Posts Tagged ‘Self knowledge’

#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.


#6 — On Loving Yourself: It’s not what you think.

October 29, 2011 Leave a comment

One of my favorite things is irony.  I see it a lot in my work.  I see people unwittingly working against achieving what they claim to want the most.  I see people inadvertently alienating those they care about the most.  And I see people trying to conceal what they believe to be their own unattractive traits, only to make those traits all the more visible.  Yet of all the ironies I encounter in my practice, by far the most common, and also the saddest, is the irony of people desperately struggling to get someone to love them. 

Many of these are forlorn and lonely people, who have somehow come to believe that if they behave in just the right ways and do just the right things, they actually can make someone love them.  Some even couple this belief with another, that while they might not be healthy and happy as individuals, they will be fine once they “get into a relationship.”  The ironies here are obvious.  In the first case, you cannot make someone love you, you can only let someone do that.  In the second, being healthy as an individual is not a result of a healthy relationship; it is a requisite for one.  You cannot take two unhealthy people and add them up to make one healthy relationship.  The math simply won’t work! 

Yet the misguided beliefs persist.  And often the people who are the most adamant are those who have just finished some sort of self-help book and who have just read something like, “You can’t expect someone else to love you unless you love yourself.”  So, adopting the belief that all will be well once they learn to love themselves, many come into my office reciting that mantra and expecting me to show them how to make it happen.  The ensuing conversations always go the same way.  I point out that, while “love yourself” makes a great sound bite, it is really devoid of any practical guidance.  Next, I suggest a hypothetical scenario:  Imagine going home at the end of the day and then sitting down and saying to yourself, “Now I’m going to love myself.”  Exactly what would you do?  What would it look like?  No one has yet been able to give me a definitive answer. 

For those who are able to set platitudes aside and consider reality, the discussion finally shifts to something more substantial.  In the best of circumstances, children are raised by parents who love them unconditionally, without reservation or judgment, making the children feel uniquely valued simply for themselves — just for being who they are.  The clinical result of this parental acceptance is that the children develop what is called a healthy attachment with the parents, which ultimately enables them to become accepting of themselves just as they have been accepted by their parents.  This self-acceptance subsequently allows the children to grow into generally healthy adults who don’t feel the need to please others just to be accepted.  And, of course, since these self-accepting adults are not dependent on others to validate them, they have a much greater likelihood of having healthy relationships.  The irony here, then, is that the more able we are to be alone, the less likely we are to be that way.

So, it’s worth considering, instead of a vague “love yourself” sort of dictum, wouldn’t “accept yourself” be more practical?  For fun, I sometimes use the movie character “Dirty Harry,” created by Clint Eastwood, to illustrate.  In the second movie of this series, Magnum Force, Harry’s memorable line is, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”  The point here is that acknowledging limitations relieves you from having to worry about what you don’t have or what you can’t do.  Instead, you are free to take what you do have and what you can do and make the most of them.  Imagine being able to look at yourself in the mirror, honestly see what’s there, and then say to yourself, “Maybe it’s not everything I’d like to have, but it’s mine; so I’ll take it out and see what it will do, and if other people don’t care for it, that’s their problem.”  This single measure of self-acceptance effectively makes you immune to other people’s judgments and criticisms because you have essentially rendered them irrelevant. 

Surprisingly, framing the situation in this way often meets with considerable resistance.  A lot of people who come to see me already have a deeply held dislike, in some cases even loathing, for themselves.  Surely I couldn’t be suggesting that they start accepting someone who has so clearly been deemed unacceptable!  Surely no one with such faults and inadequacies could be accepted without reservation!  Surely no one so unredeemable could be accepted without some kind of transformation at the hands of the guru-therapist.  Sadly, many have family histories that seem to confirm these misguided beliefs. 

Once again, I remember sitting in the cheap seats at Fenway, easily taking in the interactions of an entire team on the field.  What was abundantly clear from up there was that each position on the team has its own specific requirements.  A successful team cannot be made up of nine pitchers or nine catchers or nine shortstops no matter how talented these players might be.  The person playing each position must bring some special, even unique, strengths or talent to that position.  And so it is in life’s ballpark.  Each of us brings some unique strengths or talents or other characteristics without which the whole team is incomplete.  The challenge for each of us is in learning just what our particular strengths or talents are so we can develop them.  Added to this challenge, of course, is that some strengths are obvious in people while others are not.  The variation from person to person is significant.  And for people who are predisposed to view themselves negatively, who are constantly preoccupied with all the things they have been told that are wrong with them, the prospect of recognizing and appreciating their own strengths is often dubious at best. 

And so a final irony emerges.  By being preoccupied with negative aspects of ourselves, we lose the ability to see anything else.  Our knowledge of ourselves and who we truly are is, therefore, incomplete.  And this begs the question, how can we accept someone we don’t really know?  Self knowledge must precede self-acceptance or “self love.”  In this, I think we can all benefit from following Dirty Harry’s advice — turning on our interest and imagination as we look at ourselves and our experiences, without expectations or assumptions, and being open and willing to learn.  If we can remain interested and seek to understand rather than judge, we can free ourselves from the burdens of our limitations and allow our strengths and talents to emerge.  With more complete self-knowledge, we can truly start to be self accepting.  And with real self-acceptance, we can finally learn to love ourselves.

%d bloggers like this: