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Posts Tagged ‘Individuality’

#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.

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#19 – On the Nature of Opinions: “So, what do you think?”

June 2, 2013 3 comments

President John F. Kennedy once remarked, “Too often we . . . enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” I have often wondered if he might have been sitting in the stands during a baseball game when he made this comment. Baseball fans certainly don’t lack for opinions, and they seldom hesitate to express them. I remember as a boy sitting in the grandstand at Fenway Park and hearing nearby fans loudly berate one of the players they had seen make an error or the umpire for what they thought was a bad call. This seemed to happen with every game, and it didn’t matter what the score was or who was on the field. I remember too how my Dad would always point out that “purchasing a ticket gives you the right to express your opinion.” Yet, as I listened to these fans exercising their rights, I was also struck by the fact that no one on the field seemed to care. Instead, both players and umpires just went about their business, without regard for the noise being made in the stands. Indeed, they all remained focused on the game and were not even interested in what anyone else had to say about it. And the game never even slowed down. Over the years, I have always been convinced that there was an important lesson here.

It is of course axiomatic that people will have opinions. As we start to experience the world as children, we begin to assess and evaluate our experiences and those we hear about from others. Eventually, our assessments combined with those of others — usually our parents — form the bases for beliefs we come to hold about the world and ourselves. And these influences on our beliefs continue throughout our lives as we deal with daily events and what our institutions tell us about them. Every day, we are beset by opinion polls and editorial comments designed to influence our views of things. The consistent underlying message is that if most people believe something, it must be true, and that if we don’t go along with that opinion, there must be something wrong with us. This is why so many of us are focused on wearing the right shoes, driving the right car, and voting for the right candidate.

It is also not surprising that so many of us forget we are actually relying on opinion and not fact. We stop observing and questioning and thinking, and simply assume that we know the “truth.” Of course, when other people offer us their opinions, they expect us to agree with their truths. Most of us have had the experience of having someone give us an opinion with which we disagreed and then seeing our disagreement prompt resistance, perhaps disbelief or even hostility. After all, when someone disagrees with us, things start to become personal; if our truth is being challenged, we are being challenged. How we choose to deal with those challenges and respond to the differences that emerge in our circumstances and relationships says a lot about who we are. It is also a frequent reason while people come to my office seeking therapy.

For many of these people, it isn’t just that they have been taught to believe things about the world that are false or distorted; sadly, it is often much more. Many have also been taught, either deliberately or by happenstance, to believe terribly negative things about themselves — that they are somehow flawed or unworthy, lacking in intelligence or social appeal, or perhaps simply deserving of nothing better than to be treated as objects. Many are even taught that they have no right to form their own opinions or to be the final judges of their own intentions or actions. And so, they remain shackled by these self-condemning beliefs, always fearful that others might have negative opinions of them. Feeling unworthy and inept, they remain ever vigilant and ready to apologize for any action or utterance that might bring on someone’s disapproval. As a result, they never think of exploring their own potential and living their own lives in ways that might be satisfying to them. They never consider that opinions are simply statements of personal view and are not necessarily based on facts. For these people, the goal of therapy is to help them develop a more complete and accurate picture of themselves and to understand that they need no one’s blessing or approval simply to be who they are. The work is often long and difficult, but for those who persevere, the rewards are increased self-acceptance and the courage to express their own individuality.

Expressing individuality was not a problem for Mark Fidrych, who began pitching for the Detroit Tigers as a gangly 22-year-old in 1976. Nicknamed “The Bird” after a character on Sesame Street, Fidrych quickly became the object of a variety of opinions from fans, players, and even umpires because of his unusual mannerisms on the field. He often crouched down before pitching in each inning to “manicure the mound.” During the game, he frequently strode around between pitches and talked out loud to himself and to the ball. Sometimes he would even throw balls back to the umpire, insisting that they be taken out of the game “because they had hits in them.” At first, Detroit fans were not sure what to make of this unusual character. He clearly did not live up to their opinions of who a big league pitcher was supposed to be and how he was supposed to act. But fans outside of Detroit didn’t hesitate to pass judgment on Fidrych’s behavior. They booed and hollered derisive comments in an ever increasing chorus of negative opinion. Yet the young pitcher remained oblivious to the noise. He kept his head in the game, followed his own routine, and before long the chorus began to subside. By season’s end, Fidrych had pitched 24 complete games, winning 19. His 2.34 ERA led the league and earned him second place in the voting for the Cy Young Award — the top award for pitchers. And despite all the critical opinions, Fidrych was named the American League Rookie of the Year. Although his career was unfortunately cut short by injuries, Mark Fidrych remains a clear example of what is possible when someone is willing to be true to her/his individuality even if doing so is contrary to “popular opinion.”

I think the lesson I was being offered all those years ago in the cheap seats is that no matter what the popular opinions may be, it is still up to us to keep our heads in the game. By continuing to do our own thinking, making our own judgments, we can keep opinions from becoming substitutes for facts. We can keep our own sense of individuality while respecting those of others. Then we can perform at our best and in our own way. We can even become our own Rookie of the Year.

If you have read this far, you have likely formed some opinions of your own regarding beliefs, differences, and the significance of independent thoughts. It is important to remember that your conclusions can be entirely your own; you are under no obligation to accept or agree with anyone else’s opinions . . . including mine!

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