Do As You’re Told

Do As You’re Told

For seven years from shortly before my fifth birthday I went to a smallish private school called Clevelands Preparatory School. It was an old-fashioned establishment in an old Victorian house, and very much based on old-fashioned ideals.

That included the uniform. The boys wore short trousers year-round, and even the underwear was prescribed for the girls. Separate shoes for outdoors and indoors. And the school dinners: you ate what was put in front of you or you went without.

Discipline was strict, enforced through corporal punishment. In a small concession to liberal ideas it was the slipper rather than the cane. I don’t know what effect it had on other pupils but I found the thought of it terrifying.

So apart from my academic achievements (which were exceptionally good) I also learned to be compliant. To obey without question. To defer to authority. All because of the threat of violence hanging over my head.

After a little while obedience becomes habit. You don’t even think about questioning. You just do as you are told like a good little cog in the machine.

It was during this time that I developed strong inhibitions against many of what I now recognise as my autistic behaviours. Rocking, flapping my hands, echolalia and verbal stimming, toe walking. Because those behaviours weren’t acceptable, they weren’t how a good child ought to behave. “Sit still!” “Be quiet!” “Walk properly!”

As I have worked to overcome my inhibitions in recent years it has become increasingly apparent just how deeply that fear of punishment affected me. How much of it I still carry with me to this day. That fear is forever looking over my shoulder, judging everything I do to ensure I don’t break the rules.

I am almost incapable of breaking a rule. Even thinking of doing it fills me with a sense of danger, of dread. And I can trace it all back to my experiences at school. Back to that threat of violence. I fear violence: it terrifies me. Of all the triggers for my anxiety that is the most powerful, the one that can make me freeze, unable to even think. Literally scared witless.

These days I’m beginning to think of it as trauma, and I see parallels with the aversion-based conditioning of ABA. I was never struck, but I saw others punished. I saw one little boy who could not have been even 5 years old picked up bodily by the headmaster and shaken for refusing to eat his dinner, all the while being shouted at and verbally abused.

My heart is pounding in my chest just remembering the incident all these years later. And there were many others. I say I have bad things locked away in my mind: these are some of them. I have to move away from these memories now, lock them away again, wait for the screaming in my mind to diminish.

To me there is no doubt: I was conditioned to be compliant, obedient. It scares me to think that if someone in a position of authority had tried to abuse me physically or sexually I would have felt unable to say “No”. I still find it hard to assert myself when I disagree with my boss, say, or anyone else in a position of power.

There was another form of conditioning I underwent. One that was perhaps more insidious than the explicit threat of violence. I learned to seek approval, praise. It was a competitive environment and since I had no talents of the physical kind I could only rely on my mental abilities. Once it became apparent that I was gifted, excellence became expected. Anything less was received with disappointment and I felt the failure keenly.

Praise and reward is how I measure my worth: I am only as good as people tell me I am. It became my chief motivation and it still is to a large degree. And it’s all about satisfying other people’s expectations rather than setting my own goals. I’m not even sure I know how to work out what I want for myself.

In some ways I feel I am broken. Not because of my autism: certainly not that. But because I carry all this baggage of my past with me. It shapes every interaction I have with other people. It affects how I think and feel about events. I despair of ever being free from it: I don’t even know what such freedom might mean. But the weight of my past is suffocating me.

3 thoughts on “Do As You’re Told

  1. I grew up in an extremely religious community in the US. Even my underwear was prescribed, as you said. I have a hundred thousand stories that I do not care to share about fear being used to control me and those around me. This post actually triggered a short period of depression in me, until I could talk with my partner and remember that my life is not this way any longer, and I am not allowing my children to live in this environment of fear.

    I too am very much of a people pleaser with everyone: my workmates, my friends, my family, the waiter at the restaurant, everyone. I tremble and freeze at the thought of being rude, inconveniencing someone, or breaking a rule or guideline, even if I didn’t know the rule ahead of time. I am working hard to balance teaching my children to be polite and think of others, while still being willing to take risks and stretch boundaries.

    I am also in a Dominant/submissive relationship, and I would say that much of my tendency toward submission in a romantic relationship is based on my childhood. Each rule and its consequences and rewards are clearly defined. We even have a prescription for if we encounter a situation where the rules are not defined. This structure of our relationship has soothed many anxieties across several areas of my life. I do find that our relationship is strong, sweet, and very kind. He has never (and will never) cause fear in me, and there is a peace in that knowledge that lends confidence in other areas of life.

    Good luck, Alex, as you continue to face these issues and to learn to move past them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I sometimes wonder whether I’m right–whether I even have the right–to question what happened all those years ago. That’s how deeply conditioned I am to obey authority figures without question.

      It really has nothing in common with a D/s relationship: in that it’s you who gets to set your boundaries. The fact that you consent to the rules is key: abuse happens when rules are imposed without you having any control over the situation. A healthy D/s relationship is symmetrical in that both of you are willing participants and consent to your roles.

      I can see you are all too aware of the difference between that and an unequal, unhealthy environment where you are coerced into complying with the demands of authority.

      Good luck, and long may your personal relationship bring you happiness, support and security.

      Like

  2. Been reflecting on the last job I had. I portrayed myself as a bubbly person, and people thought that, because I was always bubbly, they could mistreat me. More, if I didn’t obey their orders, they felt a duty to try to verbally beat it into me. I’m warned that this is human nature for people in authority to abuse others they see as weak. It shouldn’t ever be like this.

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