You Might Be Caught 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 can’t say, “no.”
- Your relationships suffer because others feel you spend too much time on your work, and you feel they don’t support your “hard work” …it is all for them, right?
- You find yourself avoiding people, or certain experiences, so you will not encounter failure, feel shame, or experience 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, you 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 passive-aggressive when questioned about your motives.
Does it sound like anyone you know? Sound like anyone you with whom you work? Does it sound like anyone with whom you live? Sound like you? It sounded a whole lot like me, managing my life and manipulating you in order to feel better about myself.
But, the Performance Trap is something we must escape if we are to move a little farther down the narrow road that leads to the “life to the full” that Jesus speaks about in John 10:10. If you identify with three of the ten items on that list, then that should be a red flag.
The Performance Trap began to unravel for me on a retreat, as things often do. There, Larry Crabb asked something to the room to the effect of, “What would it look like to move to a sense of being alive in the midst of the most challenging circumstances? Are you willing to pay the necessary cost to explore what gets in the way of you being who you’ve really been created to be?”
I was certainly curious. I considered the opportunity a divine appointment. It was, but not in the way I was expecting. It turned out to be quite the holy disruption. I assure you, it did not feel like a blessing at the time.
Identifying Core Terror
As part of the necessary cost Larry mentioned, 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 was to admit that I had a problem.
What’s 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 we project in response to our core terror in order to be seen the way we want to be seen. It is a needy pull on others that gets them to cooperate with our self-centered purposes and self-protection. Desires for approval, respect, and affirmation drive our interactions with others. We would rather pose as something else than be seen for who we are afraid we really are.
What is my Pose? Performance and pleasing. I 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.
Behind Every Pose Is a Wound
There are as many life experiences as there are people; diversity abounds. However, we are very much alike in how we react to those experiences, and then live out of those reactions.
I’ll share one of my life-shaping experiences that helped create my Pose in hopes that it might help you identify part of yours. Believe me, it would be much easier to do this as an “expert”, but risking exposure is part of breaking free. And, I want to break free from the Performance Trap. And, you might not know it, but you want me to break free from it too. The world gets a little better each time one of us does.
A Life-Shaping Wound
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. My father did not pay child support. So, I watched my mother struggle, I mean really struggle, to make ends meet. We lived in fear that everything we had would be taken away and we had nowhere to turn. I felt powerless, abandoned, worthless, alone, and unloved. In short, I felt inadequate.
The Interpretation of the Wound
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. Why? Because performers are “in control.”
The Effects of the Wound
What did I really want out of gaining control? It didn’t take a psychiatrist to deduce it; security. Because, security would keep me from feeling my core terror; inadequacy.
So, I set out on a journey to find it in what I could have, what I could do, and what others would think of me. Achieving high marks in all of these categories felt like life. Low marks felt like death. Performance would be my own version of “life to the full”.
False Life in What I could Have
In my younger years, material success looked like the solution. The cars I would later drive, the club I would later belong to, the neighborhoods I would later live in, and the promotions I strived to achieve would all somehow conspire to make me feel good, worthy, and valued; a fortress of invulnerability. If I could have enough, I would not experience my core terror; inadequacy.
False Life in What I could Do
As I grew older, I decided I would be “competent”. Competent people are in control. They achieve what they desire, work hard, are command respect for their achievements, and they earn more. And, the world really favors competent people. Sounds like a plan, doesn’t it? If I could be competent, I would not experience my core terror; inadequacy.
False Life in What Others Thought of Me
Relationally speaking, I used what I could have and what I could do to gain your approval. If I you validated me, I would not feel my core terror; inadequacy.
Like Idols, False Life Doesn’t Pay Out
I achieved a lot over the years trying to feel secure. But, the problem is, achievement rooted in woundedness leaves us empty. When managed to get something nice, do something competent, or impress another, I was not left feeling more secure (except for a few days’ time), but rather more insecure.
I feared I might somehow lose it all as well as how hard I would have to work to keep it. It is tough to keep outperforming yourself. Fear, perform, achieve…fear, perform, achieve…an endless cycle of vanity that King Solomon so aptly describes as, “chasing after the wind”.
Living Out the Pose
All these years later, sitting in that retreat center, asked these questions by Larry, and in spite of being a Christian for nearly 15 years at the time, I realized I had not changed all that much from being a wounded young boy. I had just learned to leverage my Poser in a Christian context. And, you may not have been able to put your finger on exactly what was going on inside of me, but you would have experienced it as “disinterested” or “distracted”; not “present” by any means. You also would have felt “managed”. That’s just a polite way of saying “manipulated”, though it would have appeared to you be toward noble aims since Jesus was involved.
The saddest part about it is that I often didn’t know I was doing it. The Pose is a very subtle thing. And, its effects? It robbed me of life and authentic relationship. It deprives you of the same things. And, God? Well, all I can say is that it was a godless way to live. We are not meant to live that way, but most still do. And, many of them are Christians.
The World Celebrates Performance
The world celebrates performance. It will gladly let you be a wounded person seeking after your own security, posing your life away to get what you think will give you “life to the full”. People might even see you as indispensable in your job, or label you a “perfectionist” (which you would receive as a complement), and, you might even achieve some great things.
Performers are always good at what they do. Their value depends on it. But, living out of the Pose is exhausting and it is nothing like the “life to the full” Jesus offers. It is a counterfeit!
So, Are You Ready to Escape the Performance Trap?
Because, there is another way to live! We don’t have to live out of the Poser any longer. There is no need for the exhaustion, or the relational fallout. We can enter the real life Jesus promises.
Someone once told me that when faced with things we do not like about ourselves, we could change our actions or our self-image. Most of us try changing only one, and, it is usually trying to get our actions under control.
However, if we start trying to change our actions, any lasting change is likely to be fleeting; the behaviors are too deeply rooted. Frankly, trying to manage behaviors alone is just more performance, not release into freedom. It is most assuredly, not sanctification. Our worth is still bound to how well we can perform and control, by not acting in ways that are embarrassing or displeasing to God, self, and others.
It’s exhausting, and it is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. In order to find true 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), and our expectations of others (they are not perfect either).
Or, Changing Our Self-Image
A few will try to change their self-image in a negative way. That is, they will just learn to live with their undesirable actions, explaining it away as, “It’s just who I am. Deal with it.” I’m all for recognizing and owning our junk, but somehow just accepting another’s dysfunction without their recognition of their impact on me seems less than adequate. However, in Christ Jesus, we have some more positive ways of changing our self-image.
Changing Our Self-Image Happens in Two Places
Grace for Ourselves
First, is creating a self-image that considers some grace for our humanity, as Jesus clearly offers us as the author of grace. Developing a more realistic sense of personal expectation is critical. Seeing our self as one who learns and grows from failures and circumstances both in and beyond our control is a great start down the road to healing; helping us reinterpret our life’s story from God’s perspective. Facing our junk and forgiving ourselves matters. This is grace for ourselves.
This is basic Christianity, I know, but it is really going against the grain for those stuck in the Performance Trap. Performers often work out of a demanding spirit that is not conducive to grace.
Grace from God
Second, developing a self-image that truly embraces that we are created and redeemed beings who 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, not anything else. Thank God. As we move into that more and more, the self-imposed pressure falls away. This is grace from God.
Again, it is basic Christianity, but performance junkies are fiercely independent, acknowledging good counsel when they hear it, but often responding with, “I’ll take it from here, thank you.” They do not like to be vulnerable, not even to God.
A Change from The Inside Out
Christians, by starting to change to a God-grounded self-image, can find 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.
When we change our self-image in these ways, our actions will change as a result. It is putting the proverbial horse back in front of the cart. And when we do so, not only we, but God and all those around us rejoice. It is life as God intended for us; “life to the full”.
This “life to the full” is contagious. Yet, few that call themselves Christians have had un-believers ever ask, “So, what’s your secret to such a joy-filled life?” We are told in Scripture that we should be ready to give a response for the hope that is in us, and that implies that we should expect to be asked. So, why aren’t many being asked?
Many Christians are stuck in the Performance Trap, eager to do great things for God, including testify on Jesus’ behalf. It is part of how they earn their self-worth after all. They are operating out of a “pay as you go identity”, working hard to please God and feel better about themselves as my friend, Pablo Giacopelli, describes in one of his recent podcasts.
The Question Is, “Who Wants to Be Like the Guy Stuck in the Performance Trap?”
Who wants to discover his secret to living well? Most of the things that come from him feel artificial. He’s virtually indistinguishable from the un-believer when facing life’s challenges or trying to keep his embarrassing behaviors under control. He may well be “productive”, but most people don’t want to spend a lot of time around him, let alone ask him for advice.
Mostly the world sees a judgmental, moralist, who can’t keep it between the lines any better than they can, without all the trappings of dogma. No wonder more Christians are not being asked to give reason for the hope that is in them. Who wants to add more guilt, shame, duty, obligation, and busyness to their already burdened lives? Those stuck in the Performance Trap will have about as little positive effect on the un-believing world as the Gospel is having in their own lives.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”Socrates
We are so easily distracted, failing to recognize how our life events have shaped us, unaware of how our insecurities drive us with the False Self on full display, believing the lies we tell ourselves, others tell us, and the world tells us, and just overwhelmed by circumstances that we forget who we really are. We live a lot of life without the conscious presence of our true self-image in Christ.
Yet, to be whole (healed) and holy (mature), like Jesus, is the goal. But, before we can offer that to others, we need it ourselves. We cannot offer what we do not have. Yet, as we start to discover this life for ourselves, it becomes contagious living. People will ask us to give the reason for the hope that is in us.
So, what can we do that will help us escape the Performance Trap?
4 Ways to Support Escaping the Performance Trap:
Because we need to start by changing our self-image, and not with our actions, and, we because we start with ourselves, and not with others. I want to end by offering 4 streams of living water to support this process; first to receive this new identity, and second, to equip us in moving out to offer it to others. We have to keep the horse before the cart.
First, Being Able to Tell Our Story in Community
To the degree that we can tell our story, we can experience healing. We need to be able to articulate what events shaped us, wounded us, and cause us to pose. The heart is tricky, not bad, but tricky. Being too close to the forest to see the trees, we just can’t do that alone.
So, we need to cultivate genuine community; the kind where we can share all of our “stuff” and still be accepted. Giving a few trusted others the right to speak into our lives when they see us posing, help us find the words of our hearts, and connect the dots goes a long way. They help us find God himself. In the communities like this I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, we usually start with some exercise that helps us really dig deep into our stories.
I should mention, that simply identifying our wounds is not the same thing as healing. Naming them takes some of the power out of them, but they are still there.
Second, Actively Pursuing Our Own Healing
That is, inviting Jesus to come in to minister to our past wounds and memories. 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.
So much healing is available to us. There are things in life we need to repent from for sure. But, do you ever wonder why you have to repent from the same things over and over again? Well, it is because you are dealing with something that comes out of a wound.
In many cases, deep forgiveness is necessary. There have been a lot of resentments, judgments, and vows made over the years that need to be let go. You can’t repent your way out of that. You need to be healed out of it.
Third, Actively Pursuing Our Own Discipleship
We must take our own discipleship seriously, creating the time and space for God to do His work. It is time for study, solitude, deep personal reflection and application, especially over who God says we are, rather than all the other competing voices. This time and space allow us to grow in our ability to recognize God’s voice and the connect with the presence of his Holy Spirit.
Fourth, 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 some cases, we need not only healing, but genuine deliverance from the strongholds of powerful wounds & agreements, and some pretty whacky family stuff. This requires serious examination, serious prayer, and serious community. It is not for the faint at heart.
Spiritual warfare is real, yet often under-estimated in the lives of most Christians. Engaging it matters.
Is this Blog Post Striking a Chord?
If this is striking a chord with you, then I’d love the opportunity to share how Christian Life Coaching and Spiritual Direction can help you escape from the Performance Trap. If I can be of any help, please contact me.
I am an Anglican Priest, an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach (ACC), and Certified Spiritual Director (CSD). My mission is simple: I help people discover who God created them to be…and how to get there.
If you have any questions, including how to begin a Christian Life Coaching or Spiritual Direction relationship with me, please feel free to contact me.