It started on a retreat, as things often do. Our facilitator asked something along the lines of, “What would it look like to move a little farther down the narrow road that leads to a sense of being alive in the midst of the most challenging circumstances? Are you willing to pay the necessary cost of being open…to explore what gets in the way of you being who you’ve really been created to be?” I was. I considered it a divine appointment.
Each of us naturally lives as a chess player. Desires for approval, respect, and affirmation often drive our interactions with others. When these are arising out of our feelings of inadequacy, we are poorly equipped and falsely confident to engage life, or others, in any meaningful way. We would rather play chess than be seen for who we are afraid we are.
As part of the exposing process, I was asked to identify my core terror, the fear that I believe justifies my self-protective behaviors…the thing I fear, that if you found out about me, would cause you not accept me. The premise is that if I can name the fear, it will lose some of its power. Like any recovery process, the first step is to admit that I have a problem.
My core terror? I’m afraid of being inadequate. That was pretty easy for me to identify. It had kept me awake for years.
Then, I was then asked to identify my pose. The pose is that which I project in response to my core terror in order to be seen the way I want to be seen. It is a pull on you that gets you to cooperate with my self-centered purposes of self-protection.
What is my pose? Performance and pleasing. You might call it the “performance trap.” That was pretty easy for me to identify as well. However, when I saw how systemic it was, it took me two days before I could speak for fear that I could not trust myself to be anything else.
THE PERFORMANCE TRAP
Since the “performance trap” is common to many, I thought I would do a little transparent self-reflection. It would be much easier to do this as the “expert,” but risking exposure is part of the undoing of the pose, and I would love to undo it as much as possible. Trust me, you want me to undo it. The “performance trap” is something we must escape if we are to move, “a little farther down the narrow road that leads to a sense of being alive,” in terms of how we relate to God, self, and others.
LIFE SHAPING EXPERIENCES
So, from where does this trap come? It comes from different shaping experiences in different people; however, the similarity seems to be in how we react to those experiences, and then live from the reaction. I’ll share one of my many shaping events in hopes that it might shed some light on yours.
My parents were kind and loving toward me, wished the best for me, and were supportive of me. But, I do remember marital tensions running high. They ultimately divorced when I was in the eighth grade. While I won’t share their reasons for parting ways, or blame them for how I processed the event, I will describe how I interpreted it.
After the divorce, we were mostly a single-income family. I watched my mother struggle, I mean really struggle, to make ends meet. I remember living in fear that everything we had would be taken away and we had nowhere to turn. I felt powerless. I felt worthless.
Looking back, I believe there were two ways I could have processed that experience. First, would have been to become a victim. Second, would have been to become a performer. Victims find escape in losing control. Performers find escape in gaining control. Victims and performers share the same dysfunction of escapism, but express it differently. Most of the time I chose performer.
What did I really want out of gaining control? It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to deduce it…security. So, I set out on a very productivity-driven life, striving for something that would make me feel secure. I would be “competent,” and the world would validate me.
In my younger years, I thought this was achieved by gaining outward symbols of security. The cars I would later drive, the club I would later belong to, the neighborhoods I would later live in, the approval of others that I craved, and the promotions I strived to achieve would all somehow conspire to make me feel good, worthy, and valued; a fortress of invulnerability. How well I could attain these things was the metric of my self-worth.
The problem was in reaching goals set from a place of woundedness, I was not left feeling more secure (except for a few days time), but rather more insecure…that I might somehow lose it all; that I might fail and feel worthless again. Fear, perform, achieve…fear, perform, achieve…an endless cycle of vanity that King Solomon so aptly described as, “chasing after the wind.”
FALSE LIFE & DEATH
I developed a false definition of life, avoiding pain through calculated performance, and a false definition of death, failing to meet my own expectations or the expectations of others; that’s not really death, but just felt like it. Life became about managing those two extremes. All these years later, I was not sure I was really all that different, sadly just a little better at fooling myself and fooling you.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Of course, the issue has to do with the disposition of my heart. I often act out of self-protection, believing if I could have you think well of me, then I will feel better about myself. That’s the poser playing chess with you, calculating and manipulating you to validate me so that I do not experience my core terror. The saddest part about it is that I often don’t know that I’m doing it. The pose is a very subtle thing. And, its effects? It robs me of life and authentic relationship and deprives you of the same.
We are not meant to live that way, though most do. The world celebrates performance. It will gladly let you be a wounded person seeking after your security. You might even receive compliments on your work ethic, be seen as indispensable, or be labeled a “perfectionist” and achieve some great things. Performers are always good at what they do. Their value depends on it.
10 WARNING SIGNS YOU MIGHT BE IN THE PERFORMANCE TRAP
So, how do you know if you are in the “performance trap? “You might be in the performance trap if…”
- You succeed on a fairly regular basis, but even minor failures are devastating.
- You beat yourself up, or tear down others, when things don’t go your way.
- You can’t relax and enjoy life because your striving keeps you too busy; you are too important…too much depends on you. You can’t say, “no.”
- Your family and relationships suffer because of your unrealistic goals…the time you spend focusing on your goals and not your relationships, or, you feel they don’t support you in your “hard work”…it is all for them, right?
- You find yourself avoiding people or things so you will not feel failure, disapproval or rejection.
- You live a “rules” kind of life. You follow the rules, as everyone should! You lack grace.
- You may have great spiritual knowledge but are spiritually dry.
- Your solution to all challenges is to work even harder; you will not tolerate failure.
- You experience frequent bouts of anger, resentment or depression.
- You must be in control or you become a critic. You are defensive and justify all of your actions when questioned. You are aggressive/passive-aggressive.
Sound like anyone you know? Sound like anyone you with whom you work? Sound like anyone with whom you live? Sound like you? It sounded a whole lot like me…managing my life, playing chess with you.
A NEW WAY TO LIVE
The good news is that there is another way to live. Someone wise once told me that when faced with things we do not like about ourselves, we could change the action or the image. Obviously in the list above there are behaviors that can and should be changed. Living like that is not life.
However, any lasting change in the behaviors above will only come from changing the image; the behaviors are too deeply rooted to be dealt with in isolation. Frankly, trying to manage the behaviors alone is just more chess playing; coping mechanisms, not release into freedom. To find freedom, we need a source of validity from something other than our perfect performance (we are not perfect), perfect circumstances (too much in flux that is beyond our control), or our expectations of others (they are not perfect either).
Changing our self-image at these levels can happen in one of two ways. First, is creating a self-image that takes into account some grace for our humanity. Developing a more realistic sense of personal expectation is critical. Seeing ourself as one who learns and grows from failures and circumstances beyond our control is a great start in allowing a reinterpretation of life-shaping events. It actually helps us reinterpret life from God’s perspective. And, allowing room for imperfections in our own lives will help us get along with others. This is grace for ourselves, and when we embrace that, we can offer it to others. Sounds simple I know, but it is really going against the grain for performance junkies. Performers often work out of a demanding spirit that is not conducive to grace.
Second, developing a self-image that takes into consideration that we are created and redeemed beings. In entering into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we are loved, accepted, safe, and secure, in every perfect way, which no person or circumstance could ever give, no matter how good, noble, or virtuous they may be. Our self-image should be based on God’s valuation of us, by virtue of our very creation and redemption, not according to our performance, thank God. The self-imposed pressure is off. This is grace from God. Again, it sounds simple, but performance junkies are fiercely independent, acknowledging good counsel while often saying, “I’ll take it from here, thank you.” They do not like to be vulnerable no matter how good their theology.
In my experience, changing the action or the image will only bring only a little relief. Contrary to knowing better, it seems I still spend too much time bouncing back and forth between one or the other. But working both at the same time, they can become the crowbar that pries open the jaws of the “performance trap.” The disposition of the heart changes, blood flows again, and the color comes back. Instead of doing the right things for the wrong reasons, we start doing the right things for the right reasons, and not only we, but God and all those around us rejoice. It is life as God intended for us.
We are so easily sidetracked, failing to recognized how our life events have shaped us, often unaware of our insecurities, believing the lies we tell ourselves, others tell us, and the world tells us, or just overwhelmed by circumstances that we forget who we really are and just react to life events, rather than move into them with the conscious presence of God and our true identities. Yet, to be whole (healed) and holy (mature, like Jesus) is the goal. Before we can offer life to others, we need to be fully alive. I want to end by offering 4 streams that lead to a more abundant life, that form us first and equip us secondly.
4 WAYS TO ESCAPE THE PERFORMANCE TRAP
Knowing and being able to tell our story in community.
To the degree that we can tell our story, we can experience healing. We need genuine relationship, deep relationship. Cultivating a few relationships, the kind where we can share all of our “stuff” and still be accepted gives a few trusted others the right to speak into our lives when they see us calculating, manipulating, or hiding behind our personas.
Whether that ongoing conversation is between us and God, a trusted friend, pastor, coach, spiritual director or counselor, it doesn’t matter, as long as they are a safe person or group of people. But, we need to be able to know and articulate what events shaped us, wounded us, and cause us to play chess, and how we play chess. Knowing this doesn’t make them go away, but this self-awareness makes them a lot less powerful.
God brings our stuff back up over time, not so we feel guilty, but because these areas need to be healed. I’m primarily talking about the pockets of shame, the things you would never want anyone to know because of fear of being labeled “untouchable.” We need to let the light of God into our hearts in these places and have truth applied at deeper levels.
Actively pursuing our own discipleship.
Learning to walk with Jesus in every moment and every area of our lives; training us how to live as mature believers and offer ourselves to a hurting world. Growing in our ability to recognize his voice and the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is study. It is solitude. It is community. It is deep personal reflection and application. Spend more time reflecting on who God says we are than all the other competing voices. This begins to replace all the lies with the truth. We must take our own discipleship seriously and create the time and space for God to do His work.
Actively pursuing our own healing.
That is, inviting Jesus to come in to minister to our past wounds and memories. So much healing is available to us. There are things in life we need to repent from and choose to enter into healing for, but sometimes we hit a wall and repentance and choice are not enough. In many cases, deep forgiveness is necessary. There have been a lot of resentments, judgments, and some vows we’ve made over the years that need to be let go; with these kinds of things, it seems there’s always another level to be explored. As we let go of some of the pain of the shaping events, which are often tied to a person or a group of people, it is much easier to walk in truth and freedom.
Learning to engage spiritual warfare.
That is, remembering that we live in a world at war, putting on the full armor of God, and actively resisting evil in order to receive deliverance because of strongholds established by old wounds, family stuff, and blind spots. This requires serious examination, serious prayer, and serious community. It is not for the faint at heart. Spiritual warfare is real, yet often under-appreciated in the lives of most Christians.
The “performance trap” is common. I see it all around me, in many of the people with whom I work as a coach and spiritual director, and the hundreds of people with whom I interact as I go about my everyday life. Maybe it the old adage that, “it takes one to know one,” playing out. In any case, I’d be honored to be one of your “trusted others.” I’d love the opportunity to share how spiritual direction can help you put away the chess board, grow in relational authenticity with God, self, and others, and begin to the release of the unique individual God created you to be. Please contact me today for a free consultation.