- Peggy Shafer
Becoming My Own Authority
It took me well into adulthood to find my personal power and realize I don’t need permission to be myself. I was nearly thirty years old before fully grasping that I had the right to be my own authority figure.
So why did it take so long to learn this lesson that others pick up in their teens? I think it was my upbringing as a child of older parents who believed in the “old ways.” Authority figures were everywhere. My family taught me that all adults were superior to me. They were more talented, intelligent, and gifted than I, especially highly educated ones. But even if they lacked formal education (which many people in my very rural community did) they were ADULTS, so of course, they had to be superior. My job was to be quiet and listen.
Some special adults held even more importance than those in my own family. The minister at our church was among the most highly respected, as were my Sunday-school teachers and of course, the teachers at school. Our family doctor was practically omnipotent. One step down on the hierarchy were my parents’ friends, my aunts and uncles, and our neighbors, who all held permission to verbally correct me if I was out of line.
My parents frequently reminded me that everyone was equal, but a different unspoken message was also clear: some people were *more* equal. As a keen observer, I knew the pecking order. Generations before me had resolutely passed down this belief, so I couldn’t find a single role model for rebellion among my family. Our rural life was as boring and stable as two parents and an aging grandfather could force it to be. It was clear: adults had all the authority. I had none.
So, I was well into my late twenties before it dawned on me that I could make my own choices. I still sought permission to make decisions about almost everything. But, luckily, my own proverbial “light bulb
moment” soon presented itself.
On a hot August morning, several hundred would-be undergrads and advanced degree-seekers sat in the hot sun, sweating in our stifling black polyester gowns and mortarboards, waiting to receive our diplomas. The speaker was boring of course, and we squirmed in our folding chairs. When they finally called my name, I walked up the stairs to the temporary platform erected in front of University Hall. Smiling at the Dean of Education, I accepted the large white envelope with my engraved diploma. Inside was proof that I had earned a Master of Education in Guidance and Counseling.
A Master’s degree!! What an achievement! I had worked hard and completed it in just one year. After shaking the dean’s hand and moving my tassel from right to left, I walked down the stairs on the far side of the stage. That’s when my epiphany hit.
I WAS NOT ONE TINY BIT DIFFERENT FROM THE PERSON WHO WALKED UP THE STAIRS! I was the same woman, with the same talents, skills and personality as when I had ascended to the stage just a minute before. Education hadn’t change me. The almost perfect grades in all my classes hadn’t changed me. In fact, getting married the previous year hadn’t changed me, nor had being a teacher, tutor or graduate assistant. None of that had made any difference. None of those things could change the core of who I am. And because of that, nobody knows better than me what’s right for ME.
On those stairs, heading back down from the stage onto the thick, yellowed grass of the university commons, I realized that believing most people were superior because of their position or education or status in the community was all bull pucky! I was exactly the same person I had been before I received my degree. I had found my self-efficacy.
That very day I stopped giving so much of my power to authority figures in my life. I took control and started thinking of myself as equal to everyone else. Having a master’s degree doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone else on the planet. And they aren’t better than me.
That one moment changed me. It gave me a whole new perspective on the world. I believe people are exactly the same as I am under the skin, with the same fears and anxieties and needs for praise and acceptance. We each have the authority to know what’s best for ourselves. When I started interacting with people as equals, I became less willing to cede authority to others. As a counselor, mentor and coach, I’ve been able to help other people claim their power. The best part is I also judge others less, which empowers me to seek out friendships with people worldwide.
Have you been giving others too much authority over your life? Are you granting other people’s opinions more importance than yours? When was the last time you said, “I have decided.” without asking anyone if your decisions are valid? I urge you to give it a try. Becoming your own authority will significantly change your perspective on life.