“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
I have a book by Donald Seamands titled Escaping the Performance Trap. The book was originally entitled Healing Grace, later changed to the performance motif. Actually both titles work well, for unless you really understand and appropriate God’s grace, you cannot escape one of the least understood and most damaging tools of Satan.
Our world is steeped in the performance mentality, and probably most of us have been greatly affected by it. At the outset, it is important to note that performing well is not a negative thing. In fact, much about striving for excellence is, well, excellent! Who wants to fail when success can be attained and enjoyed? Who does not want to improve as much as possible at any endeavor undertaken? As the old saying goes, “If its worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” The performance trap we are describing has to do with what might be described as perfectionism. Those with perfectionist tendencies are not often satisfied. As a result, they often feel that they are not measuring up to their self-defined standards. And they normally inflict these anxieties onto others, especially family members.
Associated with the sense of failure is an accompanying sense of guilt. The term “neurotic guilt” is sometimes used in this connection, meaning that the guilt is not from a sin before God, but imagined guilt or self-inflicted guilt. Frankly, it is a malady that plagues a measurable segment of the population—and not a few disciples. In the spiritual realm, we speak of those with “accused consciences,” meaning that they often feel guilty about this failure to live up to their own idealistic standards of what they should have been and done. Religious people often struggle with these feelings, because it is not always easy to balance the Biblical call to do our best with the reality of our human frailty. Sin means literally “to miss the mark,” and who of us does not miss the mark regularly and repeatedly? Surely we must learn to understand God’s grace in order to be healed from our perfectionist tendencies and the ever-present sense of not measuring up. Guilt-ridden people are not joyful people, and frankly, they are poor advertisements for God’s kingdom.
Where does this performance mentality come from? For many, it starts with noble intentions. We want to do our best, and certainly nobody can fault that. But when we begin to mix in pride, the road of life takes a wrong turn. We then enjoy the attention and praise that come from being outstanding, and achievement becomes a way to feel good about ourselves. Parental pride causes us to transfer this tendency to our children, and we want them to be high achievers—both for their sakes and for ours. The rub comes when excellence in doing takes precedence over excellence in being. Building character is far more important than amassing athletic records and topping out SAT scores. The children whose parents set unrealistic standards for them will begin packing and carrying around emotional baggage. If they are made to feel that no matter how well they do, they could have (should have) done even better, they are headed toward emotional damage and danger. The issue is subtle, however, because working hard is a part of building character. The problem is in how important performance becomes to us and the kind of sacrifices we are willing to make for outstanding accomplishments.
Understanding our drive for success is paramount if we are to avoid emotional confusion, frustration and pain. One of the most helpful insights about the performance mode lies in grasping its connection with self-esteem. All of us develop insecurities in our lives—about our looks, our athletic or intellectual abilities, our family backgrounds, or any one of a dozen things. Rejection, or fear of rejection, is at the root of most of our insecurities. The stronger the sense of rejection, the greater the insecurities. And to make matters worse, rejection comes in many forms, some obvious and some quite subtle.
So what do we do with these insecurities? Usually we go in one of two directions: we either pull back and risk little, hoping to avoid further failure with its sense of rejection, or we determine to prove ourselves through performance. Since we do not feel good about ourselves, we try to impress others into thinking well of us, believing that this will help us feel better. It is a vicious cycle in the end, and by midlife, we feel the crisis coming on. I decided years ago that midlife crises occur when we can no longer find the resolve to hold up our performance masks. We let them down and the real us comes out. Truthfully, much of our drive to succeed comes from this source of low self-esteem.
As a teen, some described me as having a superiority complex. The term is a misnomer, for no such complex exists. It is a cover-up for insecurities. It took me years to find the courage to peel away the mask and start being honest with who I was inside and how I felt about myself. In the interim, I looked for endeavors in which I could not only be successful, but be the best. Much of our competitiveness comes from this source. As much as I always loved sports, I was mediocre in them. I moved into the music realm, where I could be really outstanding. Of course, it is not wrong to migrate toward what we do best, but the reason for the migration may well be wrong. In my case it was prideful insecurities and a desire to prove myself. People who only talk about their successes in their lives are on this track, and the extent to which they avoid emotional vulnerability is a good measure of the extent of their insecurities.
The perfection-oriented person tries to conceal insecurities by building a superimage of himself (or herself). He projects his strong points into this image, raised to their highest power, and eliminates his weaker points. He constantly emphasizes the strong points and resists all attempts of others to mention the weak ones. He may or may not seem defensive in dodging critiques, but dodge he will. He clings tenaciously to the projected image in an effort to earn adoration from others and therefore feel good about himself. The fallacy of the whole system is that it is not really respect that we want. What we really want is love and acceptance. But we set ourselves up to block receiving what we need by trying to convince others that we are awesome. Now here is the kicker: Real love by Biblical definition is unconditional. To be loved, our negative points must be graciously accepted by others, not just our positive points. Therefore, unless we are open about our shortcomings, we will never really feel loved! This is an important point, without which we cannot progress as human beings and certainly not as disciples of Jesus. No wonder Paul was so open about his sins and weaknesses.
Paul as a Pharisee was a performer par excellence (Philippians 3:4-6). He was as works oriented as anyone could be. His drive for success made him perhaps the top student of Gamaliel, the most revered rabbi in Israel (Acts 22:3). His standard for life was set very high. He lived up to it in remarkable ways, but he trusted in his performance as a basis for a right standing with God. Such a mentality prompted writings like Romans and Galatians. No excellence of performance is going to earn a relationship with God. He knows all our sins, including the heart sins and the secret sins. God cannot be duped by our super-images, and sooner or later we will be exposed. We can play the ostrich, sticking our heads in the sand and denying the bad stuff in us, but all the while, others are observing everything else sticking out! It is time to get real with ourselves and others. Paul the Christian was not looking for love in all the wrong places (in performance). He opened up his life and heart and invited others in and expected them to do the same (2 Corinthians 6:11-13).
God’s ways are usually about 180 degrees opposite of man’s way. The worldly approach is to tell all the positive things about ourselves and to hide the negative. After we brag on ourselves in this way, we have only a gnawing, hollow feeling left. God says to keep all of the good stuff to ourselves and to confess all of the negative. At the end of this process, we are left with a warm and fuzzy feeling, knowing that God sees the good and will reward us for it, while people will see the bad and extend unconditional love to us. What could be better?
Learning to pull back the curtain on our hearts is an arduous and painful process. Nonethess, the more we are open about our sins and weaknesses, the more people will appreciate and respect us. People realize the difficulty of real transparency, and when we are opening wide our hearts to them, they are drawn to us like a magnet.
I appreciate the encouragement I receive from people regarding my leadership skills, or writing gifts, and I am grateful to God for the opportunities to use them. Recognition and respect are good, as long as we realize that all good things come from God and not from us. But what I appreciate most are simply open and sincere expressions of love, not for what I have done, but for who I want to be for God and others.
I will not say that I have escaped totally from the performance trap, for it has steel jaws at times, but I will say that I understand it intellectually. Further, I will also say that I am happiest when I emotionally grasp the truth of the gospel and relax enough to accept the love from God and others that I so much need. Won’t you join me?