Who would you be without the judging eyes of others? How much influence have others had on you and what you believe to be true about yourself? If you were the only person on the planet without the feedback from the social world around you, would you see yourself the same way? For better or worse, other people exist, and as a result, play a significant role in defining who we believe ourselves to be. More accurately, what we believe other people think about us defines who we are.
Human beings are social creatures. The feeling of needing to belong is a powerful reinforcer, so much so, that we often value the opinions of others over those of ourselves. Caring about what others think of us is a double edged sword; we are dependent on it for our social survival, but if we are not careful, we lose ourselves in the process. This idea is what Jean-Paul Sartre, the french existentialist philosopher, meant when he said in his play, No Exit, “L’enfer, c’est les autres”, or “Hell is other people”.
Elite athletes, in particular, but athletes in general, are susceptible to the opinions of others since they are so often performing in front of and scrutinized by those around them. In recent weeks, we heard from Matthew Wolff, the 32nd ranked men’s golfer on the PGA Tour, openly discuss his struggles with mental health as a result of all the pressure he feels being in the spotlight. Personally, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be dissected and picked apart in the way top athletes are by the media, but this can happen at every level. Expectations of parents, coaches, and peers can be equally destructive and leave no athlete immune to the influence of the other.
As a Clinical Psychologist, I so appreciate Wolff’s courage to share his experience. However, there were a few things that Wolff said that troubled me a bit. In one of the many interviews he faced this past week at the U.S. Open, Wolff said, “when I make people happy, that makes me happy.” From what I have heard and read, it’s clear Wolff has been struggling and searching for answers. Although playing to make others happy is noble, I worry it will only lead to more upset for him. Ideally, we want to be motivated intrinsically and play for ourselves. Allowing our own level of happiness to be determined by the reactions of others to our behavior will only erode our self-belief. Ideally, we want to be motivated intrinsically and play for ourselves. If we make others “happy’ as a consequence, so be it, but it can be the primary motive.
Another thing that Wolff said that concerned me was when asked if he had sought help from a mental health professional, Wolff said that he had not, and was relying on the counsel of his long-time coach, George Gankas. I love that Wolff is talking to someone and I have no doubt that Gankas is sincere in his efforts to support Wolff, but he is not an expert in mental health. When it comes to issues of mental health, it is vitally important to seek help from a licensed professional. As resilient as the human mind is, it can also be quite fragile. By enrolling a competent professional who is trained to help guide you through challenging times, it will help to ensure the best outcome. Here are a few websites to checkout if you want to learn more about the process:
Whether we like it or not, from the moment we are born we are shaped by those around us. We are taught “right” from “wrong” and “good” from “bad”. Fortunately, most make it through this process of socialization healthy and well adjusted as we learn to separate ourselves from the opinions of others and regain our sense of self. However, for those who lose themselves in the glare of the judging eyes of the other, developing autonomy, confidence, and self-worth can become incredibly challenging. If you are struggling with what other people think of you to the point that it is interfering with your life, or performance on the golf course, I encourage you to ask for help. It is a common problem that many athletes struggle with and can be addressed with proper treatment.
I often say to my clients “the less you care about what others think of you, the happier you’ll be”. I realize that statement is an oversimplification and requires some explanation, however, at its core, I believe the statement to be true. The more you can play for yourself rather than for the approval of others, the more driven, inspired, and personally fulfilled you will be (and by the way, you’ll probably shoot lower scores).