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Posts Tagged ‘Life experience’

#20 – On Being Where You Are: “So, where was that again?”

July 7, 2013 2 comments

Psychology has always been a big part of baseball. When a rookie is preparing to go out on the field for his first time playing in the major leagues, the advice he is invariably given is, “Keep your head in the game.” Once he is on the field, opposing players, coaches, managers, and even some of the fans will try to frustrate, frighten, mislead, and most of all distract him and his teammates. And when this rookie comes up to hit, he will be the singular object of both obvious and subtle attempts at distraction. Infielders will chatter at him between pitches, questioning his readiness, doubting his ability, maybe telling him his bat is too heavy — anything to draw his attention away from the upcoming pitch. The catcher may offer misleading advice as to how he might distribute his weight or when he might start his swing. And the pitcher may go through powerful, determined motions suggesting one kind of pitch only to throw another. Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who had All-Star seasons with both the Boston Braves and the Milwaukee Braves, made a career out of distracting hitters. He once observed, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” Ultimately, the challenge for all players — rookies and veterans alike — is to stay focused, to remember where they are and why. Anyone who cannot remember why he is there will not be there long.

For each of us, it is much the same as we head out to play in life’s ballpark. There are distractions everywhere. Every day we encounter more people heading for more places more quickly to do more things. And day by day, the growing numbers, the increasing desires, and the faster pace make life ever more complicated. In addition, many more distractions are arranged for us deliberately. The various “media” create a daily deluge of demands for our attention, advising us as to what to buy, what to wear, what to drive, where to eat, what organizations to join, what services to use, even what to think and how to vote. With rapidly advancing technology, our electronic devices have made us hostage to convenience, with the result that we have become so distracted that people are being diagnosed with “attention deficit” problems in record numbers. This fact alone has raised the stress level for a great many people, with the inevitable results of more illnesses and injuries, more absences from work, more visits to doctors, more sales of pharmaceuticals, and in many cases, more visits to a therapist.

In recent years it has become all too common in my therapy practice for me to see people who have lost their sense of personal control. These people consistently report feeling overwhelmed by daily demands for information, decisions, opinions, and in many cases just simple correspondence or even idle chatter. One man recently confided that during his typical day he can receive as many as three dozen electronic messages from people expecting him to respond immediately, without regard to where he is or what he might be doing at the time. As this man’s situation becomes increasingly common, more and more people come to feel hopelessly overcommitted as they try to stay on top of things and be the people they believe they are supposed to be. For many, it is as if they have somehow lost the right to be in charge of themselves, so instead they just plod through life by rote, accomplishing little and not knowing why. And, of course, that is the real challenge; because for many this loss of control is the result of having lost — or possibly never having had — a personal sense of purpose.

To be sure, some people are pathologically distracted and suffer from a neurobiological disorder that makes attention very difficult and requires them to take medicine regularly, much the same as someone with diabetes must have regular doses of insulin. But for more than a few, there is a failure to recognize, or perhaps to remember, how they have come to be where they are and where they could be instead. They seem to have forgotten that they are actually entitled to define and pursue their own goals and stay focused on them. Many have even come to see themselves as victims of life rather than active participants in it. As a result, in the heat of the moment, when they are presented with so many demands coming from so many directions, these people can easily lose perspective and, like that rookie batter, forget where they are and why.

Therapy will typically address this situation by encouraging people to connect (or perhaps reconnect) with their sense of personal power. Since exercising power consists of making choices, it is important to remember that we only get to choose in the present moment — here and now. We cannot choose in the past or in the future. But if we are distracted and our attention is not on our present circumstances, than our decisions will be made not by design but by habit, which tends to result in our simply staying where we are instead of moving on to where we could be.

To help with this situation, it has become popular in recent years for therapists to encourage the practice of “presence” or “mindfulness” as a way of bringing attention fully to the present moment — where we are and what we are doing. The idea is to be observant of our immediate experience, both internal and external, without judging it and, therefore, without simply reacting to it. This awareness enables us to make conscious choices as to the meaning of our experience, and it allows us to regain personal control and take action according to our own priorities. In doing so, we can then approach life not as victims but as volunteers.

In baseball, successful players, those who remain focused on what they are doing on the field, are often described as having an exceptional “ability to concentrate,” as if they are possessed of some unusual gift. And yet, concentration is not about ability, it is about intent! It is worth noting that the terms “attention” and “intention” have the same root — tension. This implies effort invested for a purpose. Remember, the phrase “paying attention” suggests that we are investing in something, that we intend to devote time and energy to something because we deem it to be important. This is what allows us to remain mindful of our own priorities and not be distracted.

It would be hard to find a better example of purpose than home run king Henry Aaron. From the moment he entered the on-deck circle, Aaron remained focused on the opposing pitcher, looking for signs of what pitch was coming. At the plate, Aaron knew what pitch he wanted, and when it came, no matter how much the pitcher had tried to disguise it, he was ready. His Milwaukee Braves teammate, first baseman Joe Adcock, once observed, “Trying to sneak a fast ball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.” Aaron’s record attests to the nature of purpose and the focus it makes possible.

The message for all of us then, as we strive to succeed in life’s ballpark, is the same as for that rookie. If you want to have control of your life, avoid distraction, set your own goals and pursue them, and achieve what is important to you, then keep your head in the game!

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#18 – On Looking for Possibilities: “But I can’t just change now!”

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

Spring is often seen as a season of renewal, a time when things that have been dormant during the winter emerge and begin to grow again. For baseball fans, this sense of renewal arrives annually as their favorite teams leave the confines of winter and head for sunnier locations and the annual ritual of spring training. As noted baseball owner and executive Bill Veeck once observed, “the true harbinger of spring [is] not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of a bat on the ball.” This is a time when shortcomings of the previous season can be addressed and attention given to sharpening skills that can help during the long season ahead. For fans, this is a time in which old disappointments can be set aside in favor of new hopes, when they can imagine themselves in a world where they are once again young and imbued with a sense of possibility. In short, this is a time for fresh starts.

Yet, in a world where most people are reduced to spectators, for many the sense of possibility that spring training represents can seem distant, even absent in their daily lives. Instead, they plod through what Henry David Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation” — outwardly satisfied, yet inwardly longing. Some of them, tired of enduring this quiet suffering, find their way into my office. Ranging in age from twenties to sixties, these people come with pained yet quizzical expressions, often greeting me with the familiar cliché — “I think I’m having a midlife crisis!”

These people often report a variety of symptoms — anxiety, depression, or other stress-related problems. Some have been referred by their doctors after having found no relief from taking medicine. In general, they feel lost and frustrated and without purpose. Their circumstances vary, but their sense of being trapped and helpless does not. Needing to do something, yet fearful of doing the wrong thing, they continue to do nothing except be miserable. Unhappy with where they are in their lives, they simply cannot see any way to arrange something better. Almost without exception, these people have lost all sense of possibility.

So, how does someone manage to get into such a persistent and disheartening routine? Certainly few of us would set out to establish ourselves in lives of such oppressive tedium. So how does it happen? The answer is deceptively simple: one day at a time. Adhering to the encouragements we receive as children, which often persist well into adulthood, we are prompted each day to “get ahead,” to “be successful, and to “make something of ourselves.” The result is that many of us find ourselves obediently moving though life in a direction that we may have contemplated only vaguely if at all.

Almost from our very arrival on the planet we are coaxed and cajoled, pushed and prodded to find our way into the competitive mainstream. Today there is even intense competition for placement of youngsters (more like toddlers) in the most desirable or advantageous pre-school programs. Not gaining entry into one of these programs is often seen as a failure that marks the unfortunate child as somehow deficient. This child may even be put into some kind of remedial program, often with the result that the sense of personal inadequacy is simply reinforced. And it doesn’t end there. High school students are increasingly being required to select a college major even before enrolling in college as freshmen. Then, upon graduating from college, they are expected to emerge fully qualified in some professional or technical capacity so they can immediately “be productive.” From there the popular culture urges everyone to achieve, to earn, and above all to consume, with an ever higher “standard of living” as the way of keeping score.

With all this emphasis on competition and accomplishment so early in life, people are increasingly finding themselves living with life choices that they would prefer not to have made. In therapy many start to become aware of their own frustrations and latent resentments over not having had the time to consider a variety of life paths or to explore their own personal interests and talents. And yet, despite being upset over where they are, most believe there are no options for change — no possibilities. Some are held in place by fearing what other people might think of them if they do seek something different; others simply have no clear idea of what they might actually want. Yet, however gradually, the focus of therapy inevitably does shift from regret to change.

To be sure, such change is not easy — especially when you have already invested decades in your present circumstances. Even when you are clear on the change you want to make, starting over can be a major undertaking, potentially impacting career, income, relationships, family, and more. This is why so many cling to their misery rather than trying to pursue their passion. And if you have not yet found your passion, the effort just to look for it can be equally daunting. It isn’t surprising, then, that so many of us hesitate before deciding to make a major life change.

My own journey has sometimes been ponderous and often frustrating (See #2 and #3). But it taught me that life doesn’t necessarily work the way many of us were encouraged to believe. The course of life rarely runs in a straight line. Instead, it presents us with many twists and turns and forks in the road — many possibilities. In the modern hurry-up world where everything must happen in the space of a sound bite, we are not encouraged to explore many possibilities. Yet they are there. Indeed each year, each week, each hour, even each moment can be viewed as a chance for a fresh start, just as in spring training. As Cleveland Indians ace pitcher Bob Feller once observed, “Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day.”

If you’ve ever watched a hitter trying to break out of a slump, you’ve seen someone busily experimenting — adjusting his grip, his stance, his position at the plate, his weight shift, his timing, and more. This is someone willing to try anything to start hitting, no matter how outlandish or disruptive it might seem or how awkward he might look in trying, because he knows that without doing that he will wind up on the bench. That’s also the way it is with life. We must always be open to possibilities and willing to explore new directions, even knowing that change will not be easy. Yet change we must if we are truly to be ourselves and to participate fully in what life has to offer. Otherwise, rather than being in the game, we could wind up just sitting on life’s bench.

#2 — On Being Trained: “If I knew then, . . .”

September 27, 2011 2 comments

Not long ago one of my clients offered up her view of me and how I deal with life.  Clients do this from time to time, and the results are always the same.  She saw me as simply “floating through life, handling everything” and always knowing where I was going.  And as always, I thought to myself, “If she only knew . . .”  I tried to disaffect her of the idea that life is somehow smoother for me than it is for other people, but she wasn’t buying. 

People often come to me with the belief that I know some secret about how to deal with life and that if I will only share it with them, all their troubles will go away.  Not surprisingly, they often don’t react well when I tell them that the secret is there is no secret.  As difficult as this sometimes is, it is also an important point in the work.  Therapy cannot truly begin until the client understands that the therapist is not some kind of superstar but simply an ordinary human being dealing with life.  I point out to my clients that, while my path may be different from theirs, I am still on the same journey through life that they are and that my road has the same sorts of potholes in it. 

To be sure, my journey could easily be described as long and meandering.  I came out of college in the mid-1960s with a Bachelors degree in Behavioral Science.  At that time the only career paths open for someone with my degree involved armor, artillery, or infantry.  Moreover, going to graduate school for Psychology meant studying rats in mazes, something I couldn’t imagine doing even today.  At the behest of the U.S. Army, I was invited to spend two years in a computer installation, where I got a first-hand look at what was clearly going to become an important industry.  After leaving the service, I took advantage of the GI bill and did some graduate work in Computer Science.  From there, I pursued a career in systems analysis and design that proved lucrative and allowed me to start and raise a family.

Still, as successful as I was, I always had the sense of not being in the right place.  I soon recognized that the problems people struggled with in every organization, large and small, had little to do with what was going on inside the computer.  The real problems involved what was happening around it as people tried unsuccessfully to deal with each other.  Ironically, I found myself increasingly drawn away from the technology and into the middle of these intramural squabbles.  For reasons I didn’t fully grasp at the time, I was frequently asked to “investigate and intervene.”  As one department manager put it to me, “Get them to play nicely together.”  

Eventually, I moved out of the field of computer systems into organizational consulting.  I actually did a fair amount of what today is often called “executive coaching.”  Oddly enough, I found that many of these executives in the privacy of their offices would want to talk with me about things that had nothing to do with their work.  They talked, I listened, and they kept inviting me back.  During this time, I also met a number of independent consultants who had previously been therapists.  Some of them suggested that I consider going in the other direction.  As one put it to me, “You’re kind of doing therapy now, but in a backwards sort of arrangement.  You go to someone’s office each hour and have a one-on-one conversation.  If you were a therapist, someone would come to your office each hour and have a one-on-one conversation.”  The logistics appealed to me, so I started to investigate. 

As it turned out, I was working at the time for a corporate client just two miles up the road from what was then one of the top graduate programs in counseling in the country.  After completing my courses and starting an internship in a psychiatric facility, I soon realized that it was time for me to leave corporate America.  In starting to see my own therapy patients, I felt like a duck who had been lost in a forest and had finally found water and begun to swim.  From there, I invested my time, obtained my license, began my own practice, and have continued ever since. 

So why does all this matter?  Sometimes over the years I would look back and think to myself, “Damn.  If I had only known when I got out of college how important this work would be to me, I could have gone to school and gotten licensed back then.  I could have been doing this important work for all those years.”  And then I would remember and say back to myself, “Sure you could have, and you might have been pretty good.  But you wouldn’t have done that work the way you do it now.”  It turns out that during all those years when I seemed to be going through life like a pinball, I was really being trained.  To be sure, it would have helped a lot if I had known that I was being trained and what for.  But life just doesn’t work that way.  Life rarely gives us straight-line options.  Instead, life mostly intends for us to follow a more meandering route, something like following the yellow brick road, only without knowing anything about Oz being at the end of it.

The punch-line here is that everything we go through in life is in some way preparing us for what comes next.  So, as we look back on our lives and find things to regret and even mourn, we might also consider asking ourselves, “What have I learned, and how can that help me going forward?”  If we can keep taking a fresh look at ourselves and our lives, past and present, then perhaps we can put some of our training to good use.

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