Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #25 – On Gaining Acceptance: “But it doesn’t feel safe!”

#25 – On Gaining Acceptance: “But it doesn’t feel safe!”

Enos Bradsher Slaughter—nicknamed “Country” in Roxboro, North Carolina where he grew up—spent 19 seasons playing major league baseball, from 1938 to 1942 and from 1946 to 1959.  He played right field for four different teams, the main one being the Saint Louis Cardinals, where he spent 13 seasons.  During his playing years, Slaughter was named an All-Star ten times and he appeared in Five World Series; then, after he retired, he was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Saint Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame.  Yet despite this impressive record, which spanned most of two decades, Slaughter is best known for a risky maneuver in the 1946 World Series that history has dubbed the “Mad Dash.”

More than anything else, Slaughter was known for his hustle, routinely running hard down to first base even on walks—a habit later adopted by some players in baseball’s modern era.  In 1946, the Cardinals met the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, with the Sox considered heavy favorites.  Surprisingly, however, the series went into game seven and was tied as play entered the eighth inning.  With two outs and Slaughter on first, Saint Louis’s Harry Walker lined a single to left-center field.  Slaughter, having gambled and started running on the pitch, quickly rounded second and headed for third.  The Cardinals’ third-base coach Mike Gonzalez gave him a signal telling him to stop there, but Slaughter ignored it, rounded third, and headed for home.  The center fielder’s throw from the outfield went to cut-off man, Boston’s shortstop Johnny Pesky.  A quick throw home would likely have caught the runner for the third out; yet somehow Pesky hesitated, and Slaughter scored what proved to be the winning run, giving Saint Louis the game and the Series.  Asked later why he had ignored Gonzalez’s signal to stop at third, Slaughter said he believed he had a chance to score and that he might never have been able to forgive himself if he didn’t take that chance.

Even today, only a few players would risk making that same choice for fear of letting down their team and of humiliating themselves.  Taking the risk and falling short could mean being excoriated in the press, jeered by fans, and—depending on the impact of that failure—even tainting the player’s reputation and career.  Against the prospect of such dire consequences, most players would choose the safer option.  Moreover, even in less public circumstances and with less at stake, most of us would also choose not to take the sort of risk taken by Enos Slaughter.

In the course of my work as a therapist, I frequently meet people who reflexively give themselves the stop signal, as if rounding third and trying to make it home in life’s ballpark is a terrifying prospect.  As we discuss their decisions not to do things, I often hear reasons such as “I’m just not ready,” or “I have no idea what I would do instead,” or “I’m afraid I might fail,” or—perhaps most frequent and telling of all—“I’m afraid of what people might think.”  In short, they restrict themselves out of a fear of being judged.

To be sure, fear is one of the most powerful of motivators.  It is an essential element of the human “fight or flight” response to emergency situations—a reaction that helps us survive as a species.  However, if we are deeply fearful of being judged by others, this particular fear can cause us to hold ourselves back and avoid trying something even if it might benefit us in some way.  Perceiving the cost of failure as being vastly greater that any potential reward for success, we then routinely choose not to try anything that might change our lives for the better, fearing that we might be judged a failure and “not good enough.”

Such a deeply held fear often has its roots in the very early parts of our lives, when we are starting to learn about the world and our place in it.  During this period, the “higher-order” parts of our brains are not yet fully developed; thus, whatever we take in is entered directly into our long-term memory, where the foundation for our sense of self resides.  For this reason, simple interactions, typically with some of the older people in our lives—which might seem to them to be innocent and well-intended—can have profound effects on us and the way we learn to see ourselves.  Our experiences with family, with friends, with people in school, and with our community in general shape our understandings of our world.  Moreover, we tend to internalize and adopt the view of ourselves that we believe these other people are reflecting.  In this way, we come to learn who we are, who we are “supposed” to be, and what consequences we could suffer if we fail to live up to what is expected of us.

Many of the people who come to me for therapy have grown up with the inculcated notion that to be accepted as a person, they must somehow earn the approval of their fellow human beings.  Unfortunately, they never received precise instructions as to how this might be accomplished.  As a result, their only recourse has been to avoid any possibility of appearing to be less than perfect, which essentially required them to arrange not to be noticed at all.  By the time they come to see me, many have spent years, even decades, languishing in their own quiet misery.

Therapy involves helping these people understand that the root of their misery lies not so much in the possible judgments of others but in the judgments they have continued to make of themselves.  During this process, the realization frequently emerges that they don’t really know themselves—not accurately, not fully.  They have simply internalized the view reflected in the criticisms they have received over the years.  Once they begin to see themselves more clearly, without any imposed distortions or biases, they often start to recognize having qualities that they had never been able to acknowledge.

As these people continue to gain more self-knowledge, they are encouraged to be mindful of what they are thinking and feeling about themselves—who they are, what they believe in, and how they want to deal with life.  In the safety of the therapy office, they can freely express whatever they have been holding back and explore possibilities for living without fear.  The result of this effort is that they become increasingly self-accepting, and they learn that with self-acceptance comes freedom—the freedom simply to be themselves, to disregard other people’s judgments of them, and to jettison the burden of having to be perfect.

For each of us, the freedom gained through self-acceptance means we no longer have to hold ourselves back.  We can strive for ambitious goals, knowing that we may not always succeed, yet still be willing to try.  We can readily accept the fact that risk is a part of life and that without risk, striving means nothing.  Playing in life’s ballpark, we can recognize that we won’t win every game, but that we won’t win at all if we don’t show up and play.  As the renowned baseball executive Branch Rickey once observed, “A great ballplayer is a player who will take a chance.”  By becoming self-accepting, each of us can play life’s game in our own way, pursuing our own goals, and like Enos Slaughter, make our own Mad Dash.

  1. February 24, 2019 at 1:01 pm

    Nice, Dad!

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