locus of authority

One of the more delightful phrases one may hear from a child when being told what to do by their parents or teachers is ‘ you’re not the boss of me!’ They are giving expression to their internal locus of authority. Although often cute and endearing, it is, of course, not terribly accurate. For, indeed, parents are the boss, as are teachers, they are the authority,while the child is a minor and/or in the classroom. Defiance and opposition are fairly normal for children in various developmental stages. And, who better to defy and oppose than those perceived to be in authority.

There is little doubt that children need structure and boundaries; they need authorities in their life to guide them, correct them, inspire them and protect them. Children naturally look up to their parents, teachers, and other adults in the community with whom they may interact as authority figures. Just because they may periodically defy and oppose them does not mean they don’t need them. Children need authority figures in their lives in much the same way adults need a map when traveling in some new part of the world.

However, as children grow up into adolescence and then adulthood, the general model of having authority figures tends to remain. Adolescence is generally considered a time of breaking away from authority but it is more like shifting the locus of authority from adults to peers. Gangs, cliques and various social clubs all provide an opportunity for the adolescent to shift their ‘subservience’ from one set of authority figures, i.e., parents, teachers and adults, to another, namely, peers. Peer pressure can be significant and has been the motive for many an ill-conceived course of action.

As adults, we may like to think we no longer view our parents, teachers, or even peers as an authority. But, we can be greatly disturbed by what a peer or colleague says to us because we do, in our own mind, continue to value what another person says over what we ourselves may know. In other words, we may continue to view others as an authority. Certainly, society has established norms of authority, i.e., laws and rules, experts and specialists in various fields. We consider a medical doctor, lawyer, electrician, plumber or financial analyst an authority, in their given field, and we often value their knowledge and advice. And yet, we may also find it helpful to get a second opinion. However, when it comes to how we should live, what we should believe, where we should go in life, who we should befriend, or marry, and answering questions as to why we are here, there is no authority outside ourselves. There may be information available outside ourselves, but the ultimate decisions we make are ours. We are our own authority in such matters.

However, because all through childhood we have built up this model of having external authorities; and because our society does have external authorities, it is very easy to seek external authorities for answering questions about our purpose or giving direction to our life, which is a mistake. Far too many people pursue careers due to some external authority guiding them in that direction rather than the direction their innermost self would prefer. Far too many couples, both husbands and wives, remain together when they are both miserable, due to some perceived authority directing or guiding them.

The technical term for a person who is exceedingly dependent upon the advice, direction and guidance from others is called an ‘external locus of authority’ or ‘field dependence’ in which the person is very influenced by their environment, their setting, their situation, especially the beliefs, attitudes, opinions and behaviors of others in their world. The other side of that coin is ‘internal locus of authority’ or ‘field independence’ in which the person makes up their own mind, accepts responsibility for their own decisions and lives according to their own values. When we talk about growing up, becoming an individual adult, we tend to refer to this idea of having an internal locus of authority and being more field independent. But, alas, field dependence and an external locus of authority is all too common, even for adults.

Shifting from an external locus of authority to an internal locus of authority can be a challenging task. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it well when he stated that ‘ the individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.’ And, of course, there is the very familiar edict ‘to thine own self be true.’ And, how does one accomplish this? Question authority! Doubt just about everything you see or hear. Be critical, skeptical. Inquire. Probe. Be comfortable with saying, when needed, ‘no.’Developing an internal locus of authority is coming to recognize that, in many instances, the child’s utterances of ‘you are not the boss of me’ is an appropriate stance for us, as adults, to take when confronted with somebody trying to be an authority over our life.

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