Posts Tagged ‘Definition of self’

#23 – On Being Who You Are: “But I’m supposed to be . . .”

October 2, 2014 1 comment

In 1952 the Brooklyn Dodgers called up a 28-year old African-American pitcher named Joe Black from their minor league system. Black roomed with Jackie Robinson, who had broken baseball’s “color barrier” five years earlier when he joined the Dodgers. But where Robinson, a gifted athlete, was also something of a firebrand, Black was all about pitching. He had a powerful fastball and a tantalizing slow curve, both of which he threw with the same consistent motion, keeping opposing batters guessing. Moreover, Black had no qualms about throwing high and inside to keep hitters from crowding the plate.

Dodger manager Chuck Dressen assigned Black to the bullpen, where he quickly became dominant. The powerful reliever won 15 games and saved another 15, while maintaining a 2.14 ERA over 142 innings as the Dodgers won the National League title. Facing the New York Yankees in the World Series and finding himself short of starting pitchers, Dressen brought Black out of the bullpen to start the first game. With a powerful performance, Black bested Yankee ace Allie Reynolds, 4 to 2. While he later started and lost in games four and seven, Joe Black nevertheless earned the distinction of being the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game, and he was later named National League Rookie of the Year for 1952.

During the off season after losing the series, Chuck Dressen decided that he wanted Black to add a number of pitches to his repertoire, that his two pitches were not enough. As it happened, Black had been born with a deformity in his right hand, making it difficult for him to throw anything but his fastball and slow curve. Nevertheless, he dutifully set to work adding the pitches his manager wanted, and his effectiveness immediately began to decline. After two more seasons, Black was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, then to the Washington Senators, and by 1958, he was teaching Health and Physical Education at Hubbard Junior High School in Plainfield, New Jersey. During his rather brief major league career he had compiled a record of 30 wins and 12 losses, half of those wins coming in his first year with the Dodgers. Baseball historians still speculate as to what Joe Black might have accomplished if he could simply have used what he did have instead of being pressured for more — if he could just have been himself.

I often find myself speculating in much the same way about many of the people who come to my office for therapy. They arrive with complaints about pressure, frustration, and a sense of failure. Many have already seen a physician and been prescribed medicine, which they believed would make them feel better. Yet, even with the medicine, the stresses of their everyday lives persist, taking the inevitable mental and physical toll and leaving these people with an ongoing sense of misery. For most of them, the stresses they endure daily are rooted in the instilled belief that they are not good enough as they are and that they must somehow “be more” and “do better” in order to avoid one of life’s greatest perceived penalties — disapproval.

Our need for approval starts to be fostered almost as soon as we exit the womb. Knowing nothing of who or where we are or how to go about getting our needs met, we can only rely on those who take care of us — our parents and others. Naked and helpless, we depend on them for our survival. Soon we come to understand that these “big people” represent authority; they tell us who we are and how we are doing and how we are supposed to be doing. Very quickly we learn the importance of maintaining the approval of the big people in order to avoid the painful experience of shame.

In this way avoidance becomes a major part of how we learn to cope with the world. Then, as we grow and mature, the big people come to include teachers, coaches, employers, law officers, public officials, and even “media” personalities. Eventually, we reach the point where trying to satisfy the big people becomes overwhelming since there are so many of them, and since their expectations of us keep increasing. Now, no matter what we do, we cannot avoid disappointing and being disapproved of by someone. Since the body’s stress reaction is triggered when we face demands that we do not believe we are able to meet, the stress now becomes ongoing. And, as if dealing with all this stress were not enough, we also must face the irony that in always trying to satisfy the big people, we rarely if ever manage to satisfy ourselves.

Not infrequently, people confess to me that their lives are not what they had expected them to be; many even admit they are living lives that they never really wanted. To make matters worse, the large majority of these people, having spent so much time trying to do what they were supposed to do, never got to figure out exactly what they wanted to do. Thus, feeling trapped where they are, many are also terrified by the idea of being set “free” with no direction in which to go. Working with these people starts with helping them understand that they have both the right and the ability to take charge of their own lives — to find and explore their own interests, set their own priorities, and look for approval not from others but from themselves. From here, they begin a process of discovery in which they start to find previously unrecognized aspects of themselves, valuable characteristics that help define them as individuals. Through this process, they start to establish a healthier and more complete sense of who they are. Gradually they come to see that they can live in the world and simply be themselves, doing their best at what they do and not feeling like a failure if someone does not approve.

For each of us, it takes courage to start being yourself when you have spent years, perhaps even decades, trying to be someone else. After all, we have long been trying to be and do what we were told we were supposed to be and do. Now, if we hesitate and perhaps choose to do something else, people may disapprove, some vehemently. To be sure, we all find it necessary sometimes to accommodate the big people in order to have our own needs met. With a healthy sense of self, however, it is possible for us to perform a service for someone without compromising our own sense of who we are.

In 1951, a year before Joe Black joined the Dodgers, another young African-American began playing for the New York Giants. Friendly and outgoing, this talented young centerfielder became known as “The Say Hey Kid” and ultimately established himself as one of baseball’s all-time greats. When asked how he could keep performing without being changed by the pressures of the game, Willie Mays responded, “Just be yourself and you’ll never have a problem.” Too bad Joe Black never got that message.


#4 — On Turning Things Inside-Out: Who am I? Who decides?

October 15, 2011 3 comments

Too often I find people in my office who are living with the emotional pain imposed by their own sense of inadequacy and failure.  There are single men and women feeling pressure to be married and raising a family “by a certain age,” or others wanting to be in a “committed relationship,” and both in a quiet panic over what they perceive as a lack of progress and of prospects.  There are married men and women, some with families, who are nevertheless feeling trapped and miserable.  There are the many who are divorced and struggling to restart their lives amid the emotional wreckage of a failed marriage.  And then there are all those who endlessly pursue relationships one after another, somehow unable or unwilling to tolerate being alone. 

Many of these people arrive in my office with other complaints, secondary issues that are often more the result of their situations than the cause of their miseries.  A lot of them have already been informed they have a mood disorder or an anxiety disorder or something more exotic.  Many are already taking antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications or both.  In general, these people expect therapy to “fix the problem” so they can simply resume the lives in which they have been so miserable.  When I suggest to them that perhaps their clinical problem might be related to something larger, they often look nonplussed.  Aren’t they living life the way they are supposed to live it?   Isn’t this just another misfortune that has befallen them?  Why should taking care of it require anything more than medicine and a few therapy visits?  When I explain further that their clinical disorder is not something they just caught, like a cold or the flu, and that it is part of their body’s reaction to the wear and tear of the ways they’ve been living, I get a variety of reactions.  Many respond with disbelief, some with anger, others with a mixture of the two.  And a few — the fortunate few — get curious.

When each of us arrives on the planet, we are aware of very little except, ideally, the warm and comforting and reassuring presence of our primary caregiver.  Ignorant of almost everything — who we are, where we are, or what anything means — we depend on this caregiver and those who gradually join in our upbringing.  During the time spent with this cadre, we start to develop a sense of who we are, what the world is like generally, and what it means to live in it as a “good” girl or boy.  Later, as we get older, our society takes over.  It is our institutions — educational, commercial, governmental, religious, and even our popular culture — that complete the picture.  They tell us who we are supposed to be and what it means to be successful as people, irrespective of our individual tendencies or preferences.  The effect of all these influences is that from birth we are defined as individuals from the outside-in.  And during every passage through life we are thus predisposed to view our experience in terms of who our family, our friends, and our institutions expect us to be and to do what they expect us to do.  This is how we are formed, and this is how we are ultimately controlled.  If we deviate from those expectations, the implied message is, “You are failing as a person!” 

Human development is a chancy process at best.  Under ideal circumstances, we receive support and encouragement to reverse this definitional process during our later formative years.  Under ideal circumstances, we are encouraged to develop our own personal sense of self, with its attendant values, and to assess our experiences through the filter of these values.  And under ideal circumstances, as we enter adulthood we have generally managed to develop a level of emotional autonomy, to become our own persons, and to reverse this process of self definition.  But as it happens, a lot of us grow up under less than ideal circumstances.

In my case, I entered adulthood during a time when young men were expected to conquer.  Despite the growing preoccupation with the unfolding tragedy in southeast Asia, this was also the time of the “aero-space boom,” a time when young men who did not opt to enter a classic profession were expected to conquer the world of business and technology.  Hollywood notwithstanding, the accepted model was much more John Wayne than Jimmy Stewart.  And so I began living the button-down, pinstriped life that young men at the time were expected to live, projecting an air of false confidence, often feeling as if I was being judged as a person based on whether I was seen as having a “successful” career.  More and more it became important, even in personal relationships, to “keep up appearances,” while part of me wanted to scream at the world, “This is not who I am!”  Yet I too succumbed to the relentless pressure to be what the world expected me to be.  I worked diligently to keep my insecurities, my sense of inadequacy, and my ongoing misery hidden from that world.  I tried to impress people with my knowledge and skills and personal presentation in order to be accepted.  And I constantly worried about making some public error and being judged as “not good enough.”  All this because I was allowing others to define me.  History eventually rescued me (see Blog #2), but not without my share of strife.  

Today, while people’s circumstances have changed, the challenge of how we are defined remains.  As a result, I see too many clients caught in the same old trap — people desperately seeking to be loved and approved of, because they believe that is the only way they can establish their own self-worth.  They cannot simply approve of themselves; they must be approved of by others.  These are often people willing to adopt any persona, perform almost any service in hopes that it will bring them “love.”  Then, having seemingly gained this mercurial sort of love, they must continue a desperate struggle day by day just to keep it.  Many respond with dismay when I point out that love is not a matter for barter and that if it is not freely given, it is not really love. 

This is the point where many people leave therapy, loath to undertake the serious work that lies ahead or not yet dissuaded from the notion of learning some secret or some simple technique that can quickly and painlessly resolve all their troubles.  And I always let them go without protest, because I know that, in the words of The Borg, “Resistance is futile!”  For the few who remain, however — those curious few — this is the point at which therapy can really start.  This is where they can finally begin to reverse the process of self definition from outside-in to inside-out.  This is where they can finally begin the quest to learn who they really are so that they can finally be who they really are.  And this is where they can truly begin to understand that if they are to be loved, it must be for who they are, not for who they are supposed to be.

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