Mercy Pick: Dealing with Rejection in the Firehouse
Chief Sam DiGiovanna
Growing up I had three older brothers who picked on me. No day was complete without a punch, trip or shove. They took my candy, allowance and confidence. That’s what brothers do, right? All I wanted was to be accepted and respected for who I was. Thankfully, my brothers did demonstrate mercy. And there was this upside: If someone tried to pick on me, they were the first to have my back.
Unlike most kids my age, I hated recess. I was in third grade: We would walk out to the school yard backstop and line up against the fence. It was like walking the plank. The teacher would pick two captains, and I was never picked as captain. One by one, the captains took turns on who they would pick for their team. One by one, the other kids were picked until it was the last remaining two. I was always one of two. Though it hurt, I came to accept I wasn’t good enough. School can provide tough lessons.
Junior high was a different experience all together: Now there were romantic relationships—or, I should say, the potential for romantic relationships. But I was a chubby kid, and my crushes made sure I knew it. It was, suffice it to say, beyond demoralizing.
By high school, I was getting bigger and getting gaining confidence. My best friend, Andy Troncale, and I decided in tenth grade that we were going to join the Los Angeles County Fire Department. We fell in love with the fire service and never looked back. How I finished high school with all those ride-alongs, I’ll never know! And guess what happened? Shortly after graduation, I finally got picked for the team—to be a firefighter! But becoming a firefighter actually reminded me quite a lot of being picked on by my brothers all those years earlier. I was still struggling to prove my worth: trying to get the special assignments, make the teams, get ahead, be liked … Not much changes.
Unfortunately, my ego was getting in the way: I was frustrated by my inability to fix him or the morale issue he was contributing to.
Self-Awareness vs. Self-Consciousness
Over the years, I was promoted from firefighter to engineer to captain to battalion chief. Then came the big day when I earned the title of fire chief. It was my dream come true! But if you think that achieving this meant all my disappointments, frustrations and challenges went away, you’d be mistaken. Sure, my perspective has changed. As an adult, I am more in control of my emotions. But the quest to be valued and respected—to be loved, really—persists, despite growing older.
Disappointment is part of life. If not properly addressed, it can destroy our self-esteem, sapping us of purpose. It’s also not uncommon in the firehouse or police station, where friendly competition sometimes gets out of control and becomes outright bullying. Additionally, those who struggle with rejection can become fixers: someone eager to tell everybody else how they need to be doing things (a common first responder trait).
Experiences like these can leave emotional wounds that perpetuate a cycle of unhappiness. One might experience envy, blame and jealousy. When situations get too heavy, a licensed qualified therapist, counselor or psychiatrist can be of tremendous value. They can help you work through your feelings, allowing you to build self-esteem and confidence, as well as meaningful connections with others.
Sometimes, it’s simply enough to know you’re not alone. A lot of us have experienced feelings of inadequacy, rejection, isolation—even tough first responders—even those of us in leadership positions! Wanting to be loved is completely normal. But finding peace and happiness within ourselves, this is essential.
Chief Sam DiGiovanna
Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif.