"I'm in the military, and struggling with the abusive way that my superior officers communicate with me. Recently I had a disagreement with one guy who is 2 levels above me. I feel disrespected, and bullied. How should I respond?"
When I was 19, I joined the US Air Force Reserve Officer Training Core (ROTC).
I wanted to fly jets, and they offered an easy way to go to an expensive university when I had no money.
But after a year of living the ROTC life, I'd had a good taste of the culture - the "do what you're told" approach to communications. It felt constraining, and emotionally challenging to be in that situation, like I was being bullied and disrespected.
And, remember - this was the US Air Force - which is considered to be far less strict and aggressive than the other US military branches in its social dynamics.
I felt like the military wasn't the right fit for my values, which emphasize freedom, autonomy, creativity, and respect ( to everyone, not just your superiors ), and after some thought, I decided to leave, and find other ways to pay for my education.
But reflecting on this question now, I realize that I've learned a lot since then about the human mind and social structure design - which gives me a much clearer perspective on what I was experiencing and why.
In fact, knowing what I know now, I may well have made a different decision, and chosen to stay in that environment for at least several more years.
What I Didn't Know Then
How the Military is Different from other careers
The Military has a very different social structure and dynamic than most of us grow up with. It's very much "do it now or get out", because that's the machine-in-unison mindset needed in a crisis or battle situation.
When lives depend on each other, that hierarchical command order is everything. Everyone in the organization needs to know that the people "above", "below" and "adjacent" are 100% trustworthy to do their job quickly and at maximum effort, with zero hesitation.
So how do you ensure this level of efficiency between humans?
Frankly, it's not easy. Humans have a strong autonomous sense of self, so getting us all to all act in unison together quickly and efficiently in a crisis situation is very difficult. It's rather like hearding cats.
As an example, look at the current COVID-19 situation happening worldwide.
The way the military resolves this is that it creates an environment which is constantly pressurized to keep people on their toes, and test for people who don't fit in that model well.
Every member, especially the lowest & newest "unproven" members are pushed, pulled, stressed and tested to see if they can follow orders accurately, effectively, unquestioningly, unflinchingly, and without hesitation.
So why is this essential?
Imagine that you're thirsty, and you want to drink a glass of water. Your brain issues commands to your arms, elbows, hands, and fingers to pick up a glass of water and drink it. Easy.
But how well would that work if each arm, leg, hand, finger, had its own mind and challenged everything you asked it to do?
In a military organization the problem is exactly the same.
Response must be quick, so in order for that to happen, the unit must behave like a single body, with basically only one mind giving commands.
An officer-brain, and a squad-body.
This design hugely empowers the group - even a small squad that is well-trained can tackle challenges very efficiently, if it's under good leadership.
But there is a trade-off...
The individual members lose most of their freedom & autonomy - and the experience of that, for someone who values freedom, creativity, and a strong sense of self, is very difficult to adjust to.
At age 19, I didn't know how, and I couldn't see why that would benefit my life.
So Why Join the Military then?
When you join the military, you essentially "give up" much of your decision-making authority for your own life, to superior officers.
- They decide what you will be doing each day.
- They make sure you are learning the knowledge and skills that will best benefit the group.
- They make sure you are fit, even if fitness was never your thing, they'll get you there.
- They make sure you are clean, healthy, and look sharp and in-order at all times.
- They make sure you are courteous and well-mannered.
- They make sure you face challenge, fear, uncertainly - and learn how to be courageous and go into those situations anyway.
And in that process, you learn discipline, and self-discipline.
If you're not certain how that empowers you, look at David Goggins before, and after he joined the military.
Before the military, he was a couch potato, unhappy with his life. During the military, he gave himself 100% over to the organization, recognizing that he didn't have the self-discipline needed to create the life he wanted.
After the military, Goggins is breaking world records as a hobby, because he knows how self-discipline works.
Bullying, versus Discipline, are they the same?
Because most of us grow up in a very different social dynamic, the pressurized environment of the military can look and feel a whole lot like bullying.
We all know the drill sergeant personality type, and to some degree, that "do what I say" approach to communication infuses all aspects of any military organization - because it must in order to create the tightly-knit, highly responsive social structure that military units depend on.
It probably also attracts people who have a bullying personality, who are needy for respect, attention, validation. Just remember that mentality, and those behaviors, are part of the environment that shapes the individuals inside it.
It can feel abusive, sure.
But no matter why you think a superior is delivering those orders - you choosing to follow those orders, even when they are uncomfortable, is where you build self-control, and self-discipline. No niceness, no friendliness, no consideration for your fear or anxiety or doubt - this is not a discussion, just do it.
Create continual pressure to strengthen the net, and every strand in it.
But on the other side of that command-respond structure is an incredible level of efficiency- a level of self-discipline and skill that you take that away with you into your life forever.
What I'd do differently
If you're considering joining the military, or you are currently in the military and questioning that decision... here's what you need to know.
- Yes it will be hard, not at all like a normal job
- Directions are not given as a friendly conversation, they are given as orders
- You often will not understand why those orders have been given, and you will often disagree strongly with them
- You will feel jerked around
- You will feel disrespected
- You will sometimes feel bullied
- Sometimes, you will hate it
But, if you stick with it...
- You will achieve an incredibly developed level of skills and fitness, which you probably could not achieve on your own
- You will understand courage, and how to respond in the face of fear, uncertainty and doubt
- You will develop self-discipline- the ability to directly, intently pursue whatever you want in life, under your own guidance.
I didn't understand those benefits, and how much they would improve my life.
I encourage you to.
Considering a military career?
If you are already in the military, or have decided to join my recommendation is, while you're there, give it 120%. Do your very best, and learn as much as you can about the experience.
When you feel bullied, remember that it's your own emotional reaction you're feeling, to an unusual and uncomfortable social dynamic that is different from normal society. As such, you should strive to respond differently, even when you don't feel like it. Generally that means doing exactly what they ask, and faster than they demanded it be done.
As a result of choosing this response consistently, you'll actually grow a lot, simply being pushed past your normal-maximum mentally, physically and emotionally.
Over time, as you demonstrate your trustworthiness and value to the organization, and develop personally, you'll move up throught he ranks and become more and more a part of the "brain" than the "body" of the group - step by step.
And then your job will be to help others develop their discipline, by testing them too.
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A good friend of mine, who committed to the military experience far longer than I did, had these awesome notes to add.
From my experience it also taught me about selflessness and teamwork. You look out for your mates and they look out for you. Your team is only as strong as your weakest member.
Your life is in their hands and theirs in yours. You will not like everyone, but you will know that when it comes time - they will have your back and they will have yours. This is something civilians will never understand.
Teaches attention to detail, and pride. To this day I still polish my boots and at work people always ask why I do it. It isn't because I'm ex-army its because I take pride in my appearance - also it shows that I'm a good worker if I am willing to pay attention to something as minor as polishing my boots everyday.