Healing the Authoritarian Wound in Therapy
Authoritarian personalities have preoccupied researchers since the Fifties. But until recently, a vital part of the story was overlooked: the psychological impact of authoritarian people on those they came into contact with. As Anti Bullying Week begins, American psychotherapist Eric Maisel explains why he created the Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire – and how therapists can help to address this important area of client experience.
The ‘authoritarian personality’ is a relatively recent concept. Starting in the 1950s, a body of research focused on trying to understand why so many ordinary folks were quick to act cruelly, easy in meting out severe punishment to both loved ones and strangers, eager to follow tyrants on the right or the left, and more concerned about appearances than in doing the moral thing. Distinctions were made between authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders, and the research tended to concern itself with the former, since they appeared to make up the bulk of authoritarians.
Following the cataclysmic events of the Second World War, researchers attempted to identify the qualities, characteristics, beliefs and behaviors of authoritarian leaders, authoritarian followers, authoritarian parents, and those other folks who, in one social psychology experiment after another, displayed an easily-accessible inhumanity. These researchers included Theodor Adorno and his colleagues at U. C. Berkeley who, in the 1950s, coined the phrase ‘the authoritarian personality’, Stanley Milgram and his famous learning experiments, and the contemporary Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer, whose decades of research provided an unparalleled look into what he dubbed, ‘right-wing authoritarianism’.
What no one thought to do was to ask the following simple question of people at large: if you’ve had contact with an authoritarian, what was your experience like? I’ve remedied this shortfall by providing an Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire to people from all walks of life. I asked people to describe what they experienced from their contact with an authoritarian, to what extent they were wounded by that contact, and what they’d done to try to heal from that wounding. Respondents, it turned out, had a great deal to share, and were grateful for the opportunity to tell their stories.
Respondents reported more than thirty particular authoritarian traits and behaviors that clustered into three categories: an aggression cluster, an exploitation cluster, and a narcissism cluster. People routinely reported significant negative outcomes resulting from this contact, from lifelong despair and anxiety to low self-esteem and self-sabotaging behaviors. Respondents also regularly reported that these issues, as profound as they were, seldom got addressed in therapy or counselling. In large part because therapists and counsellors are not trained to ask directly about authoritarian wounding, this important subject tended to fly under the radar.
Whether publicly aggressive or publicly passive, the typical authoritarian looks to be fueled by hatred and a powerful need to punish. Anyone who has lived with an authoritarian, been employed by an authoritarian, or come into contact with an authoritarian political leader or religious leader, senses that person’s fundamental nature: the reservoir of spite, the need to belittle and ridicule, an appetite for control, and especially an insatiable desire to punish. Whether that individual is politically on the right or the left, whether he or she professes to be religious or atheistic, what they share with their authoritarian brothers and sisters is a cruel, punishing nature, a lack of guilt and shame, and the cluster of traits and qualities that respondents have helped me identify.
If you’re a therapist or other helper, this is what your clients who are victims of authoritarian contact have had to deal with: a spiteful, cruel person who punished them relentlessly. Your client’s bullying brother, cruel grandmother, cynical pastor, explosive boss, oh-so-charming uncle, intrusive sister, sarcastic father, or violent mother have taken their toll on her. With your help, she may come to see for the first time why she had so many school troubles, why she felt ‘stupid’ and unequipped to deal with life, or why she had to ‘divorce’ her family of origin. All of this may become clear to her for the first time. But you will need to inquire. There is a high likelihood that your clients will have been wounded, at some time in some way, by an authoritarian. You ought to check – your clients will be grateful that you did!
Helping Survivors of Authoritarian Parents, Siblings and Partners: A Guide for Professionals, by Eric Maisel, is published by Routledge