How to Reframe Performance-Oriented Identity

Why Who You Are is Not What You Are.

Most of us harbor a self-critic in the amygdala of our brain. It operates on a continuum ranging from selective and reserved to vocal and harsh. While a modicum of self-criticism is necessary and probably desirable, too many of us take it to the extreme.

The genesis often occurs in childhood when we get the message we’re not good enough. No matter what we do, it’s not enough. We’re not enough. Sometimes that message is overt, like a punch in the face. Maybe you struck out in a Little League game and your coach angrily chastised you in front of your teammates. Maybe a parent told you — point blank — that you’re a worthless piece of crap and will never amount to anything. And, those examples are just for starters. Many of us have been peppered with a litany of demeaning messages.

Or, maybe we picked up on subtle inferences that distorted our self-concept. A sigh, facial expression, passive-aggressive comment, or emotional distance; like we’re not worth the time of day. Apathy and disconnection feel a whole lot like rejection.

It’s also possible we inherited our self-critic from a parent or grandparent. Or, maybe this cognitive distortion wasn’t developed in childhood at all. Maybe it came later in our adolescence or adult life; triggered by a teacher, classmate, boss, romantic partner, business associate, or some other bully.

The point is it doesn’t really matter when and by whom the seed was planted because it’s already there. The seed has rooted, and like those pesky dandelions that dot our lawns, it’s damn hard to get rid of.

We expect a lot from ourselves. Too much. And, when we don’t deliver, our self-worth plummets. For many of us, the value we assign ourselves is based solely on our latest performance. What have you done for me lately? We don’t recognize or accept our strengths and the collective competencies within us. We don’t understand or acknowledge that we are not the sum of our professional identity. We believe it’s impossible to falter or fail and still be loved, accepted, and respected simply for who we are. So, sadly, our lives become all about performance.

Developmental scientist and sports psychologist Dr. Benjamin Houltberg refers to this phenomenon as “performance-based identity,” which is defined by contingent self-worth, high perfectionism, and irrational fear of failure. We crave love, attention, affirmation, worthiness, and respect but believe the only way these needs can be met is when we perform beyond expectation. Essentially, we’ve been conditioned to “sing for our supper.” Not surprisingly, this skewed cognitive process can easily become addictive and devolve into relational dysfunction, anxiety, and depression.

When we fail to live up to the lofty standards we’ve set for ourselves, we feel like the discarded chewing gum stuck to the bottom of a new pair of sneakers. We tell ourselves whoever planted that seed of doubt in our brain was right all along. I am useless. I can’t do anything right.

So, to avoid these feelings of inadequacy, fear, and loneliness, we work like hell to compete against both ourselves and others to perform at the very highest level. In fact, according to pioneering psychologist Alfred Adler, our inherent inferiority feelings are exactly what lead us to strive for mastery and perfection. Those feelings are the impetus that drives us to achieve.

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There’s another theory Adler didn’t address. It’s the “F-U” phenomenon. In this scenario, we are a victim and we want revenge. We pledge to ourselves that we’ll show every single person who ever doubted or criticized us how wrong they were. We’ll make them eat their words. I’ll show you! We use our accumulated wounds as fuel to motivate our self-mandated performance compulsion.

I worked in sports for many years so I’ve seen firsthand how this phenomenon manifests itself in the lives of athletes and coaches. Tennis prodigy Andre Agassi clearly remembers the moment his self-critic hijacked his brain — when he lost his first match. He was seven years old. “After hearing my father rant at my flaws, one loss has caused me to take up his rant. I have internalized my father; his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage; until his voice does not just feel like my own, it is my own. I no longer need my father to torture me. From this day on, I can do it by myself.”

That’s exactly what happens. We become our own harshest critic partly as self-protection from the stinging barbs of others. Nobody can be harder on me than I am on myself. And, when I do succeed, not only do I have to equal my previous effort, I have to do better. The bar is set higher with each succeeding conquest. I scored 20 touchdowns this year. Next year it has to be 30. I sold a million dollars last year so if I can’t double it this year I might as well just quit. You can see how those expectations are untenable. But we ignore the pragmatic truth because it doesn’t fit the narrative we’ve scripted.

And besides, it’s counterproductive to compare ourselves to others or our previous performances. More than 100 years ago, President Teddy Roosevelt wrote: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He was right then and he’s right now.

But we’re all about comparison. We want to be the best, better than the rest, period. Because to the victors go the spoils. Our brains have been trained to release dopamine and other “happy” chemicals when we perform well and achieve. That’s our reward. We want to be recognized and celebrated, especially after being convinced we’re not worth the air we breathe. We need to be affirmed and validated. That’s how we measure our worth as a human being.

The truth is my value as a person is not the sum of my accomplishments. How well I perform has no bearing on my gifts and attributes as a human being, or my capacity to be loved and appreciated. What really matters — what really determines who I am, is my all-in presence, the quality of my relationships, the level of my empathy, and the heart I bring to my day-to-day life.

Thankfully, it is possible to reframe the axis of our self-identity and focus on our strengths rather than our performance. We can muzzle our self-critic. We can get to know our true selves and develop a loving relationship with the person we are. The first step is to make a list of all that is good about us — character traits, strengths, gifts, accomplishments — absent any buts, shoulds, or other caveats. And then, use that list as an outline to write a heartfelt letter of affirmation to ourselves. Yes, we’ll undoubtedly feel self-conscious, but the impact this letter can have on our lives going forward can be profound.

Read it over and over again until you believe it wholeheartedly. Make it your manifesto. That’s who you are. And it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with what you do.

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