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What is authority anxiety and why is it making me scared of my boss?

IMAGE VIA E NOLAN

WORDS BY JANICE NG

“Every interaction is a performance, and the workplace is my reluctant stage.”

It’s an ongoing, unfunny gag between me and every job I’ve had that the moment I step into a workplace, I undergo a total personality shift. I don’t mean to, but it happens. And it happens again and again, every time I step out the door to go to work, until I’m waving goodbye and heading into my next job. 

After some analysis – involving an exhaustive dissection of each and every interaction I’ve had with my seniors at work – the conclusion I’ve arrived at is that most of the time I’ve felt this way because I’ve been overly vigilant and fearful of doing the ‘wrong’ thing. Of course, feeling nervous in your first month of a new job is perfectly understandable.


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Constantly fearing how you’re being perceived by your manager, your boss, your co-worker who’s been in the job far longer than you, and the middle-aged lady working reception in the corner, is not. Enter authority anxiety. 

Authority anxiety (also known as authority fear) is fairly self-explanatory and is loosely defined as a fear of authority figures. Although such feelings exist in many social settings, school and work environments are where these power structures are most prevalent.

Obviously, power is inherent to authority. But when your fear of the power someone else holds impedes and hinders your ability to work and form relationships, that’s when it becomes an issue. There aren’t many official resources on authority anxiety specifically, and it’s often only discussed as a subset of social anxiety.

From the few resources that do exist, it’s apparent that this anxiety develops thanks to both external and internal influences. These could be your family or a challenging or damaging experience you’ve endured. Sometimes it’s systemically ingrained

Filial piety is a pillar for many East Asian families and mine is no different. Respect for the elderly and your parents has long been woven into the socio-cultural fabric as an ethic of Confucianism, and it’s one that still prevails. Be polite, be quiet, don’t argue. Do what you’ve been told because it’s in your best interest. 

I recognise that the root of my fear and anxiety lies here. Of course, some people with this upbringing can successfully untangle themselves from it, but I, apparently, have not (or cannot). My upbringing, when coupled with my anxiety disorder and a paralysing fear of criticism, meant that developing authority anxiety was almost inevitable.

So inevitable, in fact, that I wasn’t particularly surprised when I discovered that what I felt could be articulated in two neat words. But despite my struggles, there are no traces of bitterness towards my family and my upbringing; I long ago accepted it for what it is. 

So what does authority anxiety actually feel like? There are certain physiological signs that I notice, like nausea and a tightness in my chest. I become withdrawn and tend to keep opinions to myself, politely nodding and agreeing with whatever’s being said.

I have a tendency to say “Thank you” and “Sorry” too much, even when the situation doesn’t call for it. I know that how I’m acting isn’t a true representation of who I actually am, and it feels like I’m being disingenuous.

Like other mental illnesses, authority anxiety is fatiguing. It’s tiring to always be on guard. To be watchful and wary, worrying over everything you do or say in front of those in authoritative positions. Every interaction is a performance, and the workplace is my reluctant stage. It seems strangely silly – irrational, even. But what is anxiety if it isn’t steeped in some sort of irrationality? 

Not only does authority anxiety affect me and my performance, it also affects the relationships I have with my seniors. I have often felt deeply unsure of myself in the workplace, and this has led me to feel aggrieved, too.

I’ve always believed that if I didn’t hold my own in interactions with my managers, that I would be written off as childlike and exposed for my lack of know-how and experience. I worried that engaging in conversation with them would give me away – my true ineptitude would be discovered, making my dismissal inevitable.

Frankly, authority anxiety sucks. At the peak of my difficulties with it, each night before work I would experience a kind of gently persistent anxiety; I’d feel it in my chest, and it would fill me with a sense of dread. 

It has been almost five years since I was clinically diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I’ve been through too many psych sessions to count, and it’s taken a lot more unlearning than learning, but one thing I have taken away is patience. Authority anxiety isn’t something that will go away entirely, as power is designed to be exacted this way.

So as I grow as a working person and unlearn the things deeply ingrained into my being, I’ve adopted a selection of methods to help relieve some of the anxiety that comes with navigating the power structures within workplaces. 

Repeating ‘You are fine, for one, is strangely allaying. As cheesy as the phrase is, it is what I often repeat in my head over and over again before I email that important document or ask my manager how to do a perplexing task, and it does help.

New neural pathways can be developed this way, meaning that our associations with authoritative figures can change, and we can learn to navigate these interactions with a calmer, more confident mindset. 

Most importantly, convincing myself that I am deserving of the time and space I take up, no matter the context, is what I’ve found to be most helpful. Even if your manager is perpetually occupied with other tasks you think are more important than you, you are still deserving of their time. 

If you’re a future employer of mine, however, I sincerely hope that you never read this article and if you have, that you promptly forget it. It’s in both of our best interest because, to be honest, I’m already a little scared of you. 

For tips on how to deal with authority anxiety, try this.

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