Editor’s note: We did a podcast “behind the scenes” on this article. You can listen to it above.
I (Laura) saw this quote on Facebook this morning and it stopped me cold.
Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority.”
And sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say, “If you won’t respect me, I won’t respect you,” and they mean: “If you won’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a person” (source).
This is such an easy trap to fall into. I struggle with it as a parent, all the time.
When I watched the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest, I saw echoes of interactions I’ve had with my own kids. It goes like this:
I ask Child to do something inconsequential, like pick up that toy that I don’t feel like seeing in the living room anymore.
Child says “No.”
I don’t want to hear “No,” because at heart, my “request” was actually my own question of my identity:
- “Am I strong?”
- “Is my voice heard?”
- “Do I have power/authority?”
- “Do my kids ‘respect’ me?”
- “Am I worthy of respect?”
- Etc, etc. Add the Insecurity Of The Day right here.
I was not asking my child to pick up her toy. I was asking her to legitimize my Being. My words were about toys; my Question is about something else entirely. So when my child says, “No, I will not pick up my toys,” my heart hears “No” to the question of Being.
It’s a trap from the start.
When my child says “No,” in that situation, my heart responds with fear. “If the answer to my deep internal questions of identity and legitimacy are ‘No,’ then who and what am I?”
Fear very quickly blackens into anger.
The stakes in this interaction skyrocket. Everything depends on my child complying with my request. I must hear a Yes, because this Yes means I am. Only when I can wrest unquestioning compliance from my child will this itch of my insufficiency be scratched. It is a frantic feeling. It’s a trap.
I confess: I have (mostly unconsciously) used my parental authority to intimidate and manipulate my kids into assuaging my own insecurities. In all likelihood, you’ve done this too.
If you’re not a parent, then you’ve probably done it in some other area of authority in your life. Maybe you’ve succumbed to the temptation of holding “authority” over your spouse, to escape the suffocating fear of your own powerlessness. Maybe you’ve done it to the team you manage.
Maybe someone is doing this to you, and you don’t know how to escape.*
In all cases, I believe the first step toward freedom from this entrapment is to become the observer. Challenge yourself to become more objective of your interactions. Watch the dynamic; see where this is happening in your life.
We have a child who is going through an exceptionally oppositional season right now. It is very, very easy for me to fall into this power play and turn her “No” into the measuring stick of my parenting prowess. Most days, I feel utterly defeated, trying to navigate the twists of her logic and refusal to comply. Other days, my anger rises up and I want to squash her into submission.
Walking a path of peace in this season is hard.
In these frustrating, confusing, often hurtful interactions, I’m challenging myself to remember her humanity. To remember that she is a child. To remember that she is not the enemy.
The true enemy of any relationship is a lack of empathy and compassion.
If I lose my ability to identify with the humanity of the other, I have lost my own humanity in the process. Maintaining my own sense of authority is far less important than holding onto the awareness of our shared personhood. So that’s what I’m doing: I’m choosing compassion, even when my authority (my ego!) feels threatened and angry. And I’m keeping my heart grounded in empathy and my eyes open to humanity.
* If you observe that you are being treated as less than human because you do not kowtow to someone’s assumed authority, get some distance in (or from) that relationship, and get help in repairing it. If it’s happening in your marriage, please seek a therapist who can work in helping couples heal abusive habits in their relationships. You deserve to be treated with respect and kindness, even when you disagree.