Q: I am terrified of men with any authority or power over me. I am going to be a 50-year-old woman next month. When I talk to a man or approach my supervisor, I notice that I am afraid. I feel weak and scared. I lose my confidence and start stuttering and forgetting things. I feel completely stupid. My supervisor is essentially a nice guy. I have been like this much of my life. I was afraid of my father when he would yell and even hit my sister and me. I have got to do something about this.
A: You are very aware of your emotional symptoms triggered by men who seem strong. This is a good first step. Many women and men fear authority. Someone with greater power than us has the power to hurt us. Your supervisor can fire you. Your professor can criticize you in class or give you a lower grade than you deserve. Men also rape women. So, your fear is not illogical or unfounded. It is a social reality in our times.
Being yelled at or hit by your father has caused a trauma that has generalized to other men with authority. Although he may have been trying to discipline you, it was verbal and emotional abuse. In experiencing your symptoms, you are regressing back to the terrified little girl in front of your father. You are not healed of this and it is limiting your life.
Start by remembering and acknowledging your years as a girl. Do you feel grief, anger, and hurt? By processing your experience, hopefully with another person, you will not be as possessed by your feelings. Do you have dreams about these memories when you sleep? They will offer you current insight on this issue.
Therapy for such a trauma entails another person being supportive and present towards you, as you are recalling and feeling your experiences as a little girl. This helps create empathy towards you. As previous memories arise, the connection between the present and the past will be apparent. This will ultimately help you come more into the present. Although we think of anger as a negative emotion, it’s very appropriate that you allow yourself to really feel it. Then it won’t get displaced on someone else. Know the strength behind the anger that can protect and support you. That’s what the little girl inside you needs. Thus, you will identify more with the strong adult and less with the scared child.
Reassuring your inner child that people are safe and that you won’t be hurt is part of the work. Healing this fear involves dialoguing with the girl inside you—letting her know that you understand. For a while, a counselor may need to model this for you. There are various psychotherapeutic techniques to break apart old patterns and help develop new ones.
Do projects that help build your confidence. Take an area where you are moderately challenged and work at it. Get involved in group activities—sports, singing, acting, gardening, or a book group. This will help loosen some of the self-consciousness and lessen anxiety. Some people benefit by having a private teacher or a coach to learn. Make sure he or she is very positive and encouraging. Get good support at a pace that works for you. These positive experiences will re-build your inner strength and help you live out your full potential.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393. www.wholenesstherapy.com