My phone rang from the moment I left the office on Friday until I returned on Monday morning. The first call was from a female patient. All I could hear were garbled words, sobs and deep breathing. She finally said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“What do you mean?” I asked
“My husband never cared. That’s why I divorced him. When I finally started dating, I began to see a man who actually chased me for three or four weeks. In the beginning, he was adamant he loved me, but the more I cared, the less he called and now I haven’t heard from him in five days. Tell me what’s wrong with me.”
The second call was similar. It was from an attorney in his early thirties, who had divorced his high school sweetheart almost six years previously. The call went like this:
“Dr. Ed, I’ve got to come see you, but I need to talk with you first. It’s about a girl I’ve been dating.
She lived out of town but, about three months ago, she moved back to Houston and it’s been wonderful. Only I’m going to mess it up. I’m starting to get so needy she won’t want to have a thing to do with me. ”
“What happened?” I asked.
“We were talking about people we dated earlier and she told me about someone that she had lived with for a year and half. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘I bet he was better in bed than I am.’ I’ve had enough therapy to know that’s crazy. I mean, if he was better, why is she with me? But, then again, after staying with her for about ten days, she said, ‘Why don’t we take a break for a couple of nights? I have things I need to get done here at home. Also, I want to get in bed early one night, with a book and just relax. I just need time alone to recharge my batteries. Is that okay?’ ‘Sure,’ I told her, ‘I understand.’ Then I packed up everything that I had at her apartment. She said, “you don’t have to do that. You’re going to be back here in a couple of days.’ ‘No, I’m taking it all.’ I could almost see myself, seven years old, playing with some kids and saying, ‘If I can’t pitch, I’m taking my ball home.’ I don’t know what’s wrong with me. A couple of words out of her mouth and the first thing I do is get worried that she no longer cares and I act like a pouting child. I hate myself.”
Both calls were exactly the same, emotionally. The problem with each of the callers wasn’t the guy who hadn’t been in touch for five days, or the girl who wanted to spend time alone. It stemmed from similar feelings of insufficiency, inadequacy, and unlovability. Their feelings were triggered by their partners’ statements and actions, but they weren’t created by them. They were feelings that each of them had carried with them since childhood. They reflected the hurts and fears they experienced as children, which predisposed them to feel lacking in lovability and to assume the past would always repeat itself.
Their self percept was totally dependent on the actions of others. They lived life from the outside in, looking to others to determine how they felt. Consequently, they lacked the wherewithal to present themselves as adequate individuals deserving of the love they desired. The irony is that each of them were professionally responsible, successful, competent individuals who knew their worth and had little or no doubt that they were deserving of their substantial paychecks.
The best example of that irony I have ever seen came from a patient of mine who was fired from his job on tv. He was told two to three months early that his role would be eliminated from the script. He felt so embarrassed that he told no one on the program and went about his responsibilities feeling insufficient and trying each day to prove that he was adequate. But, that never occurred, because his status on that show was a fait accompli. In contrast who was also fired spoke with everyone, expressed her embarrassment and accepted her situation with far greater dignity. Time passed, the show went on, but they were no longer on it. His feelings of embarrassment and failure continued until, almost a year later, when he called to say, “Remember that girl who was fired from the program when I was?” “Sure”, I responded. “Can you imagine, she submitted tapes of the work she did on the program and won an Emmy. Dr. Ed, it’s one of the biggest lessons I’ll ever learn. When I was fired, even though I thought there were others who were worse than me, I not only accepted my incompetence, I also thought I should forget about acting and look for another profession. Meanwhile, she had the gall - maybe I mean courage - to say, ‘That may be their opinion of me, but I think I have something to offer’ and, despite being fired, she submits her work by tape and wins an Emmy. I hope it’s the last time I ever give anyone the power to determine my adequacy again. It’s bad enough that they didn’t think I was good enough. It’s even worse to think I allowed them to dictate how I felt about myself. I’m jealous of her, but I sent her a note saying, “Thank you for opening my eyes to the fact that I’m okay, that I don’t have to crawl, that I don’t have to feel that being fired from one job means I’m fired from life. It helped me to see that there wasn’t anything wrong with me, and that the person who should have determined my worth was me, not others.”
There you have it. His words are applicable to every one of us. We can’t be perfect. We won’t always win. We may even fail. But it isn’t how others react to us that’s important, it’s how we react to ourselves. No matter what area of life, no matter who you interact with, you must value you for who you are today and who you have the potential to be tomorrow.