In the The Wizard of Oz, little Dorothy, in her blue-checked dress, encounters a series of misfits who become friends. First, she meets Scarecrow, then the Tinman, and finally the Cowardly Lion. Each introduces himself with his own version of the same song. The Scarecrow sings, “If I Only Had a Brain.” The Tinman croons, “If I Only Had a Heart.” The Lion quakes out, “If I Only Had the Nerve.”
Many of my psychotherapy clients sing their own version of this song. One bemoans her appearance, envying her sister who is blonde and thinner. In sessions, I gaze at her, appreciating the beauty of her intelligent eyes and kind smile. Another client says she is terrible with technology and unemployable. I observe that this client is diligent, intelligent, and poetic with language.
I can sing this tune too, a long song about various skills that I do not have. When I turn my head towards my inadequacies, there is plenty of material. If I Only …”
Could cook dinner
Could catch a ball
Could turn on my TV
Could sweat when I’m hot
Had an Ivy League education
Could keep plants alive…
Are you surprised? I’m guessing you read this blog because you think of me as accomplished and occasionally wise. All true. But it is easy to fall into defining oneself by the lack of abilities, as opposed to the abilities one has.
These songs of inadequacy can be easily triggered, even under lovely circumstances. I regularly sing with my two best high school friends, Joe and Susan. We have sung together for decades, and have the most beautiful 3-part vocal blend. Recently we were rehearsing, which brings us great joy, just being together, laughing, and making music. Still, somehow, my song of inadequacy got set off. It wasn’t them; they are the kindest people imaginable. But I found myself feeling less than, listening to them sing and play. I felt myself entering a dark descending tunnel.
“I’m telling myself the story that I’m inadequate.” I muttered. (These are the things one can say to one’s best high school friends).
“What?” Joe and Susan turned away from their music stands to look at me, their brown eyes wide.
“Susan, you have an exquisite voice. Mine is fine, but not nearly like yours. Joe, you compose all these gorgeous songs. You both play the guitar and I can’t. I just sit here, singing harmonies as best I can.”
Susan, my dear friend, looked at me in shock. “I’m really surprised you are saying this. We wouldn’t sound the same without you. You hear things we don’t hear. You are always listening, making us better. You come up with great harmonies, and improve the lyrics.”
I paused. Yes, I did do those things. I even knew I did those things. But somehow, in the moment, what I could do didn’t feel as important as what I couldn’t do.
In school, we grow up taking classes in reading, writing, math, science, music, art, gym, etc. It is truly important to have background on these basic topics. However, I think many of us encounter our limitations early in elementary school (I know I did; hello gym class!) and feel humiliated. Because we experience our weaknesses so young, we have no way to understand that no one is good at everything, and it is normal not to be. In our immaturity, we encode these failures as “I’m not good at math,” and begin anxiously focusing on our weaknesses, instead of on our unique and vital strengths.
Once I read the memoir of a doctor who had spent the winter at the Antarctic science station. Dr. Jerri Nielsen started one chapter saying (I am paraphrasing here) “Whom do you think is the most important person at the Antarctic science station? Do you think it is the doctor?”
I paused and thought, “Well yes, I would think it is the doctor.”
“No,” she continued. “It is the person who knows how to fix the generator.”
I have never forgotten that statement. Our existence is complex. Sometimes there is desperate need for the mechanic who keeps us from freezing to death. Sometimes it’s the physician, who treats our infection. Sometimes it’s the cook who feeds the hungry crowd. Sometimes, it’s a musician who brings comfort in grim times.
After 911, I was inconsolable, like everyone I knew. The balmy blue-skied Tuesday was a spectacularly beautiful morning, suddenly twisted into dark hatred, melted steel and profound grief. Nothing made sense; I could barely think and hardly work. But five days afterwards, the Philadelphia Orchestra gave a free concert for the city, and I went. The hall was packed, full of people with haunted faces and reddened eyes. The Orchestra played Barber’s Adagio for Strings. I wept throughout the concert, grieving in unison with the entire audience. After that concert, I felt like I could go on.
There is a need for all of us, with our unique abilities. Can you run fast? We need you. Can you sooth a crying baby? We need you. Can you fix a dishwasher? We need you. Are you a good listener? We need you. Are you reliably kind? We need you. The key is to recognize and value your own skills, and to develop them further to help our world - in both big and small ways.
There is an intervention I sometimes do with my clients. It’s similar to the “I’m going on a picnic" game that kids play. I invoke this exercise when a client despondently tells me all the things they are not. Not gifted, not a college graduate, not thin… whatever. Recently my client “Marsha” (name changed) was focusing woefully on all her shortcomings and anxiously ruminating about what others thought of her. I had known her for two years, and I knew her well.
“I want to know about your strengths. I want to know what positive attributes you know to be true about yourself,” I said to Marsha.
“Yes. What do you know is true about you?”
She paused for a long time. Then, with a half-smile, she responded, “Well. I know that I care about people and want to help them.”
“Great. You care about people and want to help them. What else?”
“I’m a good gardener.”
“Awesome. You care about people, want to help them, and are a good gardener. What else?”
“I . . . don’t know.”
“OK. So let me ask you, are you responsible?” I asked Marsha, who had never missed a therapy appointment in two years.
“Yes, I am.”
“Great. So, you care about people, try to help them, are a good gardener, and you are responsible. What else?”
She smiled now. “I make a good chocolate cake.”
“Great. You care about people, try to help them, are a good gardener, are responsible, and bake a mean chocolate cake. What else?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you funny? I think you are funny.”
“I guess I am.”
“So then, you care about people, try to help them, are a good gardener, are responsible, a good baker and you are funny. What else. Are you honest? Let’s keep going.”
In this way, Marsha began to focus on her strengths, strengths that she chronically overlooked. I repeated one strength after another, like the “I’m going on a picnic game,” the repetition of which reinforced the message. Yes, Marsha, you are good at many things; here is just a starter list.
Imagine a world in which we all rested confidently in our abilities, secure in what we had to offer. Free from self-critical ruminations, we would jump in to give what we had, each of us confidently contributing to the “picnic.” One friend could cook a comforting lunch, steaming with strengthening food. Another could shovel the sidewalk, using his strength to keep others safe. Another would smile at strangers and say hello, putting everyone at ease. Everyone would joyfully bring their own precious gift to life’s picnic, and no one would feel inadequate.
You see, it takes all of us. No one has the full package, but together we actually do. I suggest that you try your own “I’m going on a picnic” game. If you find it challenging, play it with someone who loves you very much. I will start:
I care about people.
I care about people, and I work hard.
I care about people, I work hard, and I sing good harmonies with my friends.