Monday, November 24, 2014

Everyone's a Team Player

For most of my life I've believed I am not a team player. When I was a kid, I didn't get picked for teams because I had no athletic skills, or so I thought. I probably did have such skills but didn't know it because no one encouraged me to play sports or do anything athletic, so I never practiced.

Since sports is where most people learn to be a team player, I felt like I missed out on that part of life. But being a part of a team, as I recently learned, is not limited to playing sports. People learn to be on a team because it's a naturally human thing to do. We are all on teams from the time we are born until we die because we are human and need to be with other people to survive.

Many times I've heard people say, "I don't need people. I don't need anybody." My father was one of those people. But he was wrong, and he knew it. We do need people, like it or not. And the liking of it is the sticking point for a lot of people who don't think of themselves as team players. Many of those people are proud of it, too. It's a badge of honor to be a loner in our culture, a maverick, a fiercely independent individualist. Unfortunately, that cultural value does not mix with the requirement of many occupations that an employee be a "people person" or to be able to "get along with coworkers"--to be a team player.

But the kind of team player most employers want is a very particular kind. He or she must be able to work together with others in a cooperative manner that results in getting tasks accomplished with creativity and friendly competition but no unpleasant conflict or strife. 

Unfortunately, that's only one kind of team and certainly not the experience of many, maybe even most people who grow up in families in this country. As I mentioned in the previous post, our first and most influential team is our family, and that team is probably not very much like the ideal team sought after by most businesses. But it is a team, nevertheless. And what people learn about team is learned in that first group.

For instance, I learned in my team to be anxious about my team mates, worried and uncertain about how they were going to react, trying to figure out what I needed to do to get attention from them.  I learned that helping and being cooperative were not valued. My father was an autocrat, so instead of cooperation, he got silent, smoldering acquiescence, or secret and sometimes bold, even at times harmful, rebellion. Constantly fearing rejection, my teammates never asked for help, or love, or attention from each other. They just got angry and sad when they didn't get it. 

And the the failure to give the desired but un-requested help was seen as a sign of disloyalty, as was being helpful or friendly to people from other teams (such as friends). In fact, how we looked at other teams and people in them was the clearest sign of our sense of being a team. We expressed our team spirit by complaining about, criticizing and fearing other people who were not part of our team. Despite our longing to be like the families we saw on TV (Cleavers, e.g.), we expressed disdain for them because they seemed like phonies or some other such contemptible type of person--not like us.

People who grow up in teams like mine develop into the particular kind of team player who will succeed in that kind of team. Unfortunately, when we are forced to join new teams--when we go to school, go to work, get married, join the military or a club or a church congregation--we might have difficulty. It's not because we are not team players, though; it's because the team we played for was different, sometimes drastically so, and learning how to play on the new team involves much more than simply learning the playbook. It often means learning a whole new way of thinking about the world.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Missing My Team

Yesterday I watched a TV program about how retired NFL players sometimes have a hard time dealing with no longer playing football. One of the experts in the film talks about how humans are essentially group animals, that we are at our best when we are around other humans, our team. This expert used that idea to explain why professional athletes are especially unhappy when they separate from their teammates at retirement. They find they must replace their team with another sort of team in order to feel happy.

Not only do they miss their team, but they miss their function within the team and the sense of purpose and accomplishment they gained from being a member of that unit.

People's families are like teams. Whether they are functional or not, one's family members constitute a team with which a person feels more or less close. Even though you may not like your team, it's still your team and you belong there, whether or not that's a comfort to you. When you lose members of your team, you grieve for more than just the loss of that person. You are also grieving for your team.

Recently I lost both surviving members of my family nearly at the same time, and that has proven hard, not only because I miss the people they were, but also because they were my team. I no longer have a team to belong to and so I feel that loss too. I no longer have a place and a purpose within that team and so I feel diminished. Like the NFL players who miss their team and seek to replace it, I need to replace my team with a group of people who will provide me with a purpose and a sense that I can contribute to that group in some important way.

I've never considered my family as a team because we all had bad brain chemistry and so most of the time we were at odds with each other, feeling fear and anger much of the time, coupled with a longing for more closeness, for real acceptance and a sense of unity that never seemed achievable for very long. But we were a team, and did feel that we belonged together, even if it was because we were all miserable. When you're part of such a team, you get some satisfaction from being screwed up together. But unfortunately, it gives you a skewed view of what it means to be part of a team.

I think that's part of the reason why children who are abused by their parents and other family members express outrage and despair when they are taken away from those terrible people, even though the child is likely to end up dead or permanently traumatized. People who don't grow up that way don't understand it, because they can't fathom how anyone would want to be a member of such a toxic team.  But you don't choose your original team, and it's hard to conceive of being without it; you don't see the foster family or the family you are currently staying with as your team. It's another team, and you might even see it as a rival team.

That people can hold such views is puzzling to people who grew up in a nice, helpful, well-functioning family. They believe the virtuous qualities of their family make them a strong team. They don't consider that it's mostly because they were born into this team and don't know any different that they want to hold onto it and to try to persuade others to leave their less healthy family group. Of course they're right to like being in a good family, but it's just luck that they were born into a functional instead of a dysfunctional team.

Anyway, it's kind of a revelation to me to realize that I do belong to a team after all, and that I had a purpose and a role in that team and now my team is gone and I'm alone and missing having a purpose in life. So like those NFL players who are sad because they miss playing football, I'm going to strive to find a replacement for my team.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Calm After the Storm

I have a temper, as other people often put it--a problem with sudden rage, a response to brain chemistry that I find hard to control. I start yelling at a coworker, friend or loved one for what must seem to that person like no reason, sometimes saying things I regret later.

What's interesting about this phenomenon is that though it looks like rage, the feeling is actually fear. The feeling is always fear, but the response differs. Sometimes it's flight, sometimes fight. Rage is fight. The best defense can be a good offense when you are being attacked.

But unfortunately, the rage is wrong when the situation doesn't warrant it. Chances are you are not being attacked; perhaps you're only being criticized, or thwarted, or confused. None of those situations call for sudden, uncontrollable rage. Yet it happens because the mind is reacting to what it perceives as danger. The stakes seem high but in reality they are not.

It doesn't matter that the response is wrong, however--not to the brain, anyway. Venting the rage works to make the person feel better, and that's what counts. Unfortunately, everyone else feels worse. The short-term effect is relief, but the long-term effects may be ruined relationships, loss of employment, or worse. People who take the rage past verbal abuse to violence might end up hurting or killing someone before they can stop.

For me, the rage is like a sudden, violent thunderstorm. It comes out of the blue and pow! Thunder, lightning, heavy rain, high winds. The storm wreaks havoc, then it's gone--just like that--and the clouds clear, the sun reappears and the sky is a bright blue behind a beautiful rainbow.  Looking around, though, we see the downed tree limbs and the destruction the violent storm left behind. Sometimes the consequences are severe--damage to property or even life. It's never as if nothing happened. In the aftermath, there are always signs of the storm's power.

When the rage comes over me like a sudden thunderstorm, it leaves just as suddenly. I feel better then, but looking around, I see that no one else feels better. People might be angry, stunned, even frightened. Those are the lingering signs of the destructive power of my rage. Coworkers, friends, loved ones remember what it was like. They view me in a different light after that, one that includes a knowledge of my potential for sudden harm.

My mind selects this stormy solution, but only because it's familiar, it's convenient and it works. At least in the short term, anyway. I need to choose a different solution to the bad brain chemistry, but that's not easy because doing so requires that I see the storm coming and avoid it somehow. Depression can sweep over me without anyone (but me) noticing right away, so I have time to do something about it before it harms my relationships. Rage, on the other hand, is immediately consequential. The harm occurs and is over before I even register that it is brain-chemistry-induced.

So, I'm still working on that early-warning system that will help me in my quest to avoid erroneous rage.