in the inner circle with the bully, on the side of power. This hit of righteousness can be addictive and can predispose someone to narcissistic tendencies and become power hungry. These people may seek out people they can bully and dominate in friendships, business relationships, and romance. They may also suck up to powerful people as a way to feel safer, even if they’re bullying weaker people.

Those who don’t ally with the bully, the ones who get targeted, tend to wind up burdened with lots of hard feelings- feeling unfairly and unjustly shamed, being cast outside the circle of belonging, having others looking down on them, feeling humiliated, feelings of unlovable or unworthy of care and protection. This can predispose people to co-dependent tendencies who pair with bullies and narcissists- in friendship, business, or romance. They may also tend to bully those who they see as weaker than them in other relationships.

Everybody tends to hate the narcissist and feel sorry for the co-dependent, but both are trauma symptoms related to abuses of power and being bullied- and both deserve our compassion and understanding.

Coming Into Right Relationship With Power & Authority

If you’ve been bullied and you haven’t gotten trauma treatment, it’s likely that you have a distorted relationship to authority. For example, you may notice that you tend to blindly comply with authority figures or reflexively rebel against them. Those who got targeted by bullies and didn’t or couldn’t ally with them may resist ANY attempt to be controlled or influenced, especially if they perceive, even inaccurately, that they’re being dominated. Pressuring someone with rebel tendencies only makes them more rebellious. If you’re one of those people who reflexively rebels against things like public health recommendations or other authorities, if you’re automatically contrarian and anti-authority and maybe even proud of your tendency to do so, just understand that this is an unhealthy reaction.

On the other hand, if you responded to abuses of power in childhood with blind compliance, this is trauma symptom too. If you’re inclined to comply with authority, even if the authoritarian figure is a white supremacist telling you to hate Jewish people or kill Black people or storm the Capitol, you need to get that treated. Both are trauma symptoms that can hurt you and hurt other people.

Healthy people neither reflexively rebel nor blindly comply with authority figures. They are able to apply critical thinking and make reasonable choices about whether the authority figure is trustworthy, good hearted, and caring and whether the rules, laws, and limits being enforced make sense to protect society. Healthy people comply when it makes sense to do so and resist authority if they’re being ordered to harm innocent people. Healthy people are able to respond and engage in mature, responsible ways, so they don’t automatically comply with bad authority (as Trump’s followers claim to have done when they were following orders and storming the Capitol), nor do they reflexively rebel against advice from others that is trying to protect the vulnerable, such as wearing masks.

Whether you tend to automatically rebel or automatically comply with outer authority, look inside. Such reactions are often the side effect of having been bullied in the past. Reflexive rebellion or compliance may once have been an intelligent protection against getting dominated or abused. But you’re all grown up now. Those tendencies may have outlived their protection and need healing now.

Regardless of your tendencies, don’t bully yourself. Hold yourself in a warm embrace and just get curious whether you might have rebellious or compliant parts related to past bullying that are trailheads for healing now. Give those parts a warm hug and let them know that their behavior makes sense- and you get it. And you’re here now to protect those inner children and get them help.

Boundaries & Right Use of Power

We spent two hours in our Healing With The Muse Zoom community today working through this very issue and doing the trauma healing work on ourselves- and with each other- to address parts that have been bullied, parts that bully others, and how important it is to have a healthy relationship to uncomfortable emotions, like anger and shame, which help us protect our own boundaries from getting violated by people who abuse their power and also protect us from violating the boundaries of other people.

We did a quiz together to assess whether we have a healthy relationship to anger and shame and learned ways to work with these hard emotions in safe, self-loving, compassionate ways. We chewed on some of the distinctions, including why Karla McLaren disagrees with Brené Brown over whether or not shame is a necessary, healthy and useful emotion. (It may be all semantics, but Karla thinks shames is as important an emotion as anger when it comes to healthy boundaries and being a loving member of an ethical society. You can read what Karla says about guilt and shame here.

We used this conversation about bullying, abuses of power, boundaries, and emotions like anger and shame as a prompt for our IFS meditation. We also expressed our creativity, inspired by it. We danced it. We felt our feelings around it. We loved each other up in a safe, well boundaried way, and we made great art, awesome writing, and some people even wrote songs! If you’re needing a safe place to discuss difficult stuff in a playful, fun, creative way, please join us at Healing With the Muse. We’d love to have you among us, where can do and discuss hard things with great love and the wink of the muse.

Join Healing With The Muse Here