I graduated from Yale more than 50 years ago with vague ambitions of becoming a writer. In the meantime, I needed to earn a living, so I briefly took a job as a hospital orderly at Yale-New Haven Hospital. I quickly discovered that hospitals — at least this one — operated according to a strict hierarchy based on the color of your uniform. Doctors and nurses wore white in those days, and orderlies wore blue. And because I wore blue, it was assumed I was none too bright. Therefore, I was actively discouraged from voicing an opinion on anything. I learned this the hard way when I was called upon one time to help with a three-way furniture move among rooms on a patient floor. I made the mistake of letting on that I had figured out how to do it without the laborious instructions the nurse supervisor was giving me. She let it be known in no uncertain times that it was not my place to figure things out for myself.

That job was my introduction to typecasting, a term normally applied to actors who find themselves cast in a certain type of role because of their appearance or because they were previously identified with a specific kind of part. The irony, of course, is that in this case I had been playing against type by working as a hospital orderly when I had an Ivy-League education. Once I took off my blue uniform, I became subject to a different sort of typecasting, with people making assumptions about who I was based on my Yale diploma. To this day, I have avoided wearing Yale-monogrammed apparel, although someone did once ask me whether I went to Yale because of the “Y” sweatshirt I wore from the local YMCA where I work out. The assumption, of course, is that you must be brilliant or a rich snob if you attended Yale. Anyone who actually went to Yale can tell you there are plenty of people there who are not brilliant, although some of them are indeed rich, which may explain how they got in.

I am aware that my experiences with typecasting are trifling compared to those who can’t escape its effects merely by removing their uniforms. If you happen to have the wrong skin color, for instance, you may find yourself inescapably typecast. You can expend a lot of energy dealing with assumptions made about what kind of person you are based on your race or getting blowback if you dare to play against type. Sometimes it may be easer just to play along with people’s expectations rather than constantly take flak — a situation women understand only too well. Think of the controversy Hillary Clinton stirred up as First Lady when she appeared to make disparaging remarks about baking cookies. Never mind that she was a Yale-trained lawyer and former Watergate prosecutor who would go on to serve as a U.S. senator and Secretary of State. She was expected to play a part that had little to do with having a brain.

“Remember,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once remarked, “you are just an extra in everyone else's play.” You may have final script approval on your own play — or think you do. But you have precious little control over the parts you play in everyone else’s drama, particularly if you have been assigned a walk-on part. The most insidious thing is that you inevitably internalize some of the roles others expect you to play. If you have been pegged from an early age as someone who is unlovable, how do you find love? If adults send you the message that you will never amount to anything, how do you make something of yourself?

More than a century ago, the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley coined the term “looking-glass self” to describe how we acquire a sense of self by imagining how we are perceived by others. We view the self in individual terms, but it is primarily a social construct, as Cooley tried to convey in this couplet:

Each to each a looking-glass
Reflects the other that doth pass.

In other words, it is not me that I perceive when I think of myself, but some mirror image of myself that I see in you. As Cooley put it, “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” We all may have been created in the image of God, but who we become is at least partly how we see ourselves in the funhouse mirror of life.

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