Life is full of challenges. Not all demand courage.
Moreover, sometimes what looks like bravery might be foolishness.
Judge for yourself.
Judge me if you wish.
Before I began the independent practice of clinical psychology, I taught at two fine East Coast universities and then spent several more years working in a small private psychiatric hospital.
The institution’s owner was a remarkable man, remarkable because of his strange combination of incompatible characteristics. Those qualities included generosity, thoughtfulness, arrogance, philanthropy, and vindictiveness.
Let’s call him SB.
Play with the letters to see if you can come up with a nickname. Perhaps choose a vowel for his middle initial.
This gentleman’s ego could have filled a large sports arena. I learned during my tenure to reason with him alone, not in public, a place where he might lose face. Confidential discussion often persuaded him to give up some of his dubious ideas.
The boss recognized my worth and treated me well for a few years. Ah, but almost everyone found himself in his metaphorical crosshairs as time passed.
One of SB’s brainchildren was the creation of a psychology internship program based at the hospital. The head man hired a part-time director, but the American Psychological Association accreditation team rejected his scheme — his baby. They cited the lack of a full-time chief as their biggest concern.
SB was displeased.
I was occupied with other activities within the facility, but SB wanted me as the savior of the program: its new high potentate. Some confidential conversations with the overseer offered hope he’d target someone else. I preferred my then-current work responsibilities. The request remained unresolved.
The new interns arrived on an autumn day like any other, but not a day like any other in my life.
At the time, I had a 19-month old daughter. My wife and I wanted our darling to benefit from a stay-at-home mom. Therefore, I was the sole financial support of my family, a fact known by SB.
Unknown to me, “the man” used the morning and early afternoon to introduce the aforementioned three graduate students to various staff members. I later found out he pushed several people around as he walked the newbies through his domain. No one was immune. Not doctors, nurses, psychiatric aides, or housekeeping personnel.
SB was a master of bending others to his will on the days he wasn’t smiling. The chieftain demonstrated to the twenty-something trainees his status as GOD relative to mortals.
My office overlooked a river at the far end of the building, leaving me last on the trail of tears. The maestro announced himself, and the young people joined the two older ones (I was almost 34 and SB in his 50s).
After introductions, the conversation sounded like this:
Dr. Stein, what have you decided about the directorship of the internship program?
I’d prefer to speak with you about it alone.
I’d like to know your answer now.
I’d prefer to speak with you alone.
Tell me now.
The exchange continued into infinity. The overlord tried to force the issue, and I repeated myself in the same words for about 10 years, psychologically speaking.
OK, not a decade as told by the clock. Maybe a few minutes if you add the silences. Lots of time spent staring at each other.
Another entity entered the room as soon as the confrontation began. No, not my past flashing before me, but my unlived future, towering like a gray shadow from a place just over my shoulder. Every person had a shadow but the fellow in charge.
Weeks later, I asked the fledgling psychologists for their take on the episode and their estimate of its duration. They were petrified. Everyone’s sense of time stretched like taffy.
Back to my office. Once SB realized he couldn’t make me talk in their presence, he ushered them out and told me I’d better say yes if I wanted to work at HIS facility. He gave me a couple of days to think it over.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
The result: I took over as the new director and explored plans to exit the hospital. SB and I were soured on each other. No value would come in staying. I departed several months later, invited to become the junior member of small group practice, of which I became the head within a few years.
What else was going on inside of me during the contest? I envisioned the event this way:
One person tried to get over (on top of) the opposition, defeat the other — “put him in his proper (diminished) place.” SB intended to bend another human object to his will, bring him to his knees.
The other resisted.
For years I engaged in silent self-praise for holding to some unarticulated principle.
Nope. No doctrine existed. My intransigence was about being a man. I wasn’t fighting for freedom, civil rights, saving the planet, world peace, better schools, racial equality, or any other noble pursuit.
As you must recognize, I did give in to him later offstage, not in the drama he initiated. Indeed, I knew he owned the power to fire me from the start.
Despite mindfulness of my jeopardy and awareness my wife and daughter depended on me, I didn’t roll over. The months between that day and my resignation were fraught. I put myself through a good deal of worry and unhappiness, my spouse as well.
Not so smart, then? I might even agree with this determination.
Here’s an additional complication: I felt I could not do otherwise than what I did. I reacted out of instinct. I’d have been ashamed for capitulating in front of the arriving trainees.
I’d have defined myself as a coward even though my employer had every right to reassign me to a different niche in the organization.
Both SB and I behaved with an awareness of our audience. It doubtless reduced the two antagonists’ willingness to act differently than we did.
Though I did not realize it at the time, SB’s actions motivated me to leave his employment and begin a far more fulfilling role within my profession, a necessary step toward my professional independence.
The insecurity of my status required me to be more creative, learn additional skills, reinvent myself from a vocational and personal standpoint, and enhance the economic security of my little family.
From that perspective, SB did me a favor. My superior made me uncomfortable enough to alter my career path and take more risks. I became, in my judgment, less a person who allowed fate to carve the road I traveled and more a man who forged his own way.
As I progressed, more opportunities came to me. Confidence grew, and my perception of myself evolved into that of an individual who could make a life rather than endure it or hide from it.
SB meant me no favors, but if I met him today, I might thank him.
One more thing, I was lucky, wasn’t I? A poorer outcome might have occurred.
Until such challenges appear, we don’t know ourselves. Most of us imagine what we’d do in a variety of conditions we’ve never encountered.
When we read news stories about the misfortunes of others, too many of us achieve a cheap self-satisfaction by claiming we’d have made a different choice. We assure ourselves of a wise departure before a disaster unrecognized by its soon-to-be victims.
Unlike other weaker souls, our fantasy includes unfailing defense of our principles. The poor mass who suffered or died didn’t possess our foresight, intelligence, or hard work, so we think.
On the other hand, self-awareness comes at the price of realizing the dream of heroic behavior in unlived circumstances is like a soothing massage of our self-image.
I am no hero, and I do not claim the rank of a great man. I hope you extend yourself beyond whatever evaluation you make of me.
What I’ve written has value only to the extent a single reader considers himself and reflects on whether the tale offers insight into his own life.
That much is in his hands.
Each one of these images is called Face-off.
The first is by Aaron from Seattle. The Jack-o’ – lanterns Face-off is the work of William Warby.
Next comes the Face-off Situation between Evan McGrath and Ken Olimb in Tegra Arena by Calle Eklund/V-wolf.
Finally, NASA/JSC and Robert Markowitz created Face-off Robonaut. All were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
I loved how you wrote this, Dr. S! (I have to use a dictionary to go back and learn many new vocabulary words now, which is partly why I love your writing. The other part is the really amazing story you told.) I admire your courage to walk away. I admire your courage even more to share this story. It’s really encouraging to know that it is okay to walk away and not remain stuck in an icky place. It seemed like an icky situation, and I’m glad you were able to get out of that situation. I’d like to think that I got myself out of icky situations, but I am aware that I have burned some bridges. Then again, maybe some bridges were meant to be burned. The face-off pictures are really fitting for your post, and they are cool, too.
Thank you, Dragonfly. Yes, the situation was not good for me, but the face-off opened the door to a better professional and personal life. Though the moment was no fun, I have no regrets about what followed. If I’d stayed longer I’d have been like a hostage — a hostage to the boss and my own fear.
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Great story that has some terrific life lessons as always. Struggles , failures, and triumphs are what life is about. Glad to know that your struggle ended in a triumph and true independence from the man!
Thanks, Jack. Never a dull moment unless we choose to live undercover. Who knows what comes next?
Thanks for sharing this experience, Dr. Stein. In my view, your boss placed you in a bind and you responded the best way you could at the time. As the sole provider as a single mother of two, I’ve had to endure a number of bosses like SB in order to hold onto my position in the workplace.
SB was a someone who thought of himself as a great man, and therefore entitled to make his own rules. I’m sure you encountered worse than I did. Thanks for sharing your own experience, Rosaliene.
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Few ( but some do) get through life without compromise or taint. The best we can do is draw a line and try not to cross it. Thanks for an interesting, thought provoking post. A sad story that gets sadder the more you dig into it.
Yes, I think some get through without much taint, though there are so many potential tests (as the Stoic philosophers might think of the category) their lack of compromise might be a result of having faced a limited number of challenges.
I suppose another question is who should judge? (If anyone). I’m sure we have both had conversations with those who see themselves as virtuous, but others might think it is due only because of significant blindspots.
We could go on. Thanks for your own thoughtful comment, Harvey.
This post reminded me of a few times when I refused to act in my “best interests.” I liked when you said “instinct”. It was like that. I remember just being mad and determined. It would be fun to say “heroic”. After all, who knows what special ingredients that go into that? I’ll settle for satisfied.
Thanks, Joan. I was actually thinking of you standing up for yourself while I was writing this — a few stories you told me. “Satisfied” is the perfect word. Although, for me, the satisfaction only came fully when I landed in a better place several months later.
Do you think SB was a narcissist, or another Trumpian type of a figure? I have worked with some coworkers who were very controlling, not only to us but also to the clients we served. They were horrible to work with, were troublemakers, and kept us all walking on eggshells. Of course the State system did not discipline these employees, and allowed this kind of behavior to fester, creating a toxic work environment.
Interesting question, Nancy. He was certainly narcissistic. He was also something of a sociopath. As I said, a very complex fellow. Sorry to hear your own work experience was challenging. At this point in social and world history, we inevitably must do more scanning of the workplace to avoid those “troublemakers” we can, and stand stand up to those we must.
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Well said, Dr. Stein. I fought with some of those staff members, but would end up acquiescing in order to keep peace. Imagine doing a 100 mile med run with one of these staff members, and being held hostage in the vehicle with them for six hours until your return to the agency. Not a relaxing work shift indeed. I admire you for sticking to your values and I wish we had you running our own agency.
Thank you for your confidence in me, Nancy, but my “running” days are over. Two bad knees! Those car rides do sound awful!