Neminem excusat
February 8, 2009 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Phobias are treated by exposure or immersion. How, then, is one supposed to deal with a phobia of petty authority?

I have a deep unhealthy fear that a person in authority will seize on a minor transgression, one I might not even have known existed, and grind me into powder. There are a lot of things that "everybody" does that I can't do. I can't speed; I can't touch a steering wheel on the same night as having a single drink. These may be good decisions, but they are made from my fear of cops, not reasoning. I never download pirated movies, songs or anything (not that I would honestly rethink that decision). I sweat over my taxes every year, even though everything should be in order. I am afraid of, I don't know, the judge from Pink Floyd's The Wall or something. And it freezes my blood to think of a SWAT team busting down my door and killing my dog over some address error on a warrant, then shuffling away with no apologies, never to account for it. These are all products of genuine concern, but they haunt and paralyze me.

I understand where this is from. I had a bad experience of scapegoating for a minor transgression in high school, and although some grownups were kind of sympathetic, they explained that the teachers doing the punishing couldn't just let it go, because that meant failing to do their work, risking their jobs and their families. So ever since I have been keenly aware that neither justice nor mercy matters as much, to enforcers of rules, as keeping their jobs.

But I am hell of a grownup now and need to stop allowing these things to control me. How do you unseat a phobia like this one in particular?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Phobias are treated by exposure or immersion. How, then, is one supposed to deal with a phobia of petty authority?

You don't get enough exposure to petty authority already?

Try working in a modern office, or using public transport.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:46 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe it's less a phobia and more like general anxiety or something.
posted by borkingchikapa at 6:47 PM on February 8, 2009

Phobias are treated by exposure or immersion. How, then, is one supposed to deal with a phobia of petty authority?

An S&M club?

In all seriousness, I suspect there's probably more at work here than something that happened to you in high school. I think your best bet would be to talk to a therapist. I am not a psychologist, but I don't think immersion is the only way phobias are treated, and it does not sound to me like the paranoia you are describing is exactly a phobia in any case.
posted by malphigian at 6:48 PM on February 8, 2009

1) Rather than immersion, you may need gentle, repeated exposure to benign authority, where rules are interpreted objectively and penalties issued judiciously.

Sadly, this is not easy to find in contemporary society. Persons drawn to authoritarian positions tend to have a need to exert power over others, repress/deny feelings, and perceive things in "black and white" hierarchical terms.

Search for an individual (e.g., judge, law enforcement officer, civil leader, military brass) who has a reputation for fairness and goodness. It's best if you can interact in person, but if that's not possible, read about the person, and learn about him/her anecdotally from others.

2) Remind yourself that most of the time, systems work fairly. That's why abuses make the news. Remind yourself, too, that there are penalties for authority abuses and, if you are the victim of such, you will have avenues of recourse and others who will support you.

3) Interact with individuals whose chosen occupations require them to challenge authoritarian abuses. This includes criminal defense attorneys, civil rights activists, and watchdog organization members. These people are your allies. They bravely oppose injustices and attempt to defend and protect underdogs and those who may have been victimized through power abuse.

4) Freeze catastrophic thinking. Right. Away. If you drive 65 mph on a 55 mph highway past a cop, and start imagining that you'll soon be the last waterboarded detainee at Gitmo, stop the thought immediately. Blank your mind. Joke about how ridiculous this is. And see #5.

5) Know your rights! The internet is your friend. Learn about what those in power can and can't do legally. For example, you can look up the penalty for speeding and discover that it's not lethal injection but traffic school.

Lastly, know you're not alone. People who exist outside society's comfy norms, minorities, rebels, immigrants, and many others harbor these same fears. Why? They've experienced injustice firsthand, witnessed it meted upon their friends and loved ones, and understand it's an ugly fact of life. But those who educate themselves, network with kindred souls, and practice rational, proactive, confident behaviors can shed their fear of petty authority.
posted by terranova at 7:20 PM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh wow, interesting post. I'm pretty much the opposite, I do minor to moderate transgressive stuff quite often without considering consequences whatsover.

I wasn't like that always though. I was like you until I hit my pre-teens, my father had raised me to believe what comes around goes around, and EVERY not-so-pure or not-so-legal deed WILL be punished. I just started doing what I wanted to and discovered that I rarely got caught bad things. And when I did get caught I was either able to talk myself out of punishment, or I just received a slap on the hand. An example, I've been pulled over several times, but the cops never write me a ticket because I have a clean record. I know MANY others who have the same experiences as mine.

I'd say start enganging in some minor transgressive stuff, you will probably find out that you A.) Won't get caught or B) If you do, it won't be the end of the world. The more you do it, the less fear you will feel.

And to look at it another is rare for people to get in major trouble for the stuff you listed. You know why? Because people are lazy and don't like to spend money. No cop wants to put in the effort to pull over EVERY driver that speeds, if that's even possible. And that goes for other things, that aren't super serious in nature.
posted by sixcolors at 7:32 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have no idea how you would unseat a phobia like this, if indeed it is a phobia, but I'll allow that I have a variation of it as well. Although I wouldn't say that I'm crippled by it, I think I've structured my life in such a way that my encounters with petty authoritarian figures are kept to a minimum.
On Driving: If there's any way to avoid driving, I do it. walking, biking, having someone else drive, these all keep me out of the "Where is your license and registration? do you know how fast you were going?" line of thoughts. Not very helpful, sorry. But biking and walking have a more liberating feel after a while of driving. No speed limits on a bike woohee!
On taxes etc: The best way to win against petty authority is to out-petty it, when confronted. You know that your taxes are in order. If it's a problem, it's their problem. Let me speak to your manager. harumph. This puts the underling you're speaking to in thrall of the thought of their higher authority figures.
–I had a section here about using your natural authority to assert your place in the world and feel comfortable within yourself but then it seemed Randian and awful and that would just not do–

But, I might guess that these are all in scenarios in your mind, mostly, played out over and over. So perhaps you just need a few new moves, mentally, to counter the awful scenarios that you see? Trump cards in your mental rolodex of anxiety. Indeed, therapy might be useful for that.
I, too, had a weird fiasco of a run-in with authority in high school. And I still think about it today and still get frustrated and angry, until I realize that as an adult that could never happen to me again. •knocks wood.•
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:39 PM on February 8, 2009

2nd terranova - great answer! I would add: keep a journal of each actual encounter with authority and how it turned out. Try to find at least one incident every day, if you can. You might even want to give it score in the margin in terms of whether they followed proper procedure (not arbitary) with bonus points if they are kind, sympathetic or friendly. Over time, it will give you an objective assessment of your actual experiences.
posted by metahawk at 7:44 PM on February 8, 2009

I sometimes feel a little bit like this... like the other day at the store I pulled a chapstick (that I brought in with me) out of my purse and used it and put it back in my purse. As I approached the door to leave the store, a security guard walked by, and I thought I was going to be falsely stopped for shoplifting.

I'm the kind of person who can't throw a piece of gum out the window for fear a bird would choke on it and die. Or, I once wanted to smash a glass figurine (that someone I eventually didn't like had given me) on the road once, but I couldn't because someone might get a flat tire and it would be my fault.

I have always thought of this as a slightly overactive conscience, not a phobia.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:55 PM on February 8, 2009

Channel it. Anger and conscience motivate many people who stand against a sea of tyrrany. No reason paranoia shouldn't.

I'm completely serious. Join the ACLU, Amnesty International, The Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty -- join them all, give all you can, write articles. Because the fact that no one is mentioning is that you're right. Yes, you may be lucky enough to live in a lax country, or be of the "right" gender, orientation, creed, color, or philosophy -- but most of the world isn't. Every day, untold number of people are subject to the kind of tyranny you fear -- petty or otherwise, and nonzero amounts perpetrated by the US Government with our tax dollars -- and it's time to stand and fight.

Your paranoia may be overwrought in your particular case. It is entirely appropriate in the world. You distrust authority. Use it.
posted by quarantine at 8:14 PM on February 8, 2009 [8 favorites]

terranova's got it. I'll add to the list:

6) Keep reminding yourself that your phobia/anxiety about, e.g., your IRS return really has nothing to do with your taxes. You know the real origins of the freakout and the current situation has nothing to do with that.

7) People don't keep doing things without getting some reward. Is there something your phobia does for you?

8) Consider seeing a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. I think that comes close to what you're looking for.
posted by dogrose at 8:23 PM on February 8, 2009

Channel it. Anger and conscience motivate many people who stand against a sea of tyrrany. No reason paranoia shouldn't.

Unless the paranoia interferes with your ability to function. Which it seems it has, for this poster.
posted by dogrose at 8:37 PM on February 8, 2009

Well, know the boundaries that contain that particular petty authority, and figure the worst they can do is by-the-book, right up to the level of the boundaries, and don't be a jerk.

Does that make sense? If you get pulled over for speeding the officer is going to either give you a warning, or a ticket, big deal. (Assuming you aren't reckless driving, or acting really belligerent to them, or carrying something illegal.) If you completely screwed up your tax return the limit of what the IRS can do is.. probably require you to pay back taxes, I suppose they could audit you which would be a big headache, but at the end of that, probably require you to pay back taxes. They don't care to, or have time to, do anything more. Basically the law doesn't care. A judge in traffic court could point at you and say you're a horrible driver and bad example and all-round rotten person, but at the end of the day you'd have to pay a ticket and the rest of it is just BS. Unless you are running for public office or seeking a cabinet-level appointment or something.
posted by citron at 11:00 PM on February 8, 2009

IMHO when authority figures get petty or personal, that is their problem & their lack of professionalism, and you should treat it as irrelevant to the situation at hand.

Was your problem with the high-school thing actually about feeling intensely that the transgression was so minor, that coming after you for it was unjust, and unfair, and you should have gotten "mercy" as you put it. Maybe try looking at the situation in a different way. The teacher was just following the rules, and the rules don't care who you are or how bad you feel. And that's actually a good thing, because that situation wasn't about judging you personally and finding you wanting - it was just about following the rules. And if that particular rule hadn't been typically followed until your situation came up, maybe try and look at it as a simple case of bad luck - oh well, technically I broke a rule and this happened to be the time they decided to enforce that - and let it go.
posted by citron at 11:10 PM on February 8, 2009

SWAT team busting down my door and killing my dog over some address error on a warrant
I know these kinds of articles that I've read on MeFi certainly are a trigger for my anxiety as well. Might be a good idea to stop reading them. It's also worth noting that this last example is significantly outside your zone of control, so therefore, worrying about it will not lower the already ridiculously low odds of it happening. The cost-benefit analysis of this worry leads to the conclusion that you're better off keeping it out of your head as per terranova's advice #4. It sounds like you've done the cost-benefit analysis of your other worries and came to a similar conclusion. Listen to that.

In my experience, the exposure/immersion cure for anxiety is just a specific case of building self-efficacy through mastery experiences. The best way to acquire mastery experiences is to start with simple, easily accomplishable goals (think: slam dunks) and work your way up slowly to more difficult experiences. To that end, I also suggest getting involved in issues that you are passionate about. Attend local police accountability meetings, or become involved with civil rights organizations. Attend peaceful, legal, family friendly protests and see where that leads you. Maybe graduate to standing closer to the front line of the protest.

I'm a big believer that at least a little therapy would be a good idea for everybody and their mother. For what it's worth, many of the major turning points in my struggle against anxiety and depression were the direct result of standing up against authority and living with my decisions. Saying to yourself, "I will stand up against petty authority and I will accept the consequences," is a huge win against fear and that latter part is the important part: acceptance.
posted by Skwirl at 11:25 PM on February 8, 2009 [5 favorites]

Immersion into petty authority?

Join the army. I'm not joking. National service is mandatory as a part of being a (male) Finnish citizen. For me, the whole experience was petty authority telling me to do things without ever having to justify themselves and then 'grinding me into powder' for not complying or even for complying but not up to their standards. It was (mild) terrorism masquarading as authority, which is exactly what you're afraid of. I came out the other end a much, much more centered person with strong ideas of what I personally fear, respect or admire in authority figures.

Can you do a short training course or something similar? Some people strive under the loss of control of their own lives. I discovered that I am not one of those people though I had lived quite a sheltered life up until that point.
posted by slimepuppy at 4:20 AM on February 9, 2009

Phobias are treated by exposure or immersion. How, then, is one supposed to deal with a phobia of petty authority?

I think your premise might be flawed. CBT is frequently used to treat phobias.
posted by electroboy at 7:05 AM on February 9, 2009

This is perhaps going to sound a bit strange, but in reading your post, OP, the thing that stands out for me in all your examples is the recurring image of some external, amorphous entity with complete control over you and the results of your actions. Despite doing everything you can to ensure that the outcome of a particular action goes one way, you're frightened of it going another. You say that this stems from a particular episode during your childhood, where it sounds like you were made an example to others.

CBT will help you unpack this thinking, showing you where your fears are irrational.

Terranova also has a good suggestion, but I'd go one better: be an exemplar of benign authority yourself. Volunteer with your local community police association, or with amnesty international or with Big Brothers/Sisters. Be someone that a vulnerable person can look up to. Look for ways to teach, rather than make examples of. Precisely because you had a bad experience can be the reason for positive growth, both for yourself and for others.
posted by LN at 11:36 AM on February 9, 2009

Well, since you say this is controlling you, it seems that it's still possible to do a kind of immersion/exposure process. You must be changing your behavior in response to the fear in some way, so your method of exposure is just to carry out the action that your fear is telling you is not OK, but that rationally you know is reasonable, while paying careful attention to your emotional state (and maybe taking notes).

The usual CBT books get into examples of this. Although the particular examples may be slightly different, the general technique should be the same. I seem to remember one of the Burns CBT books having an example about getting over a compulsion to constantly recheck whether you've locked the door: you commit to going 15 minutes without going back to recheck, and each minute you note how high your anxiety is on a scale of 1-10 or something like that; the person doing this winds up surprised that after only 5 minutes or so they weren't anxious anymore. So pick an example of how you can do something that seems forbidden to you in a sufficiently safe way; maybe it's driving 5 mph over the speed limit for 10 minutes or something (but if that seems dangerous, pick something that seems safe--to your rational analysis, but not to the phobia).

Of course, I think you could approach it by dealing directly with the thoughts, as well, without the physical action--writing down the thoughts when they come up and pointing out what is irrational about them, etc. The key to this is that you need to get to the point where you really see that they are irrational, and that the rational response is more accurate than what you were thinking originally; it's not just something you're trying to force yourself to swallow.
posted by dixie flatline at 11:57 AM on February 9, 2009

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