A Writer's Self-Worth: How Writers can Overcome Performance-Based Value - Part 1

Nov 27, 2021

One of the things I’ve noticed about artists is that most of us experience intermittent bouts of “Existential Funk.” Call them crises if you like, but the gist of it is that we regularly enter into times of intense emotional turmoil where we basically question everything about our lives.


For example, I recently learned that my 24-year-old niece had landed her dream job at a dream company in the dream city of San Diego, where her base salary doubles what I made at her age, plus she gets benefits and commission. I was happy for her. (Really, I was!). But there was also this small part of me that looked at myself and thought, “Why couldn't I have done that? Why was I such a failure? What’s wrong with me?” It took me years to earn a regular income in my desired field using my talents, skills, and expertise, so in that moment, I admit I felt defeated.


Most of us, as artists, struggle with the existential funk of performance-based value at least a few times over the course of our lives.


Some of us have crises on a regular basis, doubting our talents, the quality of our art, whether God really called us, and our level of success. Even produced and published writers aren't exempt from this cycle. I’m not sure about you, but no matter what I accomplish, I find myself returning to this struggle over and over again, wrestling with my so-called worth and value as a result of my achievements, anguishing over my lack of performance, my lack of success, or my lack of financial gain.


The pervasiveness of this sort of perpetual dissatisfaction over our achievements (or lack thereof) may lead us to believe that these types of experiences just go hand in hand with being an artist. Perhaps they do. On the other hand, perhaps they stem from the reality that we have been programmed to base our value primarily on performance. Part of the reason for this is because we’re constantly looking at our accomplishments through the eyes of other people. We know we shouldn't compare ourselves to others or let the haters dictate our worth. However, there's a real thing here, too. There's something legitimate in our struggle.


Try as we may, we simply cannot help but to look at the work of our hands as an evaluative tool for determining how well we are doing.


After all, there’s this thing called stewardship, and so we deem ourselves as either failing or succeeding depending on how well we’ve done as stewards. This feels spiritual, even, because it means we’re not judging ourselves based on the financial rewards of the work, but rather, upon the completion of the work that we feel we’ve been called to do. And this is valid because we are called to be good stewards. We’re also called to work.


From the very beginning, we were meant to subdue the earth. Obviously, we’re not all gardeners these days, but part of what it looks like for artists to subdue the earth is to calm the chaos of our own lives and create an environment that nurtures our imaginations, to weed out the distractions that would choke out productivity and rob us of our creative potential. The truth is, we need evaluative criteria that we can apply to ourselves in order to make appropriate adjustments or corrections in terms of the art we create. There’s a purpose for the internal emotional torment we feel while trapped in an existential funk. Angst signals the soul in the same way as physical pain signals the body. It’s basically a warning indicator that says, “Something is wrong. Fix it.” The anguish we suffer can often be God’s way of nudging us in the right direction, telling us which way to go.


So, it would be short sighted of us to assume that all performance-based evaluations are bad. Yes, yes, we all know that God loves us because of who we are, not because of what we do, but we also know, on some level, that we are here TO do. Because one of the main things that God gives us to enjoy in life is the work of our hands. It may be hard for some people to believe, but in point of fact, work is a gift. It's something we're meant to enjoy. And one of the ways we encounter that enjoyment is when we experience the fruits of our labors – just like God did when He finished His work and declared, “It is good.”


God created us to work; to do things. So, there's something healthy – necessary even – about evaluating our “success” in terms of how faithful we’ve been to create stuff using the gifts we’ve been given. Have we utilized them well? What have we done with them? What “fruits” have been born as a result of our labors? But do you see the problem this creates? It puts us right back where we started since this whole argument focuses yet again on performance as the evaluative criteria of our worth. Which begs the question: How on earth are we supposed to get beyond the existential funk of performance-based value?


To make matters even more complicated, reason dictates that we should be successful with our God-given talents.


For example, isn't it reasonable to expect that since God gave us certain gifts, then we should be able to make a living using them? This sure seems like rational and realistic reasoning. And when we don't see ourselves as being able to do that, we take a big hit on our self-esteem because we assume we’re to blame for the failure. The logical argument goes something like this: If God gave us the talent, and if it’s reasonable to assume that we should be able to put that talent to good use (i.e., to earn an income using said talents), then any failure on our part to do so means, I am a failure.


In other words, we internalize the struggle. We see ourselves as the problem.


It’s more than just accepting blame or believing we’re doing something wrong. We develop new core beliefs about ourselves because we should be succeeding but we’re not. Therefore, WE are wrong. WE are the problem. There’s something fundamentally wrong with US. And that’s when the shame and self-recrimination slip in. We hear our inner critic telling us how bad we are, useless, unworthy, that we're incapable of living up to our full potential, or we're shoddy, horrible stewards. Often, we're aware that the self-contempt isn’t of God, so we try to adjust our faulty thinking by couching our performance in humble terms, such as, " I just need to look at whether or not I've been of service to others." But see, this is still a performance-based evaluation; it's just a particular type of performance that's being used to determine whether or not you're doing okay. And that's a problem because what happens if you get to an age where you can't be of service anymore? Does that mean that you have no value? Of course not. Your value, therefore, must not be connected to or based on your ability to be of service, any more than it is based on your ability to perform.


This truth is especially important for people (like me) who have experienced trauma or feel honestly that they have not yet reached their full potential or achieved what they were called to achieve because of the poor life choices they’ve made. In full transparency, I have made so many different mistakes in my life that Jerry Springer would have difficulty placing me on just one show. Suffice it to say, I got off the trajectory of the path that I believe I was meant to be on. I’ve experienced a lot of harm, caused a lot of harm, and generally made a mess of things. This is the narrative and recurring criticism that my inner critic whispers to me: that it’s too late. I’ve already ruined my life. I might as well give up.


Maybe you hear this same message, or maybe you hear a different one. But you’d be hard pressed to convince me that you can’t relate to this experience on some level. Hopefully, you know it’s a lie, but even so, how do you combat it? What do you do with the shame? The self-loathing? The fears that keep you up at night. How do we fight against the existential funk of performance-based value?


Assuming it is NOT God's will for us to continually go through these bouts of crippling self-doubt, then we need to find a way to deal with this cycle more effectively.


We need to reorient our understanding so that we have a healthier, dare I say, godlier perspective of what success actually means. We have to reframe our perception of where value and worth really come from. So, what would that look like? What criteria ought we to use as artists to evaluate our successes and failures; to determine how well we’re actually doing as artists?


Join me next month for part two of this post, where I’ll share the top three assessment tools that I use in my own life to deal with this phenomenon. In the meantime, may you take solace in knowing that you’re not alone in experiencing the existential funk of performance-based value. The struggle is real. The cycle is genuine. The angst is honest and valid. So, you’re in good company, my friend. Welcome to life as an artist!


Getting Beyond the Existential Funk of Performance-Based Value


By Zena Dell Lowe

November 27, 2021

 The Write Conversation Blog